Lights, Camera, Action!

Education Next Issue Cover

Using video recordings to evaluate teachers


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Spring 2011 / Vol. 11, No. 2

Way back in 1989, James Q. Wilson defined “coping organizations” as those in which managers can neither observe the activities of frontline workers nor measure their results. Police departments were perfect examples, as supervisors could not watch cops on patrol or easily gauge their crime-fighting effectiveness. As a result, agencies had to enforce rigid policies and procedures as the only way to manage their staff.

Then, in the 1990s, New York City introduced CompStat, and this equation changed forever. The NYPD compiled and continuously updated reams of crime data, which were used to identify hot spots and problem areas. In weekly meetings, precinct commanders were held accountable for quickly addressing crime spikes. Suddenly “management by results” became possible—not just in the Big Apple, but in police departments nationwide.

But something else also happened in the ’90s: video cameras were installed in thousands of patrol cars all across the country. The rationale was simple: people who got pulled over could be told that they were under surveillance, making dangerous behavior during traffic stops less likely. Moreover, if cops knew that they, too, were being observed, they would be less likely to engage in brutality or unjust searches. Maybe their supervisors couldn’t ride along with them, but video cameras could serve as partial surrogates.

Wilson also pointed to schools as prime examples of coping organizations. “A school administrator,” he wrote, “cannot watch teachers teach (except through classroom visits that momentarily may change the teacher’s behavior) and cannot tell how much students have learned (except by standardized tests that do not clearly differentiate between what the teacher has imparted and what the student has acquired otherwise).”

As with police, education reformers have spent the last two decades trying to change these assumptions. On the “managing by results” side, there has been the big battle over the use of test data for accountability purposes (CompStat for schools), culminating in the fight over value-added measurement of teacher performance. Perhaps now we can finally “differentiate between what the teacher has imparted and what the student has acquired otherwise.” Yet even advocates acknowledge the imperfections of this approach. What if a teacher gets great results in student learning, but does it by “teaching to the test,” or, worse, cheating? What if she ignores important parts of the curriculum that aren’t easily assessed? Or, on the flip side, what if her value-added scores show lackluster student progress, but it’s due to factors completely outside her control?

Understandably, teachers and their unions don’t want test scores to count for everything; classroom observations are key, too. But, as Wilson pointed out two decades ago, planning a couple of visits from the principal is hardly sufficient. These visits may “change the teacher’s behavior”; furthermore, principals may not be the best judges of effective teaching. Some just aren’t much good at that.

So why not put video cameras in classrooms, and use the recordings as part of teachers’ evaluations? That’s a question Tom Kane has been asking. Kane, an education and economics professor on leave from Harvard University, leads a massive initiative supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that is developing new approaches to evaluating teachers, with high-definition, 360-degree cameras at the center. Three thousand teachers in six cities are participating; for doing so, they receive stipends and lots of feedback from experts.

“There are a number of huge advantages to video,” Kane told me. “One is it gives you a common piece of evidence to discuss with an instructional coach or supervisor. Second, it will prove to be economically much more viable because you’re not paying observers to drive around to various schools to do observations.” Furthermore, he contends, “If a teacher doesn’t think that their principal is giving them a fair evaluation because of some vendetta, they can have an external expert with no personal ax to grind watch and give feedback.”

The Gates project is focused on using video only for teacher evaluation, not regular monitoring. Teachers are videotaped only four times a year, not every day. But why not go further? “That right now for us is a bridge too far,” said Kane. “When the camera rolls out of the room, teachers know it’s rolled out of the room.” And in many places, including Washington, D.C., collective bargaining agreements explicitly restrict the use of “electronic monitoring equipment.”

But it feels like just a matter of time. Already one company—WatchMeGrow—sells Internet video-streaming services to child-care centers; parents can log on to their computers at work and watch little Johnny or Cassie all day long. (Cameras are placed in classrooms, on the playgrounds, and in other common areas.) It’s not hard to imagine these parents wanting the same opportunity once their kids graduate to kindergarten and beyond. And think about the possibilities for curbing school violence or guarding against child abuse.

Teachers may scream about infringements on their “professionalism,” but effective teachers will have little to fear. Already, their expectation of complete autonomy—that they close their doors and do what they want—has been undermined by standards, tests, and other reforms of the modern era. Why not watch teachers in action? Sooner or later, that little video camera, always on, will just fade into the background.

Comment on this article
  • Diana Senechal says:

    Here are a few reasons why a camera initiative might turn good teachers away from the profession.

