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Bill Gates's School Panopticon

The latest effort by Bill Gates to reform schools involves spending $5 billion on video cameras in every classroom ("UPDATED: New Details on Bill Gates's $5 Billion Plan to Film, Measure Every Teacher," Apr. 22). Reformers like the idea because they say it will prevent teachers from offering excuses for the failure of their students to learn. Of course, the cameras will also provide evidence of student misbehavior, which reformers ignore in their criticism of teachers. But I digress.

My main objection to the Gates plan is that it is reminiscent of Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon of the late 18th century. Bentham argued that when those in institutions knew they were being observed at all times, the results would be beneficial. Although the Panopticon was designed originally for prisons, Bentham also believed it was applicable to other settings, including schools. If schools exist primarily to maintain control over students, then I suppose a case can be made for video cameras in every classroom. After all, students don't want their disruptive behavior caught on camera any more than blackjack dealers want to be taped pocketing chips.

But the ostensible reason for the cameras is to improve instruction. It's here that I question the strategy. I believe that the best way to help teachers become more effective is through peer review. Will the tapes be reviewed by those certified in the same subject being taught? Will they be used as the basis for supportive intervention? Will teachers be permitted to choose which lessons will be reviewed for evaluation purposes? These are important questions that deserve answers because they have direct implications for educational quality. I get the distinct feeling, however, that filming teachers is really intended for punitive purposes.

UPDATE: The original post referred to an article for which the link no longer exists. The post is now updated to include a working link to an updated story. Also go to ted.com/talks/bill_gates_teachers_need_real_feedback.html for more information.

On Mon. May 20, see Part 2 of the issue in Reality Check.

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