New teachers and experienced teachers. In some ways, they are at the opposite ends of the teaching spectrum. However, both can, and do, struggle. Who better to guide them than other teachers? That's the idea behind the Peer Assistance and Review program, commonly known as PAR, which began 25 years ago in Toledo, Ohio. Under the direction of a panel made up of schools administrators and members of the local teachers union, qualified veteran teachers -- usually called consulting teachers -- take sabbaticals from classroom teaching to mentor new teachers during their first years and to support other experienced teachers who are struggling. Although the program has been established in 30 to 40 districts across the country and is widely considered to be successful -- President Barack Obama even publicly endorsed it -- the program has not been extensively evaluated. That's why Professor Susan Moore Johnson and her team at the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers decided to study seven districts running PAR programs. This past fall, she spoke to Ed. about the study, the website they launched detailing their findings, and why more districts should PARtake.
The new website says that PAR "challenges" most people's expectations about what teachers and principals should do. In what way?
Under PAR, expert consulting teachers assume responsibility not only for mentoring, but also evaluating, other teachers. Most people think that the principal is always the evaluator, but many principals lack the knowledge and skills needed to supervise all the teachers in their schools. Also, few have the time needed to seriously mentor several teachers.
What else consumes a principal's time?
That list is very long. They oversee the budget, hiring, curriculum, student discipline, community relations, special education, student assessment, facilities and maintenance, professional development, and evaluation of teachers not on PAR.
Do some principals resist giving over that control?
We found that principals often resist PAR initially but over time come to see how PAR supports school improvement. All PAR programs for low-performing veteran teachers depend on principals referring those experienced teachers to PAR. We were surprised to see how many principals who had low-performing teachers did not turn to PAR, either because they wanted to provide the help themselves, avoid controversy within their schools, or not be bothered with following the procedures required for the initial evaluation and referral.
You mention that PAR is expensive for districts. Why?
PAR's biggest cost is the salaries of teachers who replace the consulting teachers. Overall, we found that PAR costs about $4,000-$7,000 per teacher served, which is about the same as the cost of high-quality mentoring. For districts, though, the financial benefits of reducing attrition, which is about $10,000 for a first-year teacher, and avoiding dismissal hearings, which often cost more than $100,000 each, can be enormous.
PAR is divided into two parts, including the novice program where new teachers get help setting up their classrooms and navigating the first year. This type of first-year induction seems unusual.
You're right. We certainly found that the intensity of mentoring under PAR in the districts we studied far exceeded what is provided in most mentoring programs.
This approach not only helps better prepare first-year teachers, but it allows the school at the end of the year to decide if the teacher should be rehired. They aren't "stuck" with a new teacher who isn't progressing.
Having the local teachers union as a key player from the beginning is helpful then.
Unions have a legal responsibility to fairly represent teachers by ensuring that they are treated in procedurally correct ways. Under PAR, the union oversees the procedural rights of teachers throughout the process. If the teacher fails to meet standards under PAR, the union is not obliged to contest their dismissal. This saves the district and the union the legal costs of arbitrations and court proceedings.
In your study, what percent of low-performing veteran teachers being helped in the PAR program are dismissed and how many return to the classroom?
Between 25 percent and 40 percent of veteran teachers on PAR succeeded. The rest either resigned or were dismissed. We have detailed data on our website for the districts we studied.
Do the mentor teachers go back to teaching after their rotation?
Most districts urge or require that consulting teachers return to the classroom once their term is over, though some continue to work as teacher leaders and take positions such as instructional coach or staff developer.
More districts should implement the PAR program because...
Good PAR programs provide excellent mentoring, while also enabling the district to dismiss ineffective teachers. Good teachers resent the presence of poor teachers and they appreciate the role that PAR plays in maintaining high standards in the profession.
For details, go to www.gse.harvard.edu/~ngt/par/.
photo by Mark Morelli