    1. Bad mandates. Suppose everyone must follow the workshop model. Suppose the workshop model is confining, and good teachers depart from it when they need to do so. Administrators will be able to “catch” teachers departing from it. They will be able to time the “teacher talk” and write teachers up for going overboard. They will be able to verify that all students are working in groups at a given time.

    2. The unseen audience. Some of us prefer to be able to see those who see us at a given moment. It is unnerving to have an audience you can’t see or hear but who can see and hear you. Especially when you’re not on stage.

    3. Bad hair day, bad skin day, sore throat day, bad mood day. We all have awkward days, and we may not want them made permanent on video.

    4. The camera gets it wrong, or at least changes things. I have taken film acting classes and have seen the difference between a scene acted out in front of me and the very same scene on video. It feels very different when it’s on a screen and not in the room.

    5. Inhibition of good things. Will teachers feel as comfortable telling jokes, going on minor interesting tangents, etc., with the cameras on them? Many things that give a lesson character will become strained.

    Things may be heading in this direction, but that doesn’t make it good.

  • MisterRog says:

    Why did the author feel the need to put “professionalism” in quotes? That seems to be a bit mocking, doesn’t it?

  • Mike Petrilli says:

    Diana, thanks for your thoughtful comments. All of these concerns are more than reasonable. Though I suspect that over time all of us will be used to be “on camera” most of the time, at least outside the bounds of our homes. I’m not saying that is a positive trend. Just likely. As for putting “professionalism” in quotes, Mr. Roger, you’re right that I could have skipped it. But I also I think that teacher groups decry anything they don’t like as “anti-professional.” How is it that unions–the very antithesis of professionalism–carry the professionalism banner? So yes, I think teachers will decry anything that impedes their autonomy as anti-professional, but I don’t think professionals can expect their work not to be transparent.

  • MisterRog says:

    I’d be interested in hearing your take on the “Videotaping teachers the right way (not the Gates way)” article recently featured on the Washington Post web site.

    Personally I don’t have much fear of video, in fact I record almost every lecture and demonstration and post the videos online for my students to review. Also, as part of becoming a National Board Certified Teacher, I submitted videos of my teaching for that evaluation process.

    However, I must take a bit of an issue with one of your statements, “….effective teachers will have little to fear.” I agree with Diana Senechal as she so eloquently put forth a number of reasons in her comments above that video could be used against even effective teachers.

  • Dee Alpert says:

    The education industry has fought strenuously to create the impression that there’s something so very unique about a schoolhouse or classroom that information about non-school environments doesn’t apply to them. I’d not be very surprised to hear an American K-12 educator claim that the laws of gravity don’t apply in a classroom.

    Using knowledge and insights from the non-education world to understand what goes on in a school is revealing. We need more of this. Thanks, Mr. Petrilli!

  • [...] history. One article suggested that we place webcams – like nanny cams – in classrooms to watch teachers more closely. Along with other public sector employees, teachers have become a convenient target of taxpayer [...]

  • [...] Videotaping is being used by the Gates Foundation on thousands of teachers to connect which practices lead to higher test scores, and some are calling for constant video monitoring in the classroom. [...]

  • Lifesaver6141 says:

    The issue on cameras in the classroom is really about the use of the data. How the information is used will directly effect the level of paranoia. Many keep referring to teacher behavior and not necessarily the learning process. Evaluation of “objective accomplishment” is the real measuring tool of effective teaching. The camera should be used as a mirror of classroom activity for administration and teachers to evaluate; not to necessarily to provide negative criticism. There is no questions as to the benefits and many positive usages. So the answer is a “Surveillance Constitution” needs to be drawn up and proposed to both sides. When all the benefits and cautions are ratified, then the surveillance should be welcomed as a benefit and not a detriment.

  • Alyson says:

    Everywhere we go we are being videotaped, my work place now has video, I am being held accountable for my actions and performance, why shouldn’t our teachers?
    My 4 year old daughter was physically and verbally abused by one of the aides in her class, a teacher passing by stopped the incident before it became irreversible, she was lucky! What about the countless other students who are not as lucky as my daughter? We trust everyday that our children’s welfare is being handled in a safe and positive way, that’s a lot of trust in my opinion; it’s about time the teachers are held accountable.

  • Esse says:

    As the mother of a child who was assaulted in school and then told her son had post concussive symptoms, then further mistreatment by teacher and principle, I think “privacy” for the teacher is a small price to pay. This should happen, the sooner the better. As the article states, teachers who are good should have no problems with this.

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