VENTURA — After coaching hundreds of rowdy teenagers on football, baseball and basketball teams, Will Cowen was confident that teaching beginning Spanish would be a breeze.
Days after the school year started at Ventura High School, Cowen, 22, felt frustrated. His students weren't misbehaving, but they weren't listening either. Many seemed lost or bored. Few participated in the lessons.
That's where veteran teacher Jan Marra came into the picture. Under a new statewide peer assistance and review program, Marra was assigned to help Cowen--and 11 other new teachers--get their skills up to speed and their classrooms under control.
But Marra is more than a guide and counselor. She is also an evaluator. Next spring, she will recommend to a panel of teachers and administrators whether Cowen and his colleagues should be invited back. Later in the year, she will do the same for veteran teachers who have received unsatisfactory reviews.
"I have no qualms about going in front of the PAR panel and recommending that they shouldn't be rehired," said Marra, who spent 26 years as a classroom teacher. "We want to make sure we have good, effective teachers, and we want to weed the ineffective ones out in the first year."
The peer evaluation program, which emphasizes teacher accountability, is one of the key elements of Gov. Gray Davis' education reforms. The program got underway in most districts this year, and school officials say it is running more smoothly than expected.
Around the state, problems have cropped up--with teachers resistant to help and principals who don't want teachers treading on their turf. But many have praised peer assistance and review for giving beginning teachers more feedback and support than they had under the state's mentor program. Peer review, which has the added element of evaluation, will replace that mentor program.
Others have said the program is beginning to raise the bar and make the evaluation process more useful.
"We are going to use evaluation, instead of as a game of gotcha, as a way to improve professional development and improve the quality of teaching," said Julia Koppich, a San Francisco-based researcher who has studied peer review nationally.
"But is this the only thing that needs to be done to improve teacher quality? No. Is it going to work in all the districts in the state? No, it's not."
Because the program is so new, there are still many queries unanswered: Will teachers be fairly evaluated? Will the program improve instruction? Will it get rid of ineffective teachers? Will it blur the lines between teachers and administrators?
"It's a grand experiment, and we don't know the outcome," said Paula Lovo, Ventura County's director of teacher support programs. "There's a big question mark."
Recognizing that one size doesn't fit all, the law allowed districts and teachers unions to decide how to structure their programs. But districts have to start the program this year if they want their portion of the $136 million in state funds available. About 85% of districts have implemented their programs, according to the state Department of Education.
Los Angeles Unified School District expects to receive $4.6 million this year for starting its program. Coaches will work with new teachers in low-performing schools and veteran teachers who are struggling.
"If we've got some teachers in trouble, we're taking the steps to help these teachers and we're making them accountable," said Bev Cook, secondary vice president of United Teachers Los Angeles and head of the program panel.
When the legislation was first brought to the table, the California Teachers Assn. feared it would pit teachers against teachers. Kelly Horner, the union's manager of negotiations, said those fears haven't been confirmed. But the association still believes that teachers should not have to review their peers' performance in the classroom.
"It is the responsibility of the administrator to evaluate," Horner said. "We don't have any intention of putting our teachers in a role where they are going to compromise their role or the role of their colleagues."
Many principals have been hesitant to implement the program because it meant giving up some control over hiring and firing. But other principals praised it for potentially making it easier to remove unqualified teachers and for easing their busy schedules.
With about 40 tenured teachers and a dozen new teachers to evaluate every year, Ventura High Principal Larry Emrich said he had time to observe each teacher only a few times. Now, the consulting teachers will visit the new teachers at least 30 times per year. Emrich said he expects the coaching to encourage new teachers, who often quit in the first few years, to stick with the profession.
"There's no comparison," Emrich said. "We just didn't have the time to get in and perform that kind of help. We are taking a leap of faith and saying we believe in consulting teachers."