Friday, December 3, 2010

Smile! You're On Teacher Camera!

The New York Times has a piece on the latest in education reform teacher-evaluation schemes: classroom cameras that record a teacher's performance in real-time.  Apparently Bill Gates is investing $335 million in the project.  Everyone seems roundly impressed with the value-added opportunities.
“Some teachers are extremely good,” Mr. Gates said. “And one of the goals is to say, you know, ‘Let’s go look at those teachers.’ What’s unbelievable is how little the exemplars have been studied. And then saying, ‘O.K., How do you take a math teacher who’s in the third quartile and teach them how to get kids interested — get the kid who’s smart to pay attention, a kid who’s behind to pay attention?’ Teaching a teacher to do that — you have to follow the exemplars.”
 So what's the problem?  More data = more knowledge = better results, right?

Wrong.  I can't argue with the notion that analyzing teacher performance in excruciating detail isn't interesting on a theoretical level, and may eventually lead to practicable findings for teacher training.  But it's a completely misguided exercise if the real problem is not effective teaching the lack of student capital.   The focus ought to be on making deeper, structural changes to how we approach the achievement gap, not fiddling with more teaching techniques.  Because at the end of the day, you still have one teacher with 30 kids who have severe disadvantages. 

By concentrating all our efforts on the teacher, we are ignoring the much larger issues confronting poor children, who are far and away those at the bottom-end of the academic spectrum.  Ultimately, teachers will only ever be able to do so much to solve such massive problems. 

I admire Gates' engineer-like passion for finding just the right algorithm.  But he is ignoring larger social forces that can't be wished away behind the classroom door.  Things like reducing class sizes matter.  Providing crisis counseling, parent support, after-school tutoring, etc. are just as important, if not more so than adjusting the teaching of teachers in poor schools - who happen to have the hardest job and will look the worst when compared with their peers. 

 In a different climate, I might see this as a fascinating and exciting opportunity for professional growth.  But the reality is that this is yet more education reform on the cheap: ignoring what really needs to be done by emphasizing the marginal instead of the foundational.

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