I have been glad to read Stan Karp's writing over the years. So I looked forward to reading an article by him in your last issue about teacher evaluations. However, I was disappointed when I read his uncritical endorsement of the Peer Assisted Review (PAR) process ("Taking Teacher Quality Seriously: A Collaborative Approach to Teacher Evaluation," Summer 2012).
From the description of the Montgomery County, Maryland, contract, I believe it is similar to the PAR process in our contract. Our experience with this process has resulted in the nickname "union assisted firing." It has not "worked beautifully" for the teachers here. Three of my close colleagues have been threatened with or forced into this process in the last two years. All of them are experienced, well-respected teachers with teaching philosophies that reflect strong support for student equity coupled with high standards for students. Among them they share about 60 years of classroom experience, possibly 10 times the experience of the administrators who assigned them to PAR. Only through strong activism among teachers and a few stubborn union site reps did we manage to extricate our colleagues from this disrespectful process.
Throughout, our union leadership felt so much ownership in the PAR process that they did little to support the teachers who suddenly found their jobs threatened. Many of the "peer teachers" on the PAR panel were union leaders of this kind, and the administrator who placed one of the teachers in the PAR process was also on the panel. This was hardly a panel to make a teacher feel supported by peers.
Other teachers at our site were split into factions in much the same way teachers were split during the McCarthy era: some publicly defending their attacked colleagues while others were silent. Our previously healthy collaborative dialogue (the true way we grow as educators) was diminished greatly, having been disrupted by the angry and defensive debate over valid forms of teacher evaluation and dismissal. Threatening a teacher with job loss is not a successful way to improve their practice.
It was discouraging to witness some of our union leadership failing to stand by its members. It was also discouraging to see a fine progressive journal like Rethinking Schools making the same mistake.
Masha Albrecht, Berkeley High School
Stan Karp responds:
Rather than an "uncritical endorsement" of all PAR programs, the article was a fairly detailed description of PAR's role in Montgomery County's "professional growth system," which serves as an important alternative to the current mania for narrow, test-based teacher evaluation. PAR does raise tough issues and can certainly lead to unfair outcomes where it is done badly. But done well through collective bargaining, sustained collaboration, and adequate resources, it can be a positive part of teacher evaluation and support, and provide a credible alternative to the test-based schemes of the corporate reformers.
We are sorry to say goodbye to our wonderful art director, Patrick JB Flynn. Patrick led our transition from newspaper to magazine, and his artistic vision has been for many years the "look" of Rethinking Schools. Patrick has also designed many of our books. He is especially known for his broad knowledge and support of illustrators, and we're sure you have enjoyed, as we have, the varied, thought-provoking, beautiful, witty, and insightful illustrations that have accompanied Rethinking Schools over the years. We'll miss him, but wish him well as the art director for the Baffler (thebaffler.com) and as he devotes more time to his own art.
We are excited to introduce our new art director, Nancy Zucker. Her recent projects include the Wisconsin Magazine of History and a broad variety of nonprofit projects. We love the new look of this issue of Rethinking Schools and look forward to collaborating with Nancy.