D.C. schools aim for selectivity by requiring teaching candidates to give tryout lessons

June 18, 2011

Tereasa Sowers, a middle school math teacher for six years, knew the lesson cold. She’d walked hundreds of students through solving systems of linear equations. It was the 360-degree digital camera planted at the front of the classroom that she wasn’t sure about.

The guest appearance by Sowers in an eighth-grade pre-algebra class at Jefferson Middle School was an audition, part of an effort by the District to bring more rigor and selectivity to its hiring.

With research showing that teacher quality is the dominant in-school factor driving performance on standardized tests, the District is joining a national movement to push cameras into the classroom. The objective is to capture the elusive recipe for teaching’s “secret sauce” — the attributes and practices that make educators effective.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is spending millions of dollars in an effort to define “measures of effective teaching,” a project that compiled video recordings of more than 24,000 classroom lessons in Pittsburgh, New York, Tampa and elsewhere. The District also has received a Gates grant to develop a video library of clips showing the school system’s top teachers in action. It will be rolled out as a professional development tool in the next school year.

The D.C. Public Schools hiring initiative is unusual because officials are relying on cameras at the front end, using classroom video to help screen job candidates.

“For many years DCPS was known as ‘Just show up and you’ll get a job,’ ” said Jason Kamras, chief of human capital for the school system. He is also an alumnus of Teach for America, a recruiting program known for selectivity.

“We would like to be one of the elite places to teach in America and for people to know that you’ve got to be really good to teach in DCPS,” Kamras said.

Teacher recruiting has traditionally been about resumes, references and interviews. Tryouts under actual classroom conditions remain rare. For example, a new survey of Los Angeles teachers by the National Council on Teacher Quality found that only 13 percent were asked to do a sample lesson as part of their screening.

With its audition requirement, the District is seeking to set a higher bar than its high-performing suburban schools. Neither Fairfax nor Montgomery county schools require a sample lesson, officials said, although some principals have asked for them. Fairfax is one of many systems that use the Gallup Teacher Insight Survey, an online test designed to screen candidates for core beliefs and capacity for engaging students in learning.

For Sowers, 29, who has taught in Prince George’s County and now works at Francis Hammond Middle School in Alexandria, the audition was the final hoop in a regimen that included an online “pedagogical content-knowledge test,” asking her to analyze a math problem a student had gotten wrong and to devise a strategy for re-teaching the material. Next came a 30-minute interview at D.C. school central offices, where she was asked to teach a 10-minute lesson in front of senior teachers on a topic of her choice. Sowers chose multiplication of polynomials.

Her 30-minute turn at Jefferson Middle — an actual class at the Southwest D.C. school — will be reviewed by school officials, who will use the 360-degree camera to gauge not only her performance but how students responded.

If they like what they see, they will upload the video with the rest of her application to an online portal principals can access to view job candidates. The District, which employs about 4,000 teachers, expects to hire 600 to 800 for the coming academic year. That number reflects the usual turnover along with vacancies expected to emerge in the summer with the dismissal of instructors who receive poor evaluations.

Sowers received 48-hours’ notice for what she was expected to cover in the taped lesson. But she entered the room knowing nothing about her students or their relative abilities. That meant showtime came with some surprises.

“When you add a 9y plus a negative 3y, what are you going to get?”

“Negative six,” came a scattering of voices.

“Huh?”

“Positive six!”

“Very good. Okay, do you understand why it’s a positive six?”

What no one knows yet is whether any of the video recording will lead to higher student achievement. Debra Reeder, director of employment services for Fairfax schools, which must hire about 1,300 teachers before the next school year starts, said she isn’t sure the time and effort is worthwhile.

“What I would like to see is some data once this has been put into practice in D.C.,” she said. “I’d like to see the data around the success of the program. It looks very time- and work-intensive.”

Kamras acknowledged that the research on the subject is incomplete. “We still think auditioning a candidate is the right thing to do,” he said. “There’s no better evidence of how someone will perform in the classroom than watching that person perform in the classroom.”

Sowers appeared to hit many of the marks D.C. officials look for in the classroom, combining traditional, “teacher-centered” talk at the white board with small-group work in which students collaborate on solving problems. She circulated the room to check individual work and offer different levels of instruction, spending five minutes with one boy who was having difficulty adding and subtracting negative and positive numbers.

“How y’all doing? You understand? Do you guys understand how you’re substituting for the variables?” she asked.

Plucky and confident, Sowers said the District’s process was tougher than others she has encountered. But she didn’t mind it. She expects to hear soon whether she makes the “recommended” pool from which D.C. principals will fill their openings.

“It’s a decent process because it will weed people out,” she said. “Some teachers are in it for the paycheck.”

Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.
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