Veteran Poway schoolteacher Charlotte Kutzner is available at any time this year to help first-year instructors such as Mary Waters or Ray Agbulos when they run into a problem and need someone to talk to.
But Kutzner will also be watching the performance of the 15 first-year teachers under her guidance, and she will have a major voice next June in determining whether they continue in the Poway district or are dismissed.
This dual, carrot-stick relationship stems from a program unique among school districts in San Diego County--one of less than half a dozen nationwide--in which teachers both help their less-experienced counterparts and assume a lead role in evaluating them for tenure.
The Poway project, known as the Professional Assistance Program, is part of a nationwide effort to stem the hemorrhage of new teachers from the profession. National statistics show that from one-third to one-half of all new teachers quit the field within their first three years, largely out of frustration over the crush of initial problems--from curriculum to discipline--that their education prepared them for either poorly or not at all.
Not only do education officials consider the dropout rate a terrible waste of resources, but it poses practical problems by exacerbating a projected teacher shortage. State estimates show that 95,000 new teachers will be needed in California by 1995.
But Poway, with a national reputation for excellent schools, has gone beyond the common response to the teacher retention problem, in which experienced instructors are designated “mentors” to whom new teachers can turn for periodic advice. Both the San Diego Unified and the El Cajon Elementary districts are among those statewide that have piloted mentor programs.
By pioneering peer evaluation as well, with teachers helping to judge the performance of other teachers, Poway has also given the profession a small measure of responsibility and autonomy. The peer component follows recommendations for added teacher participation contained in many state and national reports during the past several years.
“I think the evaluative aspect is what has made things work so well,” said Don Raczka, the program director and the head of Poway’s teachers union, a local chapter of the United Federation of Teachers. The union worked with district officials to design the program, which involves teachers in duties heretofore considered the exclusive province of administrators.
“The buddy system, where mentors are paired up with new teachers, works well mainly with new teachers who actively will seek out help,” said Raczka, who also teaches math at Twin Peaks Middle School.
Help Imposed, Not Offered
“By adding evaluation, we encompass staff development, which lets us zero in immediately on struggling teachers, diagnosing their shortcomings and prescribing help for them, hopefully before major problems develop,” he said.
A first-year district report on the program adds, “Help cannot just be offered, but imposed.”
The Poway district, which includes some of the county’s fastest-growing residential areas, hired 120 new teachers for the current school year, 70 of them for elementary schools.
“Since teaching style is most often developed early in a teacher’s career, it is particularly important to monitor their early work in the classroom,” Raczka said.
Under the system, four highly respected veteran teachers were competitively selected to become “teacher consultants” for three years. They have assumed primary responsibility from principals for supervision of the new teachers. They provide assistance, criticism, coaching and an official evaluation at the end of the school year.
For example, Kutzner regularly visits the fourth-grade classroom of Mary Waters at Sunset Hills School, sitting quietly in the back to observe the new teacher’s strengths and weaknesses and occasionally taking over the class so that Waters can visit another classroom to watch a different teaching method or spend a day at curriculum seminars.
Similarly, Kutzner slides to the rear of Agbulos’ math classes at Twin Peaks, noting in a diary the areas in which she wants to give criticism or praise. Agbulos can then peruse the diary during his preparation period and offer comments for Kutzner.
The end-of-the-year evaluation goes to a Peer Board of Review, composed of three union and two district representatives, who can accept or reject the findings before submitting a decision to the superintendent and the board of education.
Each principal can choose whether or not to have his or her school participate in the program, although all but two have signed up for this year.
Raczka borrowed major components of the program from a pilot project in Toledo, Ohio.
“What I liked about it is the idea that experienced professionals should have a say on who comes into their profession,” he said. “Who better to teach about teaching than professionals? And, if they find someone who doesn’t meet expectations, then you know that an honest assessment has been made.”
The proposal encountered substantial resistance when proposed almost two years ago.
Teachers Were Afraid
“From the union, or teacher side, there were worries that the line between ‘us and them,’ between teachers and administrators, was being blurred,” Raczka said. “There were some teachers who frankly were afraid of being empowered to judge whether a colleague should be dismissed or not.”
There were similar concerns from administrators.
“I remember thinking, ‘No way!’ when I first read the material on the proposal,” said Susan Van Zant, principal at Pomerado School. “I saw myself as the primary evaluator for teachers, and also thought that teachers would tend to be easy on other teachers and let in a million new ones, and we would have even worse problems in the future.”
David Hughes, principal at Poway High School, recalled talking to Raczka about whether a principal would retain any authority to share in a final evaluation.
“The final proposal said that a principal can choose to work closely with the teacher consultant if he or she so chooses, and, in the second year of the two-year track toward tenure, the principal takes over the evaluation completely,” Hughes said. He added that the consultant, as a matter of course, talks with either the principal or assistant principal from time to time.
“So, when the program became available at the high school level this year, I jumped at the opportunity to get involved,” Hughes said.
Van Zant, who was selected this year as California’s Distinguished Principal for 1988, said she now considers herself one of the program’s most enthusiastic supporters.
“This year I have eight new teachers; last year I had five new teachers. I have a school with a student population of more than 1,000, and there is no way I would have had the time to provide what needs to be done for the new teachers and at the same time take care of all the other things I do, such as when there is an irate parent or a child breaks a leg or whatever.
“The teacher (consultant) is there to provide much more assistance; they have the time and energy to focus totally on doing a good job not only of evaluating, but observing and truly assisting the teachers in their first year,” Van Zant said.
“And, based on last year’s program, the teacher (consultants) were right on the numbers with their evaluations. . . . I have teachers in their second year now who look like they have been teaching for seven or eight years.
“Their classrooms are organized right from the start, their transitions from subject to subject are smooth, and I am positive that the program has had a lot to do with it, in giving the time that often is just not possible from the principal.”
Kutzner said the carrot-stick relationship took the most time to become comfortable with.
They Take It Seriously
“I want both to be supportive and critical of new teachers, and that is hard,” she said. “You can be a colleague or supporter but not a friend, since there will always be the edge that I am also evaluating.
“The benefit, though, is that the new teachers will take what I have to suggest more seriously. If I would recommend to them just as a friend or mentor, they may not.”
Raczka cited the role of the “stick.”
“We had one teacher last year who first was asked, ‘Why don’t you try such-and-such method?’ after a shortcoming was observed,” Raczka said. “After a month, the evaluator said, ‘I think you should try this.’ When that didn’t work, the next step was to tell the teacher to model the method on a particular day when several people would be in the classroom monitoring the situation.
“The level of coercion went up as needed . . . and this particular teacher didn’t make it through the evaluation.”
Kutzner said the “human side” of recommending against rehiring initially gave her considerable personal grief.
“But the bottom line is what is good for kids, and I realize that I am being held accountable for making certain that we have the best in Poway. I looked at all the effort I gave during the year to a particular teacher, and I still saw no growth.”
Raczka is already at work on plans to expand the program to experienced teachers who are having difficulties.
“It would be only for those teachers with serious professional problems and would not be an evaluation per se of them, but rather involve offering services based on consultations with principals,” he said. “But that will be much more difficult for the rank-and-file teachers to accept.”
Kutzner said there would be clear benefits for tenured teachers.
“Right now the district really doesn’t do much for teachers in jeopardy except for compiling documentation on their shortcomings,” she said.
“Teaching is a very lonely profession, but it doesn’t have to be,” she said. “Hopefully, this will carry over for the long term.”