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 Syracuse: A Start-up Story

Syracuse City School District
Number of students: 22,123
Number of teachers: 1,856
Year program began: 2005
Program Type: Novice, Voluntary
Length of CT term: 3 years
Title of CT Role: Consulting Teacher
Name of PAR Panel: PAR Panel
Composition of Panel: 5 teachers, 4 administrators

Daniel LowengardDaniel Lowengard, Superintendent

PAR is new to Syracuse, but the program was many years in the making. Planning started in 1999 and the district approved a PAR Novice Program during bargaining in 2003. But it was not until 2005 that implementation began. Even then, the program encountered challenges and setbacks. Dan Lowengard, who arrived as a new superintendent at the time, recalled implementation as “a bumpy road” Other districts contemplating PAR can learn a great deal from Syracuse’s early experience with PAR—how they addressed the principals’ opposition, how they might have avoided it, how they coped with limited resources, and how they surmounted initial problems of implementing PAR in the schools.


Kate McKennaKate McKenna, Former STA President

Kate McKenna, president of the Syracuse Teachers Association (STA), was the prime mover of PAR. Today, teachers and administrators agree that her leadership and determination were critical to getting the program off the ground and anticipating what it would take to sustain it. Like many of her counterparts in other districts, she first heard about the program at meetings of the Teachers Union Reform Network (TURN), a nationwide affiliation of progressive union leaders. Testimonies by presidents from Toledo, Rochester, and Poway, CA inspired McKenna to introduce PAR in Syracuse. However, she understood that the district could not simply install the program. She and others would have to prepare the way for PAR.

Syracuse administrators and union leaders had worked collaboratively on reforms in the 1980s, but a productive partnership ended abruptly in 1991 with the appointment of a new superintendent who took a traditional stance toward the union. In 1999, New York State mandated that the district review their teacher evaluation system and required that the union be involved. In response, a joint labor-management committee developed the district’s instructional evaluation standards, which eventually served as the foundation for PAR. Some proponents saw in PAR the opportunity to restore the collaborative labor-management relationship of a decade before.

By 2000, the union and administration had found common ground in PAR and shared a commitment to achieving its mission. Still, they sometimes clashed on other issues, usually financial ones. McKenna recalled: “So even when we had twelve hundred people out picketing the streets, we were still doing this work. . . behind all of that.” Meanwhile, union leaders worked hard to build support for PAR within their organization. Many of their members were convinced that having teachers evaluate teachers would violate a basic tenet of unionism, rather than advance professionalism. However, by 2003 when PAR was negotiated, there was sufficient support among members to ratify the contract.

A Challenge to the Principal’s Authority?

In September 2005, just as the program was about to be launched, the principals union (The Syracuse Association of Administrators and Supervisors) filed an unexpected grievance, putting the program on hold. Under the new Novice Program, the CT, rather than the principal, would evaluate new teachers. Although this fact was never hidden during the planning process and three principals had participated on the joint planning committee throughout, the change was not widely known or understood. When some principals objected to the change, their union filed a grievance alleging that PAR infringed on the principal’s exclusive right to evaluate new teachers. The teachers union answered with a counter-grievance, disputing the principals’ claim that their contract gave them the sole right to evaluate teachers.

Before the matter went to arbitration, it was resolved with a three-way Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed by management, the teachers union, and the administrators union. This one-year MOU affirmed principals’ management rights while allowing the work of the PAR CTs to proceed.

The principals union then raised another objection. Their organization had not been consulted about appointments to the PAR Panel. Three administrators, who had participated in planning PAR, were given seats on the first PAR Panel. To resolve the issue, those administrators stepped aside and the superintendent appointed three new members, all recommended by the principals union. Resolving the grievance and the assignment of Panel members delayed the start of PAR from September to December.

In retrospect, several principals think that the principals’ opposition was less about their formal rights and responsibilities and more about the process by which the program was developed. One said that the issue of the principal’s authority might never have been a stumbling block if the process had been more inclusive from the start: “It wasn’t such a big deal for many of us.” However, it was a big deal for leaders of the principals union, who complained that their organization had been excluded from the process and that their members’ authority was being undermined by PAR.

The Difficulties of Implementation

Implementing PAR is never a simple process and Syracuse’s experience was no exception. Making PAR work day to day raised new challenges that required ongoing attention and adjustment. Over time, as the program worked more smoothly, PAR gradually won acceptance.

Communication Problems

Even though the principals’ grievance was formally settled, doubts lingered for many principals about whether CTs could or should evaluate teachers. During the first year, principals challenged two of the CTs’ recommendations to the Panel and the Superintendent ruled in favor of the administrators. Other principals expressed dissatisfaction with the process of PAR. Panel members thought that much of this discontent was due to a lack of communication between CTs and the principals. As a result, the second annual MOU called for several new steps. Consulting teachers suggested leaving a note for principals when they arrived at their schools so that their presence would be known. Also, the district required that a three-way meeting, including the CT, principal, and novice teacher, be held at the school in September to ensure that everyone would be on the same page throughout the process. These simple mechanisms seemed to significantly improve communication between CTs and principals.

