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Smart Talk

The Toledo peer-review program’s founder has one goal: Weed out the bad teachers, bring in the new.

Dal Lawrence<br />
Dal Lawrence

Teachers, it turns out, are tougher on each other than anyone else.

That’s one of the lessons of Toledo’s 25-year-old peer-review program, in which veteran teachers sift out the timid, disorganized, or otherwise unfit. Today some 70 NEA and AFT districts—mostly in California, Connecticut, and Ohio—use the approach. Teachers, least of all it seems, want to share the lunchroom with someone who can’t hack it in the classroom.

On the hot seat, former Toledo local president Dal Lawrence answers our tough questions:

Q: What was the original idea behind peer review?
A: I wanted to apply the medical model to teaching. Doctors have internships, periods of residencies, and really tough standards. Experienced doctors guide the younger ones.

Q: Who are the reviewers with the peer-review program?
A: They are experienced teachers who the program’s governing board has selected very carefully. They serve full time for three years, then return to the classroom.

Q: How do the standards of  teacher-reviewers compare to those of administrators?
A: Toledo Public Schools had not dismissed a single teacher for poor teaching practice in the five years before 1981 when we started the peer-review program. Twenty-seven years later, nearly 450 underperforming teachers are no longer teaching in Toledo.

Q: Which is better, peer-review or merit pay?      
A: If you want to change the way people work, and the way they look at themselves and each other as professionals, don’t start by messing with their paychecks.

Q: Is there any evidence that teachers are working harder to avoid getting reviewed?
A: I doubt it. Most of our 2,300 teachers have been interns in the district. They know the process.

Q: Who are the teachers who don’t make it through peer review?
A: They’re the teachers who have a problem with instructional leadership, or who lack “stage presence.” They are teachers who are too timid, or sometimes just afraid of students, and it goes downhill fast. Some come out of college as dumb as they were when they went in.

Q: Why the intense scrutiny on brand-new teachers right off the bat?
A: We want to shorten the learning curve from five years to one, and we want to find out who should teach and who should not. No one has a vested interest in incompetence.

Q: How many new teachers get weeded out?
A: On average 92 percent of interns are successful and continue on as teachers.

Q: What about teachers who come from other districts—do they get reviewed as well?
A: If you’re new to our system, you get reviewed.

Q: Ever regretted a panel decision to remove a teacher from the classroom?
A: Once, the panel voted to dismiss an elementary teacher. I argued for a second chance, and after considerable discussion and regret, they gave her one. Big mistake! She was awful again, and I was never allowed to forget it.

Q: Why has peer review been slow to catch on?
A: Schools are run like automobile plants were six decades ago. We’re still building kids like General Motors used to build cars. They changed, and we haven’t.   

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