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 Rochester: Leading from the Classroom

Rochester City School District
Number of students: 34,096
Number of teachers: 2,861
Year program began: 1987
Program Type: Novice, Intervention, Voluntary
Length of CT term: 2 years
Title of CT Role: Mentor
Name of PAR Panel: Career in Teaching Panel
Composition of Panel: 6 teachers, 6 administrators

A large wall map of the Rochester City School District (RCSD) hangs in the office of Marie Costanza, director of Rochester’s PAR program. It’s crowded with bright push pins, each designating a CT who works in the district’s PAR program. Other districts may have 5 to 40 CTs, but Rochester has 180, almost all working with no more than two teachers in the program. With very few exceptions, Rochester CTs (called “mentors”) continue to teach either full-time or part-time as they move regularly between their own classroom and the classrooms of the teachers they assist, usually within the same school, but sometimes in a school nearby.

Marie Costanza, PAR DirectorMarie Costanza, PAR Director

Approximately 60 % of Rochester’s CTs are school-based, working with one or two teachers on top of a full-time teaching assignment. Each earns an additional salary stipend of 5% (for one teacher) or 10% (for two teachers). Another 40% of the CTs are released from their teaching assignments part-time to work with teachers in other schools. Overseeing this process and keeping it running smoothly requires a great deal of planning, ingenuity, and diplomacy. Costanza regularly mixes and matches CTs and assignments, juggling schedules while consulting her map to check travel distances. She checks in regularly with principals, who must agree to release some of their best teachers part-time to mentor teachers in other schools.

Each spring, Costanza estimates the number of CTs the district will need. Only teachers who have achieved Lead Teacher status on the district’s four-step career ladder are eligible to become CTs, although they must first pass the summer training program and then wait to be “activated” by Costanza. Activation depends on the number and distribution of new teachers in the district and the grade and subject area of the available Lead Teacher. Thus in a year when few elementary teachers are hired, a smaller number of elementary Lead Teachers will be activated, or each will mentor one rather than two teachers. In years with more hires in a particular subject or level, greater numbers of CTs will be released part-time from their classroom duties. At any given time, there are teachers across the district who have been trained as CTs and are ready and waiting to do the work.

Adam UrbanskiAdam Urbanski, RTA President

The hybrid job of the Rochester CT is one component of the district’s Career in Teaching (CIT) program, established 20 years ago to provide career advancement opportunities for outstanding teachers who seek to extend their expertise beyond their classroom while remaining grounded in teaching. CIT was created jointly during contract negotiations in 1987 by union president Adam Urbanski and former superintendent Peter McWalters. PAR, a central part of the CIT program, was implemented in stages. During the first year, only new teachers participated. During the second year, experienced teachers who were judged to need assistance were added to the program. Then in 1996, the district introduced a “professional support” program, providing confidential, short-term, and non-evaluative mentoring to any teacher who asks for it.

When Urbanksi proposed PAR to his members, he argued that it would professionalize teaching. Not only would PAR allow teachers to determine the standards for teaching in the district, but it would also provide valuable leadership roles for teachers wanting to grow in the profession. Urbanski recalled that at the start some members opposed the very idea of peer review: “This is anti-union asking us to become snitches.” In response, he explained the simple logic of peer review to an audience of 2000 teachers: “No one knows the difference between good teaching and bad teaching better than the best teachers, themselves.” Then he asked his audience: “Anybody disagree?” Nobody did.

Emphasis on the Novice Component of PAR

Although Rochester’s CTs review the performance of peers and recommend that some should be dismissed, the program concentrates its resources almost exclusively on new teachers. All novices are assigned a CT during their first year and, if they have not yet succeeded but show promise, they may be granted a second probationary year in PAR. Experienced teachers who want the additional support of a CT can receive it on request. Only one or two tenured teachers each year are referred by their principal to the Intervention component, which can lead to their dismissal by the PAR panel.

