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 in Montgomery County: A Systems Approach

Montgomery County Public Schools
Number of students: 139,398
Number of teachers: 9,371
Year program began: 2001
Program Type: Novice, Intervention
Length of CT term: 5 years
Title of CT Role: Consulting Teacher
Name of PAR Panel: PAR Panel
Composition of Panel: 8 teachers, 8 administrators

The Payoff of PAR

Superintendent Jerry WeastSuperintendent Jerry Weast

“Priceless!” That’s what Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) Superintendent Jerry Weast said when asked about the cost of PAR in his district. The district’s PAR program stands as a pillar of its well-coordinated Professional Growth System (PGS), which aligns staff development with teacher evaluation throughout the schools. In a district with 10,000 teachers—and as many as 1,000 new teachers each year—PAR provides both support and assessment to new teachers who have no teaching experience, and to experienced teachers whose principals find that they fail to meet the district’s standards. In explaining his enthusiastic endorsement of this well-funded program, Weast pointed to substantial student achievement gains under PAR and PGS.

Shared Governance from the Start

Doug Prouty, MCEA Vice President and Co-chair,  PAR PanelDoug Prouty, MCEA Vice President and Co-chair,  PAR Panel

Not long before Weast’s appointment in 1999, district administrators and the Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) began to use interest-based bargaining to negotiate about PAR. Initially, MCEA leaders, who had proposed PAR before Weast’s arrival, contended that teachers should have a majority of seats on the PAR Panel. However, principals were apprehensive about losing authority and their union president insisted that they remain equal partners in the process. Subsequently, principals worked with teachers and central administrators to develop the program.

The composition and work of the PAR Panel reflects the shared responsibility that labor and management assume for the success of teachers in the district. Since the program was created, the Panel has had equal numbers of teachers and principals. Today there are eight and eight. Teacher members are appointed by the MCEA and principal members are appointed by the principals union—the Montgomery County Association of Administrative and Supervisory Personnel (MCAASP). The Panel is co-chaired by Doug Prouty, vice president of the MCEA and Phil Gainous, a former principal and current vice president of the MCAASP. This structure reflects the responsibility that teachers and principals share for teachers’ success in the district. Participants agree that when there are occasional disagreements between the CT and principal about whether a teacher meets standards, the parties don’t split along labor-management lines. Instead, with representatives of both the teachers and principals unions on the Panel they jointly resolve these differences. Despite their initial opposition to PAR, principals now widely support it. An external evaluation of the program in 2004 reported that principals gave PAR “high marks.”

The PAR program and its CTs are housed in the Office of Organizational Development (OOD), which is responsible for the district’s Professional Growth System, and offers a wide range of programs, services, and opportunities. Its Implementation Team, which includes teachers and administrators, handles many of the responsibilities that PAR Panels have in other districts. Phil Gainous also works half-time in OOD as a liaison to principals, concentrating mainly on their role in PAR. If a principal’s presentation to the PAR Panel is weak, he visits the principal and provides advice.

Common Standards and Language

In building its PGS, the district developed a set of teaching standards, based on those of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Principals and CTs use these standards to review and document teachers’ performance. So that teachers understand what those standards look like in practice, they are strongly recommended to take a 36-hour course—“Studying Skillful Teaching”—sometime during their first five years. Those who observe teachers—including principals and CTs—as well as PAR Panel members, who review the assessments and recommendations, take “Observing and Analyzing Teaching I and II.” As a result of this extensive, consistent training, people across the district talk about teaching in similar ways and look for the same kinds of evidence in deciding whether a teacher meets the district’s instructional standards. A former principal and current Panel member explained that being trained in “this whole knowledge base of what skillful teaching looks like” means that the district has a “common language now that has really spread and has had tremendous impact.”

Support First

Bonnie Cullison
Bonnie Cullison, MCEA President

Although PAR is the only system through which a teacher can be dismissed from the MCPS for instructional shortcomings, it is first and foremost a system of support. MCEA’s President, Bonnie Cullison, expressed the view of many when she said, “I’m adamant that evaluation is about professional development.” PAR provides intensive assistance for new teachers and for experienced teachers who are referred to PAR by their principals. In some instances, teachers fail to meet the district’s standards despite receiving assistance, and they are dismissed.

However, this cannot happen unless the Panel is convinced that the teacher has received consistent support and a real chance to succeed. If the Panel finds that support was lacking, it will likely vote to give the teacher a second year in PAR. A principal who worked with PAR emphasized, “the first response isn’t a cut-and-run, fire someone and move on…. The first question you ask isn’t how do we get rid of this person, but how do we support this person to improve?” He explained that education is a field “where shortages are always an issue—teacher shortages, leadership shortages. It’s not at all practical to quickly jump to ‘how do we move on to the next person’ because it’s always a growth process.” However, he noted, PAR does not provide “blind support,” since teachers are held to the district’s standards.

This assurance of support in meeting standards is central to the system of checks and balances in MCPS PAR, which a union leader concludes “provides far more safeguards against arbitrary or capricious action than traditional evaluation systems.” CTs emphasized that the process is a fair one, which teachers and principals can trust. In fact, the system successfully withstood several legal challenges during the early years of PAR. Today current teachers view a negative PAR decision as equivalent to a dismissal.

Joint Responsibility at the School Level

Principals are expected to do their part in making PAR work. Every new principal receives an overview of the PAR program from the vice president of the principals union, who co-chairs the PAR Panel along with the vice president of the teachers union. Other principals who are Panel members make presentations to their colleagues about PAR, explaining how it works and encouraging them to use it well. Since only principals can refer a veteran teacher to PAR by giving a “Below Standard” rating on the teacher’s formal evaluation, the Intervention part of the program depends on principals’ active and informed participation. Yet, once they refer a teacher to PAR, principals can count on the CT to join them in providing assistance.

CTs are highly-respected master teachers. Principals praised them saying they were “a gift to that classroom teacher,” “extraordinary,” and “like superman, superwoman.” Through a rigorous selection process, only one in ten applicants is accepted for the job. In addition to being first-rate teachers who form a strong cohort in their work together, every CT receives support from a PAR Pair—one teacher and one principal from the Panel—who meet monthly with a small group of CTs to offer feedback on cases, to advise about written evaluations, and to trouble-shoot with fellow principals when problems arise.

Coordinated Resources

CTs are not the sole sources of support for teachers. MCPS provides both an induction program with school-based mentors for new teachers as well as an ongoing professional development program for experienced teachers. The schools’ site-based coaches, department heads, and staff developers under the PGS meet regularly with CTs to plan goals for their “client.” As one principal explained, “You can’t have an effective PAR process if you don’t have a building full of resources to support those teachers.” But ultimately it is the CTs and principals who are responsible for assessing teachers and they communicate regularly. An outside evaluator concluded that PAR “seems to be having a positive impact on furthering MCPS’ efforts to infuse professional collaboration throughout the system.” PAR does not stand apart or alone as it contributes to improved instruction and student achievement in Montgomery County.