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Big Brother vs. Teacher Professionalism

I stopped thinking of teaching as a profession long ago--I only wish teaching functioned as a true profession in America. It would take a major paradigm shift for teaching to evolve into a vocation with all the markers of true professionalism: highly specialized knowledge and skill, workplace and practice autonomy, a well-defined ethical code and standards for high quality practice. True professionals are in charge of their own ongoing learning and expertise--and determining whose work does not meet minimal standards. They share the responsibility of maintaining high standards of practice.

Unlike teaching in the United States, where a supervisor selects professional development "activities" and decides whether a teacher's practice is worthy, often using a checklist. As for a body of specialized skills and knowledge, the trend is running backwards: In spite of research demonstrating that--no surprise--teaching credentials are helpful, urban schools are being pushed to hire two-year temporary teachers who have negligible experience and no incentive to stick around and learn their craft.

The National Board for Professional Standards was created to address the professionalism issue, by providing standards for accomplished practice and an assessment that defined the master teacher. The goal was utilizing the voices of exemplary teachers to inform and reshape educational decision-making--precisely one of the things that true professionals do. The National Board assessment requires teachers to submit videotapes of their lessons, and analyze their own practice--and more than 90% of the teachers who go through the process say that watching their own teaching, comparing it to rigorous standards, is great professional development.

Contrast that with Mike Petrilli's suggestion that schools video-tape teachers teaching and use the recordings as part of a teacher's evaluation.

"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?

Teachers just can't win with Petrilli, can they? Either they're cheating to get the big numbers and short-cutting the curriculum--or their students have lousy scores but if they're lucky the videotape will explain why it's not their fault? I am trying to imagine what surprising conditions might appear on a videotape that exonerate teachers for their students' low value-added scores. Weapons? Don't we already know a lot about who gets low scores, and why?

Tom Kane defends the videotape as assessment tool:

"There are a number of huge advantages to video. 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. 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. "

Well that's a cheery thought. The teacher will teach, then an outside assessor will watch--and appraise their work. Not having to actually observe a live teacher teaching will mean that one assessor can watch lots of tapes--cost effective! It will be fairer because we all know that teachers and their principals are likely to be feuding. Wait a minute. Aren't teachers and principals supposed to working toward common goals of better teaching and better learning?

Kane notes that parents now use baby and child monitors, so:

"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. "

So now we need to watch for teachers who can't control violence and may be abusing kids?

Petrilli again:


"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."

And what? The teacher will reveal some appalling behavior simply because she forgot about the camera? I have news for Mr. Petrilli. I taught for more than 30 years and never had an expectation of complete autonomy. There have always been curricula, textbooks, district benchmarks to follow, and most schools have an open-door policy for visitors--parents, administrators and colleagues. And please--don't put "professionalism" in quotes. It's demeaning.

Still--I love the idea of teachers videotaping themselves, sharing and analyzing their lessons with colleagues and administrators (or voluntarily applying for the national certification assessment). It was a powerful experience for me, as a candidate for National Board Certification.

It goes back to what Kane says: it's a common piece of evidence about the teacher's effectiveness in the classroom. Imagine what could happen if all teachers were to collaboratively study and critique their own recorded instruction, sharing ideas that lead to improved learning for all of their students? It's not impossible or even difficult--it happens in other nations all the time.

Here, we appear to be focused more on monitoring and evaluating teachers than developing their professional talents and knowledge. The videotape can be a useful tool in building a dynamic teaching practice. Don't turn it into a bludgeon.

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The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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