A User's Guide to

Peer Assistance and Review

  • What is PAR?
  • Costs and benefits of PAR
  • Designing your PAR project
  • Labor-management relations
  • Practical issues and advice

Implementing PAR

How can a district fund PAR?

A San Juan CT at WorkA San Juan CT at Work

PAR gains credibility when its long-term funding is secure. Teachers and principals, who have seen promising programs disappear when a grant ends, are unlikely to take PAR seriously unless they believe that it has the kind of funding commitments that ensure it will last. Therefore, districts should carefully plan how to pay for PAR over time and how to make that stable funding obvious to all the stakeholders. Districts that secure short-term funding in order to get the program off the ground should continue to search for long-term support. Relying on established state and federal programs for funds usually makes more sense than counting on support from a foundation that promotes PAR today, but may change its priorities a year from now.

It’s short-sighted, however, to look only for new money. A district’s current operating budget can cover many of the costs of PAR if the program is integrated into the district’s ongoing work, rather than treated as an add-on. For example, a Novice Program can replace a district’s current induction program. It can also save costs in other areas, for example by increasing retention rates and avoiding costly turnover. Similarly, the expense of an Intervention Program can be met by funds that otherwise would be spent on legal costs associated with dismissing a tenured teacher.

“It’s intensive. It takes time. It takes bodies. It’s a process. But if they don’t do it, then they’ll have a raft of arbitrations and they’ll have bigger, more expensive due process problems.”

Minneapolis administrator


Does PAR require a standards-based evaluation system?

The experiences of the seven districts we studied suggest that successful PAR programs rest on a strong foundation of instructional standards. In several districts, the committee of teachers and administrators that developed those standards later evolved into the group that planned PAR. Historically, districts have not had such standards, relying instead on checklists of practices thought to be effective. Often this has meant that no one takes evaluation seriously. When a district adopts a set of instructional standards and a process for using them to observe and assess teachers’ work, the entire evaluation process can gain credibility and support improved instruction.

“PAR is part of the metamorphosis of the whole model for practitioner evaluation, where our work was grounded in changing the way we thought about teacher evaluation.”

Syracuse Teachers Union President

CTs find that having clear standards that are widely understood makes their work more straightforward and objective and helps them stay on course. Having standards that are endorsed by teachers and administrators ensures that the decisions of CTs and Panels will be well-informed and based on evidence.

Just as it takes time for everyone to understand and accept PAR, it will take time for new instructional standards to be developed and to take hold. However, having these standards is not a step that can be skipped in adopting PAR, for if teachers lack confidence in the district’s evaluation system, they will not endorse and play their part in PAR.

Should CTs be school-based or district-wide, part-time or full-time?

Most districts employ a small number (6-20) of full-time CTs who work in schools across the district. A few districts employ a much larger number (100-200) of part-time CTs, who primarily work in their own schools. There is no convincing evidence that one approach is better than the other. In fact, during our interviews, CTs working under each arrangement extolled its benefits.

Full-time, district-wide CTs have flexible schedules, don’t feel collegial pressure from other teachers in their school, and can benefit from the regular advice and support of fellow CTs. Because their full-time job is to be a CT, they don’t feel torn between their students and the teachers in PAR. Often, too, they enjoy the status and recognition that come with having a full-time role as a teacher leader.

Part-time, school-based CTs also see distinct advantages in their arrangement. They can give the teachers accurate advice about their school’s procedures, politics, and norms as well as the principal’s expectations. Also, because they are present in the school, part-time CTs can respond quickly to a teacher’s pressing question or need. Finally, they don’t have to give up their own classroom. However, they may find it hard to juggle their two sets of responsibilities.

When a district is highly decentralized, with each school having a unique program or curriculum, it makes sense to have school-based CTs. However, if a district is seeking to bring more consistency to instructional standards and practices, having a core of district-wide CTs who are all on the same page may be a better approach.

This is a choice that PAR planners should make very carefully because it has other implications. It may be hard to find enough teachers who are sufficiently skilled and interested in working as part-time CTs. Also, a program with many school-based CTs is likely to need a full-time director to juggle and monitor the various assignments. A school-based arrangement for CTs may work better for a Novice Program than for an Intervention Program, which requires CTs to be unswayed by sympathies for their colleagues in the school.

Having a program with only full-time, district-wide positions also presents organizational demands. Because CTs are not engaged in the professional culture of their school, they will need ongoing support from others. They must have some kind of professional home and maintain regular and reliable connections to others in the district. Thus office space and the opportunity for regular meetings must be provided for full-time CTs.

Do principals have a place in PAR?

“Initially, like everyone else, we were threatened and intimidated as administrators, because we had done the work of evaluation.”

Cincinnati Former Principal

By introducing CTs who support and evaluate teachers, PAR changes the principal’s responsibilities. Initially, principals may see PAR as compromising their rights as managers and reducing their influence as instructional leaders. In fact, though, principals remain crucial to PAR’s success.

“This job is the craziest job I’ve ever had. You don’t have that time to give individuals what you would want to. You’re so busy doing all the other stuff that has to get done. So, to have someone who’s really focused on a teacher that’s struggling, for whatever reasons—I think that’s invaluable.”

San Juan Principal

In some Novice Programs, CTs are solely responsible for evaluating new teachers. In others, however, principals share responsibility with CTs for evaluation. While the CTs are evaluating classroom instruction, principals may be assessing whether teachers contribute to the experience of students or colleagues outside the classroom. Even when CTs are the sole evaluators, those teachers eventually complete PAR and return to being the principal’s responsibility. For principals of large and/or challenging schools, having a skilled CT to count on can be a boon. If all new teachers have a skilled and dedicated CT working with them, the principal can concentrate on other staffing decisions, such as whether third-year teachers should be awarded tenure.

