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Self-testing for Berkeley teachers

By Ben Lumpkin Daily Planet staff
Monday June 18, 2001

At a time when the lack of fiscal resources has some Berkeley schools struggling to make ends meet, the Berkeley Federation of Teachers believes it has found a way to make sure the critical area of teacher training and evaluation isn’t a casualty. 

Too often, school sources say, principals overwhelmed by other responsibilities have found little time to conduct timely teacher evaluations. 

“There’s been a void in the whole evaluation process,” said BFT President Barry Fike. “It’s just not been consistent across the board as much as it really needs to be.” 

As a result, some teachers aren’t given feedback on strengths and weaknesses, or recommendations about training opportunities that could help them improve. 

Now, taking advantage of a new state law that makes money available when school districts and teachers unions agree to work together in the area of teacher evaluation and support, the Berkeley school board has approved a program which union members hope will more than fill the “void” in the evaluation process. 

At a recent meeting with more than 300 K-12 teachers present, the BFT itself approved the so-called Berkeley Peer Assistance Review program, or B-PAR, by a margin of 9-to-1, Fike said. 

“We want to be evaluated,” he said. 

Fike said teachers understand as well as anyone the consequences of failing to intervene when one in their ranks is struggling to meet the demands of the job. 

“We all know the importance of that because we teach next door to each other and get each others students the next year,” he said. 

With an annual budget of $500,000 in state education money, the B-PAR program will be implemented throughout the district next year. 

At the heart of the program are eight “consulting teachers” who have been selected from Berkeley’s teaching staff for their depth of experience and exceptional skills, Fike said. These teachers will be trained over the summer how to evaluate and train their peers. Beginning next fall, each consulting teacher will be assigned a caseload of roughly 15 teachers with whom they will work closely throughout the year. More than 120 teachers are expected to work with consulting teachers next year alone. 

Beginning teachers will automatically be assigned to work with consulting teachers, based on the assumption that they will benefit greatly from sessions with more veteran teachers well versed in the tricks of the trade. 

“For any teacher, the first few years are really tough,” said school board director Joaquin Rivera, who teachers chemistry at Skyline Community College in San Bruno. “You’re dealing with a lot of issues.” 

Teachers who receive unsatisfactory evaluations from their principals will also be referred to the B-PAR program. 

A B-PAR governing panel made up of four teachers and four administrators will help determine appropriate “Professional Development Plans” for each B-PAR participant. At the end of a given year, the panel will make recommendations regarding retention and dismissal to the Berkeley superintendent of schools. 

This all represents an unprecedented level of collaboration between teachers and administrators in the evaluation process, according to Fike. Over time, it has the potential to make the whole relationship between the teachers union and the school district less adversarial, he added. 

“This changes the relationship,” he said. “We now really have teachers and administrators joining together to address this issue.” 

B-PAR is not only for beginning teachers, or teachers who have been found to be unsatisfactory. Other Berkeley teachers who simply want an opportunity to hone their skills can volunteer to work the consulting teachers. 

“It will take teachers who are maybe doing okay and really turn them into great teachers,” Fike said. 

Plans also call for B-PAR’s consulting teachers to lead workshops open to all teachers in critical areas of teacher development. Here they could share best practices for managing classrooms, keeping students engaged, and more, Fike said. 

When it comes to addressing the challenges faces educators today — violence, the achievement gap, truancy and more — there is no substitute for individual teacher training, Fike added. 

“Of all the various approaches that have been taken when it comes to the achievement gap, the one that stands out as the most effective is teacher-quality,” he said. 

“Parents struggle mightily to get their kids into schools that have good teachers. Parents know just by intuition that that’s what’s driving it all.”