Seattle is experimenting with a new way to select teachers: Let them help decide who should be in the classroom.
In a move symbolic of a nationwide effort to redefine teachers' roles and responsibilities, the school district is giving educators the right to review applicants for open positions. While teachers wouldn't have the final say in hiring, they would be able to winnow candidates - and make recommendations.
Supporters say the approach will help improve the quality of of city schools. But critics worry that too much power is being taken from administrators, opening up the system to new forms of favoritism.
It is a test that is being closely watched across the country. During recent years, a number of cities have been granting teachers greater power in management decisions - including Columbus, Ohio, New York, and Rochester, N.Y.
But Seattle is going one step further. It is also dismantling its system of seniority-based hiring. Now teachers and principals can choose applicants on the basis of their qualifications, not just their experience within the school district.
Observers say the agreement is groundbreaking. While "it's clearly the direction that more and more districts are going, ... [other districts] haven't progressed to the extent that we have in Seattle," says Roger Erskine, executive director of the local teachers union, the Seattle Education Association (SEA).
The agreement, now in effect, was accepted by the SEA and the Seattle School Board last month. Specifically, it allows all teachers, regardless of seniority, to be selected for an open position, and it gives teachers a say in deciding who should fill teaching vacancies at their school. If the teachers and principals cannot reach a consensus, a panel of teachers recommends three finalists, and the principal must choose one of those three.
Supporters of the greater hiring role for teachers say the move will result in schools with better prevailing senses of purpose. Prior to the agreement, they say, the seniority-based system meant that educators could get jobs at schools where they might not be in tune with existing teaching philosophies. Now schools will be staffed after better consultation and coordination between administrators and teachers, they add.
Indeed, a similar system of peer review has worked well in New York. City teachers used peer review to staff experimental schools - alternatives to the much-maligned "warehouse"-style schools.
"This was so successful that teachers were able to get a [peer review] clause in the entire New York City union contract," says Linda Darling-Hammond, a teacher at Columbia University Teachers' College and director of the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future.
But critics say personalities and politics can get in the way when peer review is involved. Chester Finn Jr., assistant education secretary during the second Reagan term, cited examples of peer review at the collegiate level resulting in inclusion and exclusion of personnel for reasons of friendship or race rather than pure professional merit.
He says principals ought to have control over who is hired and fired, and he asks if the teachers who participate in the peer-review process will also be willing to oversee the dismissal of one of their own.
Still, administrators say the decision to give teachers more input in peer review and hiring has fostered a spirit of cooperation. While some administrators may need time to adjust, the good feeling should continue, says Seattle School Board President Linda Harris.
"There may be a few principals in the district who don't understand this new relationship with the teachers," she says. "But I don't think that means they're opposed."