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

PAR Over Time

How can a district show that PAR is effective?

PAR proponents are convinced of its success in launching the careers of new teachers, renewing the work of veteran teachers, and dismissing teachers who are ineffective. However, it is often difficult to provide convincing evidence to others that the program is effective and that money has been well-spent, especially during times of tight budgets. In assessing their Novice Program, districts point to higher rates of both retention and non-renewal than existed prior to PAR. More new teachers achieve early success and choose to remain in their schools, while the district quickly identifies and dismisses those who fail to meet the district’s standards. Before PAR, teachers might not have received the support they needed to feel effective, while failing teachers might have been awarded tenure before anyone noticed their shortcomings. As a result, the district would have long-term financial obligations to these teachers and students would continue to pay a steep price in the classroom.

captionA new teacher's class in Toledo

Very often those who criticize PAR point to the small number of tenured teachers who are dismissed under the program. In part, they are correct, for in most districts there are arguably more low-performing teachers who are never referred to PAR. In part, however, PAR’s true effect can’t be found in the dismissal numbers, since those are the teachers who waited to leave until they were formally fired. Many other teachers on Intervention are counseled to resign or retire before they face dismissal by the school board. In districts with established PAR programs, teachers who fail to meet the expectations of the CTs and PAR Panel typically leave on their own, since they see little hope in challenging the process of assistance and review. Therefore, the only way to document the effect of Intervention on staffing is to subtract the number of teachers who succeed and return to the classroom from the number of teachers initially referred to Intervention. The difference is the number of teachers who left their jobs while on PAR—either through resignation, retirement, or dismissal. In all cases we studied, this number is substantially greater than it was before PAR, when tenured teachers could be virtually assured of a lifetime job.

Some proponents of PAR believe that its greatest benefit—an enhanced professional culture that focuses energy and resources on instruction—is impossible to measure. They might credit the program with improving student achievement, although that would be a hard case to prove since so many initiatives contribute to such progress.

Should a district expect its PAR program to grow?

“[Principals] kind of threw up their hands in despair at times and said, ‘Oh, it’s just so hard to get a teacher into PAR.’ And that wasn’t the case. And so I just need to talk them through the process and help them to understand what they needed to do.”

San Juan Panel Member

Demographic changes can suddenly affect the size of a district’s Novice Program. When student enrollment grows or an unusual number of teachers retire or resign, the district must hire more new teachers than usual and the Novice Program will expand. Conversely, when student enrollments decline, veteran teachers remain on the job, or budget cuts increase class size, fewer new teachers will be hired and the demand for the Novice Program will shrink. Thus, a PAR Program must anticipate responding over time to both growth and decline in its Novice Program.

“You have to use the process as it exists. I was a principal who used the contract to my advantage. I didn’t look at it and say what I couldn’t do. I looked at it and said, ‘Oh, I can figure this out,’ and did it. And so there are people who want to talk about the process and not do it. And those are the principals who are not holding their teachers accountable. They’re saying, ‘woe is me. I can’t do it.’”

Minneapolis District Administrator

The Intervention Program is not affected by such demographic changes. Thus, we might expect to see it to grow over time as CTs and the Panel become more experienced with the process. However, district data do not show such growth. The size of the Intervention Program generally remains constant and small. Across the districts for this study, many union leaders, administrators, CTs, principals, and PAR Panel members said that their Intervention Program was serving far fewer veteran teachers than it could or should. Some principals blamed this on the unrealistic demands placed on them to evaluate and support veteran teachers prior to placement on Intervention. Others, who believed that the requirements for referral under PAR were realistic, said that principals who steered clear of the Intervention Program often were simply avoiding the interpersonal conflict that came with confronting an ineffective teacher. Several districts are encouraging—even requiring—more principals to refer teachers to Intervention and are offering assistance with the procedures so that they will. These principals are also likely to need moral support as they deal with the personal challenges of this work. It’s important to note that increasing the size of the Intervention Program will require substantially more resources for CTs, since each teacher on Intervention typically requires double or triple the time that a Novice does.

Do PAR programs function differently over time?

The basics of PAR remain much the same over time. However, districts that started with a Novice Program often expand to offer a Voluntary or Intervention component once the Novice Program is running well. Also, districts adjust various aspects of their program as they come to better understand their needs and discover what works well.

Some districts plan for such adjustments from the start by including only a few details in the contract and authorizing the Panel to make needed changes as the program develops. For example, a Panel might change the CT’s caseload, decide to hire lead CTs, or amend the process for placing a teacher on Intervention. A program that initially housed CTs in a closed school because space was available there might decide to move them to a more central location to promote new organizational connections. Many of the differences across the programs that are described in “Designing Your PAR Program” emerged over time as districts gained experience and devised ways to make PAR work better in their district.

