Newark Teachers Size Up Peer Review, Merit Pay

Is peer review a step forward for teachers, or a distraction to sell them on an unjust evaluation system that determines their pay?

When Newark, New Jersey, teachers voted to approve their new contract October 14, leaders told them it was a “groundbreaking” agreement “where teachers have a say in their own destiny.” But some teachers said peer review is the carrot tied to the stick of merit pay and unfair evaluations.

“It is just a mild check on administrative harassment,” said Brandon Rippey, who teaches at Science Park High.

Rippey is active in the New Caucus, a Newark Teachers Union (NTU) reform group that urged a “no” vote on the contract. Peer review certainly doesn’t outweigh the problems in the new merit pay system, he said.


The new contract sets up a two-tiered compensation system. Teachers with master’s degrees can opt out of the merit pay scale—and so far four out of five have done so. Their pay will continue to be based on their experience and their higher degree.

New hires and teachers with bachelor’s degrees must switch to a new pay scale, in which they receive increases only if their evaluation is “effective” or higher. The new evaluations rank teachers in four categories: highly effective, effective, needs improvement, and unsatisfactory.

“Highly effective” teachers may receive a bonus of up to $5,000, set aside from $100 million in corporate donations to the Newark school district.

Teachers point out that there are often small or arbitrary differences between those who receive an “effective” and a “highly effective” rating, based on subjective judgments. Teachers receiving negative evaluations face harsh penalties, including loss of job security and even dismissal.

Since the new system was introduced, “we have seen examples of supervisors using this evaluation tool in a vindictive fashion,” Rippey said.

Teachers are also concerned about what happens when the corporate money funding the merit pay bonuses runs out, and that evaluations could be shaped by the district’s cost-cutting needs. “I guarantee you that if my supervisor gives us ‘highly effective’ scores, they will get pressure from downtown,” Rippey said.

Central High English teacher Leah Owens said she wasn’t surprised that most eligible teachers turned down the merit pay option. She said every few years there is a new fad in education policy, and veteran teachers are wary of quick fixes. “They have seen that turnover,” she said. “I don’t think they trust that the money’s going to be there or that it’s going to be a fair raise for teachers.”


Unions have long criticized merit pay for subjecting teachers to the biases of principals and administrators. Instead, teachers have negotiated for pay linked to objective criteria such as years of experience and skill level.

But American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten appeared alongside Republican Governor Chris Christie to praise the NTU’s contract as an example of the national union’s “solution-driven unionism,” touting the contract as a model. It was also praised by Students First, a corporate-funded group led by former Washington, D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee that promotes market-driven “education reform” and weakened teachers unions.

Rippey says the NTU capitulated on merit pay to placate those forces.

Stan Karp, a retired New Jersey teacher and editor of the education blog Rethinking Schools, is not opposed in theory to programs where teachers play a role in evaluations, but he said the Newark contract “accommodates many of the bad trends of teacher evaluation instead of reversing them.”


The union was certainly in a weak bargaining position. This summer, with bipartisan support, the New Jersey legislature passed a bill limiting teacher tenure and mandating a new evaluation system.



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In Newark, a district under state control since 1995, the teachers had been without a contract for two years. Christie made $560 million in education cuts, tied to tax cuts for the wealthy, in 2010. Teachers suffered layoffs, pay freezes, and cuts to their pensions and health benefits.

Rippey blames union leaders for defeatism when they should have run a more proactive contract campaign involving teachers and community members. “Their attitude was, ‘we lost an election to a candidate we didn’t like. We are going to have to take our lumps,’” Rippey said.


NTU President Joseph Del Grasso said the peer review program was his favorite part of the contract. “My theory was that doctors and lawyers evaluate themselves,” he said. “Teachers could be involved in the process of mentoring their peers.”

The new contract sets up an oversight committee with equal numbers of union and district representatives, plus a committee at each school with a teacher, an administrator, and the principal to review teacher evaluations, all in accordance with the 2012 law.

Designated “peer validators” will be selected by the district and called in to schools to observe teachers and address disputes over evaluations. But the details of how peer review will be used in Newark were not laid out in the contract.

Peer validators don’t have to be current Newark teachers. The district can select former teachers, administrators, or anyone inside or outside the district who has experience evaluating teachers. “Now we are opening the door to outside consultants,” said Owens.

Owens worries that peer review is a ploy to get the union behind firing more teachers. She is also concerned about how the system will be designed. “I just don’t understand how we didn’t have those details laid out before the vote,” she said.


There’s another way to do peer review. In Montgomery County, Maryland, the teachers union helped develop an innovative peer review system more than 10 years ago.

“I don’t think we can trust the future of our schools to principals,” said Tom Israel, president of Montgomery County’s teachers union. “We have an obligation to ensure the quality of teachers.”

The district assigns senior teachers to work with new and struggling teachers, giving them a plan to correct problems identified by administrators or by peer reviewers. If issues are not corrected, a panel of eight teachers and eight administrators decides whether discipline or dismissal is necessary.

While not all teachers unions approve of playing a role in evaluations that can lead to discipline or dismissal, many see the Montgomery County program as the model for teacher evaluation and development.

Israel also pointed out that his union resisted merit pay and tying evaluations to student test scores. Instead, they have due process built into the contract through the peer review system, so that struggling teachers can improve. “This is a far more dignified way to get people the support they need,” Israel said.

But the Montgomery County peer review program is not in line with national education standards laid out in President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative. Race to the Top gives federal education grants to states that, among other things, factor students’ standardized test scores into teacher evaluations.


Brandon Rippey takes issue with merit pay on principle, peer validators or not. “I feel like I didn’t go into teaching to get merit pay,” he said. “You don’t have to pay me extra to do what I came here to do.”

Some states, such as Illinois, Florida, and New York, link teacher evaluations to students’ standardized test scores. That could be the next threat in Newark.

Owens, Rippey, and other critical teachers are ambivalent about participating in the new oversight committees. They see the 1,000 teachers who voted against the contract as a starting point for organizing. They want to engage teachers in a fight for more resources for schools and more teachers in the classroom. “My focus is on pushing our vision,” Owens said.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes 406, January 2013. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.
Samantha Winslow is co-director of Labor