All Fairfax County teachers would be evaluated annually under a proposal by School Superintendent Daniel A. Domenech, a sharp departure from the school system's current practice of assessing experienced teachers every five years.

Fairfax currently evaluates its veteran teachers less frequently than any other school district in the region, but its system for reviewing performance is one of the most elaborate in the country. Domenech said he would settle for a more streamlined process so that instructors could get feedback from their principals more often.

Some Washington area school districts are moving in the opposite direction. In Montgomery County, where teachers receive formal evaluations every three years, officials are considering changing to a system of once every five years. And Loudoun and Prince William counties now evaluate teachers less often than they did a few years ago.

The variety of policies reflects the difficulty that school officials face in trying to strike a balance between a time-consuming teacher evaluation that principals will have to struggle to finish and a review that is too cursory to be of much value.

"Frequently, the evaluation is too short to be meaningful or too long to get it done," said Mark Simon, president of the Montgomery County Education Association, the county teachers union. "Principals and administrators have so much on their plates that it often falls through the cracks."

There is little disagreement on how often new teachers need a job review. They are evaluated at least once a year in all Washington area districts.

But when it comes to experienced teachers--those who are past their probation period, which typically lasts two or three years--the schedules vary widely. Some systems, including the District, Arlington and Prince George's County, require annual evaluations, while several others use two- or three-year cycles.

The debate isn't about weeding out bad teachers. When an instructor's competence is in serious question, the signs are usually obvious and an evaluation can be done ahead of schedule, principals say.

Nor is it a salary issue. No Washington area district ties teachers' pay directly to a job evaluation, although D.C. teachers will receive extra raises starting this school year if they meet a set of performance goals.

Evaluations instead are used primarily to reinforce teachers' strengths, spot weaknesses that can be corrected and identify instructors who could benefit from additional training and resources, school administrators say.

Domenech contends that with teachers being asked to help students meet tough new benchmarks on state achievement tests, and with instructional programs coming and going at an ever-faster pace, a system of five-year reviews is no longer acceptable.

"We want to be able to verify the competencies and skills of our staff," said Domenech, who came to Fairfax from Long Island, N.Y., in January 1998. "We want to be able to monitor, on a regular basis, whether our teachers understand the new initiatives and are implementing them correctly."

Domenech has asked his assistant superintendent for human resources to convene a panel of teachers, principals and other administrators to review the current system and recommend changes. He said he hopes to have a new evaluation system in place by next fall.

Several Fairfax teachers and principals said that although they welcome a study of ways to improve the evaluation process, it would be a challenge to undertake annual reviews of the more than 12,000 teachers in Fairfax. Some worried that the evaluations would either be too superficial or too burdensome.

The county's association of secondary school principals has recommended that senior teachers be given a role in making the evaluations, taking some of the load off principals' shoulders. Domenech said he is open to the notion of peer review.

John Butterfield, president of the Fairfax Education Association, the county's largest teachers union, said that a three-year review cycle may be more realistic. He also argued that even though teachers currently wait five years between job reviews, they are constantly working to improve their skills.

"It's not as if a teacher isn't doing anything in years one through four," Butterfield said. "There isn't anyone in Fairfax who isn't taking in-service classes, college courses and doing other things to improve their teaching."

Several Fairfax principals said they welcome changes to a system that, though very thorough in assessing teachers' performance, also is very labor-intensive.

"I've been in this business more than 20 years, and this system is the most comprehensive and most fair to teachers I've ever seen," said Langley High School Principal John English. "But it's also the most time-consuming."

Principals in Fairfax said it takes them at least 15 hours to evaluate a teacher; principals in several other districts said their process takes about four hours.

Fairfax adopted its current system in 1986, in conjunction with its decision to begin merit pay for teachers. Before that, teachers had been evaluated every two years. But school officials decided that it would be unfair to start tying teachers' pay to their job reviews without switching to a more intensive review process--and that it would be unreasonable to expect principals to do such assessments very often.

The district initially required principals to do the expanded reviews every three years, then changed it to four years and finally settled on five years.

The Fairfax School Board killed the merit pay program in 1991, amid teachers' complaints that it wasn't being implemented fairly. But school officials kept the evaluation system in place, believing that its thoroughness was a virtue.

The Fairfax evaluation involves a minimum of three conferences between principal and teacher during the school year, compared with one such conference in most other districts. Fairfax principals also must observe a teacher during at least two class periods, compared with only one class in most other school systems, and they must produce a written record and critique of all the teacher's actions.

Domenech said the system must be streamlined so that principals can conduct the reviews more often.

But other districts have decided that more frequent evaluations are not the answer.

Loudoun this year switched from a two-year evaluation cycle to a three-year cycle; school officials felt that the reviews were taking up too much time and that experienced teachers didn't need such constant feedback.

In Montgomery, school administrators and the teachers union are working together to develop a system of less frequent but more thorough evaluations. They said the proposed change from a three-year to a five-year review cycle is an effort to make evaluations seem less like "inspections" and to give principals more freedom to tailor the process to individual teachers' needs.

Although Montgomery teachers wouldn't get a formal evaluation as often, someone would still observe them in class once a year. Teachers would help in evaluating their peers.

"It's a question of time and energy," said Simon, the Montgomery teachers union president. "If every principal is concentrating on evaluating every teacher more frequently, they have less time and energy to focus on employees who need help."

Teacher Evaluations

Minimum requirements for the frequency of teacher evaluations in Washington area school systems:

School system New teachers* Experienced teachers

MARYLAND

Anne Arundel Annually Twice every five years

Howard Annually Once every three years

Calvert Three times a year Annually

Charles Twice a year Annually**

Montgomery Annually Once every three years

Prince George's Twice a year Annually

St. Mary's Twice a year Annually

D.C. Annually Annually

VIRGINIA

Alexandria Annually Annually

Arlington Annually Annually

Fairfax Annually Once every five years

Loudoun Annually Once every three years

Prince William Annually Once every three years

* The evaluation schedule for new teachers covers the period when they are on probation, usually two or three years.

** Teachers in Charles with more than a bachelor's degree are evaluated once every two years.

SOURCE: Washington area school systems