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Peer Assistance and Review

By Richard D. Kahlenberg

Peer assistance and review was the brainchild of Dal Lawrence, the union president in Toledo, Ohio, an AFT affiliate. Like Albert Shanker, Lawrence had strong union credentials that gave him credibility with members to try innovative things. He was also a maverick. For a number of years, Lawrence pushed the idea of improving teacher professionalism by having expert teachers mentor new teachers the way doctors mentor interns. He conducted a referendum among the members about the concept of peer assistance, and there was overwhelming support.1

Administrators in Toledo initially balked at the idea, because they viewed it as the principals' job to mentor and train new teachers. Principals worried that if they did not have an evaluation to hang over teachers, they could not get them to do what they wanted. But at one collective-bargaining session in March 1981, the attorney for the school district suggested: "If we can use these expert teachers to also work with our veteran teachers who are having severe difficulties, you've got a deal." Lawrence shook hands, knowing it was going to be controversial. "Here we were, a teacher union, and we were evaluating and even recommending the non-renewal and terminations of teachers," Lawrence recalls. But when he went to the teachers, they supported him.2

Under the plan, Toledo set up a nine-member advisory board (consisting of five teachers and four administrators) to make decisions on assisting and, if necessary, terminating the employment of new and veteran teachers. Six votes were required for action.3

Lawrence and a couple of teachers traveled to Washington, D.C., in 1982 to explain their program of teacher evaluation, and many members of the AFT Executive Council were livid. "There were people cursing; they were pounding the table," Lawrence recalls, arguing the Toledo plan violated AFT policy. "It was a really bad scene," he says, "worse than I expected." No one spoke in favor of the plan until Shanker stepped in and said, "I think there's something you're missing." Lawrence says, "that was the first clue that maybe he was on our side." Shanker proceeded to point out that teachers in other countries—including Canada and Great Britain—had similar programs and were more highly regarded than in the U.S. If teachers acted like doctors and lawyers and other self-regulated professions, they might win greater respect. Shanker did not win over the Executive Council, Lawrence recalls. "There were a lot of quiet, sullen people who left that room, and not one of them came over and shook my hand," but Shanker had planted the seed.4

On February 5, 1984, Shanker went public with his openness to peer review and devoted a "Where We Stand" column to the Toledo plan. He spelled out how it worked, and while he acknowledged the novelty and controversy of a system in which unions are involved in dismissing teachers, he said the program had been successful in reinforcing public confidence in the school system. "After a period of failures to pass bond issues, the 1982 large bond issue was passed with 70 percent of voters, the largest margin in the history of the city—a sure sign of public confidence in the schools."5 Union leaders started phoning to find out more about the program—including Rochester, Cincinnati, Minneapolis, and Columbus.

In his State of the Union speech at the 1984 AFT convention and in subsequent interviews and articles, Shanker laid out the case for the Toledo plan. He began by acknowledging that peer review was unpopular with teachers. "I know I am sticking my neck out," Shanker said.6 He acknowledged that under traditional labor-management relations, there is a bright line between workers and supervisors to avoid dual loyalties.7 In his speech, he said: "We get a lot of questions—like how can teachers who are members of the union be involved in saying that another union member shouldn't be retained as a teacher?"8 But it was time to acknowledge, he said, "that some teachers are excellent, some are very good, some are good, and some are terrible."9 Shanker argued: "Either we are going to have to say that we are willing to improve the profession ourselves or the governors are going to act for us."10

Teachers have a strong self-interest in favoring a system that weeds out substandard colleagues. "Teachers have to live with the results of other people's bad teaching—the students who don't know anything," Shanker wrote.11 In fact, because teachers more than administrators had to live with the consequences of incompetent colleagues and knew what others were doing wrong, peer review led to more dismissals than had occurred when administrators were in charge. In Cincinnati, which was the second city in the country to adopt peer review, 10.5 percent of new teachers were found less than satisfactory by teacher reviewers, compared to 4 percent by administrators, and 5 percent were recommended for dismissal by teachers, compared with 1.6 percent of those evaluated by principals.12 The same was true in other cities.13

In subsequent years, peer-review programs spread from Toledo and Cincinnati to Rochester, Columbus, Minneapolis, Seattle, Pittsburgh, Hammond, and elsewhere, some 30 cities in all.14 Toledo's peer-review program was recognized by the Rand Corporation and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government as a model for teacher evaluation.15 In Toledo, peer review proved to be exceedingly popular, with teacher support on the order of 10-to-1.16

For more information on peer assistance and review, see "Taking the Lead" from the Fall 2008 issue of American Educator, and "The Professional Educator" from the Summer 2010 issue of American Educator.

Richard D. Kahlenberg is senior fellow at The Century Foundation and author of numerous articles and books, including All Together Now: Creating Middle-Class Schools Through Public School Choice. This article is excerpted from Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy, by Richard D. Kahlenberg, © 2007 Richard D. Kahlenberg. Used by arrangement with Columbia University Press, N.Y. All rights reserved.


1. Lawrence interview, pp. 1–4.

2. Lawrence interview, pp. 5–7; American Teacher, 4/97, pp. 4–5. See also Chicago Tribune, 2/10/85, p. C1.

3. Lawrence interview, pp. 9–10.

4. Lawrence interview, pp. 12-13; American Teacher, 4/97, pp. 4-5. AFT Executive Council transcript, 5/8/82, pp. 160-208, Wayne State University archives.

5. "Where We Stand," 2/5/84.

6. New York Times, 8/21/84, p. A15.

7. "Where We Stand," 2/9/86; Kerchner and Koppich, Organizing Around Quality: The Frontiers of Teacher Unionism, pp. 304–305.

8. Shanker speech, AFT Convention, August 1984, in American Educator, "The Power of Ideas," Spring/Summer 1997, p. 26.

9. ibid.

10. Washington Post, 8/21/84, p. A3; New York Times, 8/21/84, p. A15.

11. "Where We Stand," 2/25/90.

12. American Educator, "The Power of Ideas," Spring/Summer 1997, p. 36; Time, 12/23/91, p. 64; Mooney interview, pp. 17–18; "Where We Stand," 9/15/96. See also Kerchner et al., United Mind Workers, p. 90.

13. Johnson and Kardos, Reform Bargaining and Its Promise for School Improvement, p. 29.

14. Mooney interview, p. 19; "Where We Stand," 9/15/96; Kerchner and Koppich, Organizing Around Quality: The Frontiers of Teacher Unionism, p. 290.

15. Lawrence interview, pp. 16–18; Cleveland Plain Dealer, 11/11/02, p. B3; Darling-Hammond interview, pp. 4–5.

16. American Teacher, 4/97, p. 5.