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Cameras in Classrooms and the Myth of Video Evaluation


The Wyoming legislature has proposed a pilot project to video-record teachers without warning for their evaluations, with the teacher, the principal, a parent, and an instructional coach all watching the video and using it as the basis of the teacher's evaluation. Since teachers would not know when the 60-minute video would be taken, and since multiple evaluators would rate the lesson, the rationale is that evaluations would be more reliable and accurate.

Lawmakers seem to be expressing a frustration in principals' current effectiveness in evaluating teachers:

"The system we have now is not working," [Republican state senator and sponsor of the bill L. Ray Peterson] said.

State union head Kathryn Valido feels otherwise, and puts the ball squarely in principals' court, while acknowledging the need for principals to do better:

"No one wants good accountability more than teachers," Valido said. 

If there's a cure-all, it is robust, effective evaluations by people who know how to do them well, she added.

 "The bill would create more problems than it would solve," she said.

Peterson's proposal is obviously intended to fix a problem with teacher evaluation and performance, but this problem isn't defined. Is it that principals are incapable of observing a lesson and accurately rating its quality? Is it that too many clearly incompetent teachers are rated "satisfactory" year after year? Is it that the dog-and-pony show of prearranged observations doesn't reflect typical instruction?

Regardless, this proposal suffers from the misconception that teaching can be effectively evaluated from a videotape of a single lesson. I agree completely that only observing instruction during prearranged visits doesn't give evaluators a clear picture of typical teaching, but I'm not convinced that video is any better.

It's not clear from the news story how many 60-minute videos would serve as the basis for a teacher's evaluation in a given year, but even if it's dozens, it wouldn't matter. Teaching is a profession that requires both the exercise of skill and the fulfillment of myriad responsibilities, many of which are not evident in a video of a lesson. Communicating with parents, using assessment to inform instruction, contributing to a culture of professional learning and collegiality, and adjusting instruction as a unit unfolds are all parts of good teaching that can't be captured on video.

At worst, the Wyoming proposal would create a system of spycams and evaluations by poorly trained observers using out-of-context footage of lessons. Even at best, though, it reduces excellence in teaching to excellence in presenting material and standing in front of a camera.

I'm among the voices calling for improvement in the evaluation process, but I find nothing in the Wyoming proposal that either clearly identifies or intelligently addresses the problems we currently face.

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