“There is a major role that the principal must play, and that is to trigger the request for an investigation. If that doesn’t happen, the teacher is allowed to continue to just float along. . . .Sometimes the principal ends up being evaluated. Because you can’t have a person that is so bad in your building and not know it—if you are doing what you are supposed to do.”

Cincinnati Superintendent

All Intervention Programs depend on the principal to evaluate, identify and refer under-performing tenured teachers to PAR. Even though programs often allow other teachers to refer a colleague to PAR, that virtually never happens. At most, teachers urge their principal to refer a fellow teacher who is struggling or neglecting responsibilities. Most programs will only place a tenured teacher on Intervention once he has received an unsatisfactory evaluation and has been given recommendations and support for improvement. All this depends on the principal. Therefore, if PAR Intervention is to work, principals must be committed to doing their part.

How long should a teacher spend in PAR?

PAR’s two components—assistance and review—may be in tension when the Panel is deciding how much assistance is warranted and how soon to move to dismissal. The key to PAR’s effectiveness and acceptance by teachers, as well as is legal durability, is its provision of support. First and foremost, the program is committed to getting new teachers off to a strong start and assisting veteran teachers who can benefit from focused advice and support. Critics of PAR often say that school officials can and should make quick decisions about a teacher’s success or failure. However, many administrators are well aware that they must find a better replacement for any teacher they dismiss, and that there just may not be a ready supply of excellent teachers. Therefore, both CTs and administrators often are very deliberate in deciding whether to dismiss a teacher or offer more help. Human capital usually must be developed over time.

Still, there is another factor that can unwisely delay dismissal decisions. Educators, who believe that all children can learn, also tend to believe that all teachers can improve, if only they have enough time and support. Therefore, PAR Panels often face the question of how rapidly they should expect teachers to succeed. Clearly, if the Novice Program is to work, teachers must prove themselves before tenure is awarded. Otherwise, the district incurs long-term employment obligations. In some states this happens after two years of employment, in most others after three years.

Most Novice Programs last one year and PAR Panels usually are reluctant to grant a second year of assistance. However some programs grant a second year of PAR to new teachers who show progress, but have not yet met standards. Usually, teachers who get extra time have very demanding assignments, such as teaching split subjects or grades or they come through a fast-track alternative program, where they didn’t have the chance to do student teaching. However, given the costs of PAR, the scarce resource of CT time, and students’ need for effective teachers, such extensions should be based on solid evidence of improvement, rather than simply wishful thinking.

This issue becomes even more pressing with Intervention, where veteran teachers are referred to PAR because they have serious problems. Programs vary in how long they allow teachers to remain on Intervention before the Panel moves to dismissal. A few leave their program open-ended, but most grant two years. Given how serious a professional and legal matter it is to dismiss a tenured teacher, the PAR Panel must ensure that the teacher receives reasonable support and a fair chance to succeed. Nonetheless, CTs and Panel members say that it is usually clear within the first few months whether the teacher will eventually meet standards. More often than not, a second year on PAR confirms their initial doubts about the teacher. Committing PAR resources to a veteran teacher who, despite all efforts, shows no significant improvement or makes very slow progress is an unwise use of resources. Moreover, it increases the costs that students pay when their teacher is ineffective. Many CTs and Panel members said that they find the resolve to move for dismissal by keeping those students in mind.

Should full-time CTs be required to return to the classroom once their term is over?

“A very persistent, recurring comment is ‘I know my interns benefited, but not as much as I did. I learned more about teaching this year than in my first 20 years in the classroom.’”

Rochester Union Leader

Most PAR advocates answer, “Of course.” Otherwise, they argue, PAR could become a stepping stone to administration. Many explain that, because PAR is a peer review program, its credibility with teachers depends on the CTs being true peers, individuals who know the demands of teaching, can offer useful support, and will be fair. Moreover, many say that PAR’s potential for improving instruction increases when CTs return to their schools ready to share all that they have learned on the job. Principals report that former CTs often enrich and increase the capacity of their schools by assuming informal roles as teacher leaders.

However, some—though certainly not all—CTs said that their experience in PAR has changed their view of schooling and their hopes for a career. Having been classroom teachers, they were able as CTs to see “the big picture” and to exercise influence across the district. They enjoyed the respect they earned and the status they achieved. They also appreciated—and may had come to rely on—the extra pay that the role provided. Although these CTs recognized the rewards that they might gain by returning to the classroom, some wanted to explore new ways of extending their influence. Districts, such as Montgomery County, which offer other formal roles for teacher leaders, have loosened their requirement that CTs return to the classroom, allowing them instead to assume a “school-based,” non-classroom role (such as staff developer) for at least two years. Other districts permit experienced CTs to return for another term as a PAR CT, once they have completed a year or two in the classroom. Most programs we studied prohibit CTs from becoming school-site administrators for a year or two. However, some speculated that this rule might not hold over time.

“You are really treated much more as a professional than you are when you are a teacher. . . . Somebody is not checking up on you every minute to see where you are or what you are doing.”

Syracuse CT

The CT role is notable, not only because it introduces peer review, but also because it has the potential to change the career path of teachers. Rather than being a flat career without opportunity for formal advancement, PAR introduces new roles for CTs, who are selected for their expertise as master teachers and given significant responsibility. They are awarded higher pay, both for their skill and for the demanding work they do. Districts might decide to capitalize on the potential of CTs to differentiate the teaching career and systematically increase the instructional capacity of the district. Rather than returning those teachers to a single classroom, they might encourage them to assume other formal roles meant to improve instruction. Eventually, this might even include becoming a principal or assistant principal. This possibility has merit, since effective CTs may be among the best candidates to become a school’s instructional leader.