MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Teachers' unions are often blamed for protecting teachers who have simply burned out, or who should never been allowed to teach in the first place. In a few cities, though, teachers' unions have spearheaded a controversial policy to purge their school districts of incompetent teachers. It's called peer review. And no school system in the country has been doing it longer than Toledo, Ohio.

NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: Every year for the past 27 years, a panel of administrators and teachers in Toledo has met behind closed doors to discuss teachers who've been deemed incompetent.

Ms. FRANCINE LAWRENCE (President, Toledo Federation of Teachers): And I remind everyone that all of our proceedings are confidential.

SANCHEZ: Francine Lawrence, president of the Toledo Federation of Teachers, usually presides over this day-long hearings. They're held in a colorless, windowless room. Nine members of the peer review committee sit at several tables arranged like a horseshoe. Today, the first case involves a veteran honors teacher, who by all accounts has lost control of her students.

Ms. SHARON GERHARDT(ph) (Teacher): The children have gotten past disrespect. They're just downright vile. I don't know how else to put it. They're nasty beyond all belief. And...

Mr. JIM GAULT: There's no rapport at all with the students.

Ms. GERHARDT: No.

SANCHEZ: Jim Gault is the teacher's former supervisor. Sharon Gerhardt is a fellow teacher.

Ms. GERHARDT: She would literally leave the room to go to the bathroom and come back, and there'd be a filing cabinet in front of the door. Or they would lock her out. You know, and when honors kids start to do those kind of behaviors, this is not right, this is disrespectful.

Mr. GAULT: Her excuse is the kids aren't like they used to be, and she'll say that over and over and over.

Ms. LAWRENCE: We thank you for your comments this morning...

SANCHEZ: After weighing the teacher's 33 years of service against her reluctance to accept help, the committee comes to a decision. This teacher will get a second chance and lots and lots of training, including a mandatory summer course on classroom discipline. The ruling is surprisingly quick. Usually, the committee takes longer to evaluate months of evidence and testimony.

Every single teacher must go through the peer review program during their first year in the Toledo Public Schools. It doesn't matter if they're just out of college or years of classroom experience. Of the 132 teachers hired and evaluated this school year, 13 were terminated. And that who created the peer review program is Dal Lawrence, a former president of the Toledo Federation of Teachers.

Mr. DAL LAWRENCE: Here, we're doing two things. One, we want to find out who's good enough to teach in Toledo and who's not. And two, we want to shorten the learning period from five years to two semesters. And we can pretty well do that.

SANCHEZ: In other words, if a teacher is incompetent, you don't have to wait five years to prove it. Lawrence says a bad teacher can do a lot of damage in five years. That was the problem he wanted to address when he came up with the idea in the late 1970s. The union voted for peer review in 1981.

Mr. LAWRENCE: So, here's this crazy union president out in Toledo doing something that nobody had ever done before.

SANCHEZ: Yeah, crazy like a fox, because what Lawrence actually did was unheard of. He wrestled the district's teacher evaluation policy away from school principals.

Mr. LAWRENCE: They'd always done it, and they'd done it badly, as most administrators do in this country. So it was a struggle.

SANCHEZ: Lawrence says principals seldom know what to look for. Teachers are less likely to get help, and incompetent teachers are rarely dismissed. Under peer review, a team of master teachers called consultants meticulously monitors and evaluates teachers in several areas: how they prepare, plan and present lessons, how well they know the material they teach, how they engage and discipline students. Even a teacher's punctuality and dress are scrutinized.

A recommendation to terminate a teacher for doing poorly in these areas can be overturned, but it almost never is. A teacher can appeal, but that's rare, too. Toledo's peer review policy has withstood three lawsuits, and union members today overwhelmingly support it - for good reason, says David Strom, general counsel at the American Federation of Teachers, the nation's second largest teachers' union.

Mr. DAVID STROM (American Federation of Teachers): A union's job is not to defend every teacher no matter what that teacher has done, particularly if that teacher is not competent and capable.

SANCHEZ: The AFT endorsed peer review way back in 1984 under then president Al Shanker, who argued that the union could not protect teachers' basic tenure rights unless teachers were willing to weed out those who didn't belong in the classroom. Peer review is, after all, supposed to protect all teachers from capricious or arbitrary termination. Joshua Singer, though, disagrees. He was forced to resign this school year.

Mr. JOSHUA SINGER (Teacher): There's nowhere to turn, and again, there's no grievance process. I knew I was in a losing situation. You know, I've got a family. I've got a house.

SANCHEZ: Singer, a special education teacher, started in the Toledo Public Schools in 2000. He says he got good reviews as an English teacher. He left for a few years, got his masters in special education, and was rehired last fall to teach at Robinson Middle School. This time, though, he says it was like being thrown to the wolves.

Mr. SINGER: When I first walked in, I had never seen a level of insolence, the disrespect, the profanity, not used to authority. They don't trust people.

(Soundbite of shouting)

SANCHEZ: Robinson Middle School is, by all accounts, a tough school.

Unidentified Man #1: Let's go, out of the halls. Let's go.

SANCHEZ: Right outside Singer's classroom this morning, a security guard walks up and down the hallway, screaming into a bullhorn. Kids ignore him.

(Soundbite of crowd)

SANCHEZ: Singer ushers his students into class. All of them are classified cognitively delayed. With an IQ of between 50 and 70, it takes them longer to learn the most basic skills. But Singer insists they've all done okay this year, and he's had a good relationship with them. Singer's relationship with his consultant, the teacher who evaluated him, is another matter.

SINGER: We never had a good relationship, either personally or professionally. We didn't see things philosophically on the same level. And I really think that my consultant somehow held this against me, the fact that I could relate to these kids and that they like me and then it didn't always have to be yes, sir, no, sir and just sit down and be quiet and read out of a book.

SANCHEZ: Singer says he deserved another chance. He considered suing, but now, he just wants to leave Toledo and teach somewhere else. The peer review committee would not discuss Singer's case. But Kevin Wade, a master teacher in the program for the past three years, says that recommending a teacher's termination is hard on everybody.

Mr. KEVIN WADE (Master Teacher): It's not a good feeling, but it's a feeling of knowing that you're upholding the integrity of the profession.

SANCHEZ: And that, union officials say, is why Toledo's peer review policy has spread to 70 school districts, mostly in Ohio, Connecticut and California. Even the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union, has dropped its longstanding opposition to peer review.

Dal Lawrence, the maverick union leader who started it all, says that in the 27 years peer review has been in place, he has never regretted his role in having a bad teacher fired.

Mr. LAWRENCE: If you ask me what kinds of people don't make it, the biggest group of people would be those who don't have stage presence. They're afraid of the kids. The second group are people who are just plain disorganized. The third group is a very much smaller group, thank goodness, and that's the group of people who don't know a damn thing and ain't about to find out.

SANCHEZ: Still, I asked Lawrence, if peer review is so good at removing these kinds of teachers from the classroom, why hasn't it put a dent in the woeful academic performance of students in Toledo? His answer: Imagine how much worse it would be without it.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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