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Berkeley's Unequal Punishment of Teachers

The school district disproportionately disciplines black teachers and older educators with higher salaries. Are students paying the price?



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"A well-run, well-developed PAR program is really powerful," said Lynda Nichols, a California Department of Education consultant who oversees PAR programs. "What it does is provide a mentor or coach to the teacher. ... You should come out of it with some really great new strategies." PAR, she said, helps teachers identify their weaknesses and for those who successfully complete the program, provides proof of their improvements. Alternatively, the PAR process can be used as a legal tool to counsel a teacher out of the profession if remediation is unsuccessful, she said.

In the years prior to the 2001 statewide rollout, the school districts of Poway, in San Diego County, and San Juan, in Sacramento County, implemented versions of the program; today, these districts operate some of the most highly regarded PAR programs in the state, Nichols said. Both programs were the subject of Peer Review: Getting Serious About Teacher Support and Evaluation, a study published in 2011, funded by the Stuart Foundation in San Francisco, which advocated for PAR and the integration of support and evaluation. The researchers attributed the strength of these two programs to the consulting teachers' focus on improving instruction as well as the strong collaborations between district officials and union leaders on the PAR governance boards, which, they said, prioritized evidence-based evaluations.

Simply put, "The program is about making teachers better," explained Daniel Humphrey, one of the study's authors and the director of the Center for Education Policy at SRI International, a nonprofit research institute. "That's where the resources are going. They give people an incredible amount of support .... The goal was to get them out of PAR, not to get them fired. Once that was made clear, people were very receptive to the help." Humphrey said he also interviewed teachers who ended up quitting after PAR, but who thought the process was fair and helped them realize they were simply in the wrong profession.

PAR is less effective, he said, when consulting teachers are not carefully selected or properly trained and when teachers see the program as being little more than a vehicle for punishment. "Being put in PAR can definitely be a scarlet letter," he noted. Julia Koppich, a San Francisco-based education consultant and co-author of the 2011 PAR study, put it this way: "For California, the big challenge is it's a program that appears to be punitive, because it only functions in most districts for teachers who are professionally in jeopardy."

Nichols, of the department of education, acknowledged this problem and also pointed out that in 2009, the state stopped appropriating funds directly for these programs, which means PAR is used less frequently across the state. "There's no pretending that PAR doesn't have sort of a PR problem," she said. "When people are placed in it ... they are not seeing it as support. They are seeing it as a negative."

Nichols said that, anecdotally, PAR programs across the state have a "very, very high success rate," meaning a majority of teachers finish the program and continue teaching. (The state, however, does not maintain statistics on PAR outcomes — or demographic data on those referred, for that matter.) She said she was unfamiliar with the specifics of Berkeley's PAR program.

In BPAR, a teacher follows written improvement plans from his or her evaluator and spends the year working with a consulting teacher who visits the teacher's classroom for regular observations and debriefings. Teachers in BPAR are also continually evaluated by their supervisors. A panel hears progress reports from the consulting teacher and in a final meeting in the spring can recommend that the superintendent move to dismiss the employee. The panel may also decide that the teacher has been successful and should exit the program or can recommend a second year in BPAR.

It's unclear how often teachers referred to BPAR have faced dismissal or have decided to quit or retire early. Coplan, the Berkeley Unified spokesperson, did not respond to my requests for this data and also downplayed the district's role in PAR in an initial email to me, writing, "BPAR is a peer review process, that is simply aided by Human Resources, so I would suggest that you start with the Berkeley Federation of Teachers."

Reached by phone, Cathy Campbell, president of the Berkeley teachers' union, also declined to comment on BPAR. The union has been unsupportive of the Berkeley High teachers who alleged that they were wrongly placed in BPAR, according to Crowell and Daly (two of the three Berkeley High teachers referred to PAR this academic year). In addition to complaints against the district, Crowell has also filed a formal grievance against the union over BPAR; in it he argues that the union has been complicit in the discrimination associated with the program. Campbell sits on the BPAR panel, which, according to the union, is made up of four teachers chosen by the union and three administrators selected by the district.

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