Denver to make cuts to peer observer program

Denver Public Schools plans to cut the number of peer observer positions from 49 to 28 next school year as part of an effort to shift evaluation responsibilities to the school level.

Peer observers are central office employees charged with providing unbiased observations, evaluations, feedback, and coaching to teachers across the district. Observers also consult with principals and assistant principals on their observations and evaluations.

The district first introduced the role in 2010. Most of the district’s peer observers are former teachers, though some are also former principals.

Mario Giardiello, the district’s executive director of school support, said the reducing the number of peer observers is part of a”move towards building the capacity of teacher leaders and school leaders to do observations and give feedback.”

“If we really believe that decisions and support closest to classroom have the greatest impact on kids, then moving from central office to school-based is part of our strategy,” he said.

The district recently announced plans to expand a teacher leadership program it calls Differentiated Roles to all of its schools in coming years. That program means some teachers also observe, coach, and evaluate their colleagues. Next year, peer observers will help train teacher leaders and school leaders in giving unbiased observations.

Rob Gould, a peer observer since 2010 and one of the 28 who will remain in the position next year, said that most observers were enthusiastic about training others. But he said he has concerns about the decision to cut so many positions.

“We were very surprised by the cuts, mainly because it had been communicated to us the great things that our team does, and what an essential component of the system we are,” he said.

In a letter to DPS staff, Giardiello and Chief Academic and Innovation Officer Alyssa Whitehead-Bust wrote that while the district plans to keep some peer observers, “at the same time, we also want to respect the feedback we have heard from teachers who feel that they already have adequate support and therefore don’t need or want an additional observation from a peer observer.” The letter says that any teacher who wants a peer observer will be assigned one.

Giardiello emphasized that the peer observer program is not going away altogether. “I believe personally we’ll always have a need to support our teacher leaders, particularly on evaluations.”

Despite those reassurances, Gould said he is concerned that the program will be permanently phased out as part of the district’s focus on placing most decision-making in the hands of school leaders.

Peer observers focus on teachers who share their subject area or specialty, partly to compensate for the fact that any given principal may not have expertise in every subject taught in his or her school.

The function of peer observers has shifted in the five years the program has existed. For instance, last school year, any teacher who scored below ‘effective’ was assigned a peer observer. This year, about half of the district’s teachers had peer observers, with the assumption that rest would be observed next year.

With the proposed cuts, only teachers who opt in will receive a peer observer next year, with the exception of novice teachers at a handful of schools.

Henry Roman, the president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, said that the union is concerned that the cuts mean “there are not going to be enough peer observers to serve as a third party, as checks and balances in the system.” He said the association was not consulted before the change to the program was made.

Gould said that he is concerned that the district may not have enough peer observers to meet demand in some subject areas, and that the fact that observers will now only observe a group of teachers who have opted in could reduce the reliability of observers’ scores.

Giardiello said the district had made the decision to cut positions based on estimates of how many teachers had requested peer observers in the past. He said the district might contract out to peer observers in some subject areas. Observers in less sought-out subject areas might spend more time training teacher leaders or consulting with school administrators.

Peer observers whose jobs are being cut have not yet been placed in new roles. Giardiello said they are being encouraged to apply either for school leadership or teacher leader roles.

The cuts will save the district about $2 million. Giardiello said that money would likely eventually go to funding the expansion of the teacher leader program.