Principals who initially opposed the program began to accept PAR once they saw it in action and recognized its benefits. Surveys reflected their growing approval. Principals began to call the Panel’s administrative co-chair in the central office to request CTs for their teachers. Some principals conceded that CTs could provide much more consistent and comprehensive support for new teachers than they ever could. As one explained, “From my point of view, they are achieving their goals. As a principal of a large school—we have a thousand kids here—I wouldn’t have the time to devote to a new teacher as well as they do. So…I have had tremendous results from the program.” In spring 2008, McKenna observed: “Most principals have come to accept most of the consultants most of the time. I think that is the best we can hope for at this point in time.”

Limited Resources

During the first two years, Syracuse couldn’t afford to include all new teachers in its Novice Program. Initial plans called for nine CTs, but funds allowed for only three the first year and six the second, each with a caseload of 12 teachers. Since the program couldn’t serve all new teachers, the Panel gave priority to those who entered through alternative routes, those who held only the first level of state certification, those in subject areas where teachers were in short supply (e.g., math, science, technology and music), and those who arrived from other districts with little teaching experience. When budget cuts led the district to eliminate 67 teaching positions in 2007, the number of CTs remained at six.

Having only three or six CTs for the entire district made it impossible to match the subject and school level of each novice with an appropriate CT. The experience of another PAR district suggested that achieving a school-level match was not essential. However, some Syracuse principals thought it was. They argued that when the match was off—for example, when an elementary CT worked with a new high school teacher—the teacher and the school both were shortchanged. Over time, a greater effort was made to improve the matches.

Also, the district did not have office space and equipment to house the CTs at the Teacher Center, where most professional development took place. Intent on implementing the program, McKenna and the STA remodeled space within the union office—not McKenna’s first choice, since she knew it meant that people might see PAR as a union initiative rather than a joint labor-management one. Although the arrangement relieved the district’s financial burden, some said it also undermined the credibility of the program, reinforcing a perception that the CTs were “puppets of the union,” as one CT said. Therefore, leaders on both sides were eager to move the program out of the STA offices as soon as possible.

Competing Interests of New and Old Programs

Before it was adopted some teachers opposed PAR because it was a peer review process. However, once it was implemented, objections arose from the district’s mentoring program about the CTs’ roles, pay, and special status. Before PAR, the district had paid a small stipend to veteran teachers who continued to teach full-time while mentoring new teachers. When PAR was introduced and CTs began to work with first-year teachers, mentors were reassigned to assist those new teachers as they progressed to their second and third years. The district created a position for a mentor facilitator to bridge the work of PAR’s CTS and the work of the mentors. However, the mentor facilitator did not fully support PAR and the transition was not a smooth one. Some objected because PAR combined support and assessment in one role, while they believed that new teachers would fare better in an arrangement of unconditional support. Beyond that philosophical difference, there also were undercurrents of dissatisfaction because PAR CTs were released from teaching full-time, received higher pay and were thought by many to hold higher status. As one administrator said, ”[The mentors] think, some of them, it’s an elite program for those consulting teachers.”

By the third year of PAR, it was not yet clear how these two programs and their participants would coexist or complement one another’s work. Both provided coaching and support, but the mentor’s role remained non-evaluative and entirely confidential while CTs made recommendations about contract renewals.

Looking Ahead

Jaime Alecia and
Anne Marie VoutsinasJaime Alicea, Deputy Superintendent and Anne Marie Voutsinas, STA President: PAR Panel Co-chairs

Having gotten PAR off the ground in Syracuse, McKenna and Superintendent Dan Lowengard saw the program as the beginning of something much bigger. They believed that PAR could change the culture of teaching. Lowengard said, “Clearly, until we create an atmosphere where teachers are in a culture of change, in a culture of support, we’re not going to get the kind of instruction that we want.” McKenna believed that PAR would strengthen the professional culture of the district as teachers became “active players” in evaluation: “This is the compact that we’ve entered.”

At the end of school in June 2008, McKenna retired and moved out of state. Before leaving, she did all that she could to “shore up” the PAR program, “its visibility, and its importance as a way to strengthen our profession.” The parties signed a four-year Memorandum of Understanding, which spelled out the specifics of the program. The district also approved a voluntary, non-evaluative program for veteran teachers. Lowengard said he was confident that, after McKenna’s retirement, PAR “will stand on its own.” Teacher retention was up substantially and support for the program was growing. Lowengard said, “Now it’s really gotten to a good place and all of the fears have been really put aside and we’re venturing into the new territory of looking at veteran teachers for PAR.” Optimistically, McKenna explained, “It is clear that we all really have the same goal. We really do.”