“You’re really talking about a re-culturing of every local district. Anybody who embarks on PAR is fundamentally re-culturing. It’s an evolutionary process.”

San Juan Teachers Union Executive Director

In addition, these districts with successful PAR programs tended to adopt less formal ways of doing their work over time. Panel co-chairs met or talked frequently to head off or solve problems. Panels became less rigid about deadlines once they were confident that everyone was committed to protecting teachers’ rights and serving students’ interests. In the schools, principals dropped their guard once they realized that CTs would share some of their most difficult responsibilities and expand the instructional capacity of the school. Teachers, who otherwise would have challenged a PAR Panel’s recommendation for dismissal, increasingly realized that they were likely to lose and chose to resign instead.

Over time, PAR tends to find its place among the district’s other programs. Some districts approach this deliberately by adopting PAR as a key part of a human capital system. Others make such accommodations as they go, for example, reconciling the procedures for PAR with a mentoring program or an evaluation system.

Does PAR create new legal challenges?

PAR programs potentially face three types of legal challenge. First a tenured teacher may appeal a dismissal under state law. Based on U.S. Supreme Court decisions, a tenured teacher has a vested property right to his or her position under the due process clause of the fourteenth amendment. Thus the teacher has certain procedural guarantees—adequate notice, a fair hearing before an impartial decisionmaker, and the opportunity to present evidence prior to dismissal. Most states now permit local districts to dismiss or non-renew a first-year teacher without explanation or review. Other probationary teachers who have more experience may be guaranteed additional protections.

“The Panel follows a fair process. It gives people the benefit of the doubt. We look at the evidence that is provided, and we all get to weigh in.”

Cincinnati District Administrator

States typically include “incompetence” as one reason for dismissing a tenured teacher and this is the basis of most PAR dismissals—that a teacher does not meet the district’s basic instructional standards. Although a state board of education may hear an appeal of a tenured teacher’s dismissal, it virtually never reverses a local school board’s decision on substantive grounds. That is, they don’t question whether this was the right decision, but do review how it was made. Given the CT’s extensive documentation of a teacher’s experience on Intervention and the fact that labor and management have carefully monitored due process throughout, a PAR district’s decision to dismiss the teacher will very likely stand. No district in this study has had a reversal on appeal, although several experienced legal challenges during the early years of their program.

Second, a teacher facing dismissal may sue his or her union for failing to meet its Duty of Fair Representation (DFR). In exchange for being granted the right to represent all of a district’s teachers in collective bargaining, the union accepts a legal obligation to fairly represent each of those teachers. This means that the union must be even-handed and not participate in actions that are arbitrary, discriminatory, or taken in bad faith. This assurance extends to all teachers who are members of the bargaining unit—and thus are represented by the union—even if they choose not to join. However, the union is not obliged to take a dismissed teacher’s case to arbitration or to defend that teacher in court. In several of the districts we studied, the teachers union provides legal counsel for any teacher who is dismissed, but others do not. The structures and processes of PAR not only provide teachers with assurance that they will be treated fairly and that due process will be monitored, but they also present arbitrators and judges with evidence from both labor and management that decisions were made fairly. Although a local union may experience a DFR challenge early in PAR, that is usually not repeated once the legitimacy of the PAR process is established. Ohio and Maryland have passed laws explicitly endorsing the arrangements of PAR programs, but districts in other states have not been successfully sued under DFR.

“Because the union has participated in a process which says this teacher is not fit to teach, that will be very compelling evidence in front of a hearing officer to sustain the removal.”

Rochester District Administrator

Third, some proponents of PAR express concern that CTs might be excluded from the bargaining unit because they function as supervisors. This worry emerged from a 1980 Supreme Court decision about faculty unionizing at Yeshiva University. The Court withheld from the faculty the right to organize and bargain under the National Labor Relations Act (which regulates private-sector labor relations) because they were found to exercise managerial functions when they voted on tenure and promotion. Legal experts who have reviewed this case conclude that the Yeshiva decision does not threaten the foundations of PAR or the right of CTs to remain in the teachers’ bargaining unit. There are important differences between private and public sector laws and, although CTs exercise some supervisory responsibilities, they are not managers. Nonetheless, PAR districts often are careful to note that the Panel makes recommendations to the superintendent, but does not, itself, make dismissal decisions. In a few districts, CTs do not make employment recommendations to the Panel, reporting only on whether or not a teacher meets standards.

Overall, PAR districts and unions said they encountered few legal challenges and incurred relatively little legal expense. They widely reported that the bilateral nature of PAR allows them to avoid the costs of arbitration and court cases. The union and management share responsibility for the process and monitor it carefully, keeping detailed records about what occurs from the time a teacher is referred to PAR through the final recommendation. Districts that embark on PAR should understand the importance not only of providing due process, but also documenting it.