Why video cameras and teacher evaluation do not mix

I wrote a post the other day about Bill Gates’ plan to videotape America’s teachers as part of a teacher evaluation system, an enterprise that he said could cost up to $5 billion, but, he believes, is worth it. Here is veteran educator Anthony Cody to explain why it isn’t.

Cody spent 24 years working in Oakland schools, 18 of them as a science teacher at a high needs middle school. He is National Board certified, and now leads workshops with teachers focused on Project Based Learning. He is also a co-founder of the new Network for Public Education with education historian and activist Diane Ravitch and others.

By Anthony Cody

Bill Gates’ latest big idea is the creation of a new $5 billion teacher evaluation system that includes the placement of video cameras in every classroom in America. (I wrote about it here.) The folks at the Gates Foundation seem a bit dismayed at how this proposal has been received. “Bill Gates’ School Panopticon,” wrote Walt Gardner, raising fears of the ever-watchful eye.

The dilemma we face is that the Gates Foundation has embedded a collaborative feedback process into an evaluation system, against a backdrop of a campaign to rid our schools of “ineffective teachers.” Teachers must feel a level of safety and trust with their colleagues before they will open themselves up to the sort of critical feedback they envision. That trust is not likely to be found in the context of measurement, supervision and evaluation now being built. Therefore, this project is unlikely to have the positive effects that Bill Gates envisions.

Although Bill Gates described in his TED Talk a system where teachers would choose when to run the camera, and then choose which videos to submit, there is a backdrop against which this all takes place, which makes teachers ready to assume the worst.

To understand why teachers are less than trusting, we can go back 2 1/2 years to the launch of the propaganda film, “Waiting for Superman.” The Gates Foundation spent $2 million to promote this movie, and Bill Gates appeared on “Oprah” the week it opened, alongside Michelle Rhee and the film’s director, Davis Guggenheim. Here is a bit of the summary, from Oprah’s web site:

If we eliminated our worst teachers, Bill (Gates) says it would have a tremendous impact on America’s worldwide standing. “If you do that,” he says, “then we go from being basically at the bottom of the rich countries to being back at the top.”

 

However, the current system isn’t set up to allow such simple firings because tenure guarantees teachers their jobs for life—sometimes after just two years, say Michelle and Davis.

 

“It’s automatic,” Davis says. “You show up for two years, and you get tenure.”

 

(Read more here.)

This provides the backdrop for the entire push across the country to eliminate due process protections and require teacher evaluations to place significant weight on student test scores. This, it turns out, is not an easy thing to do, given that about half of our teachers are not teaching in tested subjects. This has yielded the Ohio PE teacher evaluation that Gates himself mocked in a speech a month ago,   nd the absurd systems where teachers are evaluated based on the scores of students they have not taught.   These systems have a way of spinning out of control.

Gates is using the language of collaboration and feedback to promote an evaluation system. It is possible to infuse a bit more feedback into an evaluation system, but this is not the primary vehicle by which teachers collaborate. The most valuable source of feedback for teachers is their peers, in collaborative settings that are non-evaluative. The non-evaluative aspect is essential, because it allows us to make ourselves vulnerable, exposing the areas where we are weak and need to grow.

Bill Gates explained how this would work several years ago.

Such a system would include test scores, but would also include classroom observation, parent and student surveys, and videos taken in the classroom. The cost today of adding a web camera to a classroom is very low. And so a teacher should be able to tape a segment where they want advice, they see that a discipline problem, or maybe something interesting, perhaps they could have done better, they can post that, and get advice from great teachers. This measurement system is a very important priority.

What teacher in his right mind would show a video of an incident where they mishandled a discipline problem in the context of their evaluation?

I videotaped my classroom when I applied for National Board certification, and sharing that video, even with trusted colleagues, was a scary thing. I had to make myself vulnerable to their scrutiny, and see my flaws played over and over again. Remember the backdrop here – this is in the context of a MEASUREMENT system, as Gates clearly says. It is in the context of a concerted effort to remove “ineffective” teachers. And if this is in the context of evaluation, what guarantee do we have that the teacher will retain complete control of when that camera, owned by the school system, is on or off, and which videos are chosen for review?

This idea of videotaping teachers comes in the midst of a huge increase in the level of curricular supervision and management teachers are experiencing.

The Common Core standards and their associated assessments have been heavily promoted by the Gates Foundation. We are told the Common Core “is not a curriculum.”

But Gates himself said in 2009,

 Defining common standards is just the starting point. We’ll only know if this effort has succeeded when the curriculum and tests are aligned to these standards…. When the tests are aligned to the standards, the curriculum will line up as well.

 

He also said:

All states and districts should collect common data on teachers and students. We need to define the data in a standardized way, we need to collect all of it for all of our students, and we need to enter it in something cheap and simple that people can share.

And we know that student performance will be measured by benchmark tests, such as the Next Generation MAP assessments, that are given at regular intervals through the year, to make sure every teacher is following the timeline and teaching what they are supposed to. In this context, it is easy to see video cameras as yet another vehicle for more intense supervision of our classrooms, especially when presented as part of an evaluation system.

Genuine collaboration requires real trust among all the parties. We can learn something from observing one another, and even from sharing videos of instruction. But these activities need to be owned by teachers, and they work well when teachers use non-evaluative processes such as Lesson Study, and teacher inquiry, which take explicit steps to build the trusting environment we need to make ourselves vulnerable. That is the environment where growth is possible.

So long as school reform is driven by suspicion that bad teachers are hiding and must be ferreted out, and feedback is seen primarily through the lens of measurement and evaluation, teachers will have very good reason to withdraw and protest. Video cameras have a place in building our reflective practice, but are not likely to be well received in the context of evaluation.

 (Correction: An earlier version failed to have a Gates quote in a quote format so it appeared as if it was written by the author. It is now fixed.)

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · May 12, 2013