This investment in supporting all new teachers and experienced teachers who seek help is consistent with the program’s emphasis on the assistance aspect of PAR. Urbanski explained, “I’m not interested in peer review as a way to clean up after the damage only. I’m interested in peer review as a really effective vehicle for cultivating good teaching.” Because PAR is jointly sponsored by the union and management, he believes “the union is viewed as no place to hide,” but rather as an organization that “has ownership of the process.”

Rochester officials note the success of their efforts. Over the course of 20 years, the district has achieved an 88% retention rate among new teachers, well above that of comparable urban districts. Meanwhile, on average, 12% of new teachers resign or are judged to be ineffective each year and are not renewed.

When CTs Also Teach

Rochester’s CTs are convinced that continuing to teach while participating in PAR makes them better able to advise and assess their colleagues. While CTs in most other districts deliberately avoid working in schools where they have taught, Rochester’s CTs frequently shuttle between the roles of classroom teacher and CT within the same school. They work with their one or two assigned teachers during common prep times, before or after school, or when a designated substitute covers their class. Lead Teachers may be activated and released from teaching duties at various times during the school year in order to meet a need to mentor teachers hired mid-year or to accommodate a spike in requests by experienced teachers for professional support. Because most CTs’ commitments are part-time, there is no limit on how many years they can serve. However, they must reapply for the role every two years.

Michele HancockMichele Hancock, Chief, Human Capital

The most obvious advantage of having CTs who continue to teach is that they don’t get rusty. They not only know good teaching, but are practicing it every day. They are fully informed about the current curriculum and school-based practices, such as electronic attendance or testing procedures. One CT noted that changes in policy and practice happen so frequently in the district that, after being out of the classroom for only two years, a CT might not be able to provide accurate and timely advice.

Most Rochester CTs prefer school-based assignments and Costanza works hard to make those possible. First, CTs say it’s easier to meet frequently with their assigned teacher, who often is just down the hall or teaching in the same department, thus accommodating quick check-ins and timely responses to pressing questions in addition to regularly scheduled meetings. Also, school-based CTs can help new teachers understand the particular culture of their school and the specific expectations of its principal. One explained, “You know what is expected by administration” and “you know the population you’re working with” so that the teacher cannot blame the child or the parent, “because you’re right there with them and you know what they’re up against.” Another CT said that, if she didn’t know “how things actually run here,” her advice would be “just like shooting in the air.”

However, when a CT who is teaching full-time works with a new teacher who is struggling, the demands for extra time can be great. One explained, “In one instance, I had an intern who truly was in trouble while I still had my own class. . . . I had no lunch, no breaks. Every free minute that I had, I was trying to support my intern in his classroom. As it turned out, unfortunately, it didn’t work out for him. He realized that this was neither the district, nor the place for him. That became tricky.” The fact that the Rochester PAR program focuses almost exclusively on new teachers may make it easier to maintain school-based assistance and review. A CT would likely experience more discomfort if he were reviewing the performance of a veteran peer who had taught for years in a nearby classroom.

When more of the CT’s time is needed, Costanza must arrange to have that teacher released part-time from classroom responsibilities. This is not so difficult to do when the CT is a secondary school teacher, whose assignments can readily be sub-divided. However, for elementary teachers in self-contained classes, Costanza must arrange for job-sharing, which is harder to do and more controversial since it may disrupt students’ instruction. However, Costanza says that she can better allay the concerns of parents and principals by arranging a job-share between two CTs because both are known to be highly skilled. Meanwhile, the CTs can feel confident that their job-share partner will be a master teacher.

The Resources Are There

Rochester’s PAR program depends not only on the creative and tireless work of its full-time director, but also on a large budget that makes an extensive program possible. Costanza acknowledges that she can only meet new and experienced teachers’ needs because she has “an excellent budget”—a combination of local, state, and federal funds. The district continues to meet its obligation to provide all new teachers with support, both because the state requires that every teacher have one year of mentoring before receiving a permanent license and because the teachers contract specifies that “All new teachers must have a mentor.” However, Costanza sees the justification for the budget in the district’s high retention rates for new teachers: “It’s a no-brainer.”