Give him a call Anne

There are some interesting moves afoot in education in the US, particularly around teacher evaluation.

In most American schools, teachers are evaluated by principals or other administrators who drop in for occasional classroom visits and fill out forms to rate their performance.

The result? More than 9 out of 10 teachers get top marks, according to a prominent study last year by the New Teacher Project, a nonprofit group focusing on improving teacher quality.

Of course they would, which is why we have the current hopeless situation, and when you couple that with teacher union intransigence on performance pay you get a morass of ineptitude.

Now Bill Gates, who in recent years has turned his attention and considerable fortune to improving American education, is investing $335 million through his foundation to overhaul the personnel departments of several big school systems. A big chunk of that money is financing research by dozens of social scientists and thousands of teachers to develop a better system for evaluating classroom instruction.

The effort will have enormous consequences for the movement to hold schools and educators more accountable for student achievement.

Anne Tolley needs to get on the blower to Bill Gates.

Twenty states are overhauling their teacher-evaluation systems, partly to fulfill plans set in motion by a $4 billion federal grant competition, and they are eagerly awaiting the research results.

For teachers, the findings could mean more scrutiny. But they may also provide more specific guidance about what is expected of the teachers in the classroom if new experiments with other measures are adopted — including tests that gauge teachers’ mastery of their subjects, surveys that ask students about the learning environments in their classes and digital videos of teachers’ lessons, scored by experts.

“It’s huge,” said Deborah Loewenberg Ball, dean of the University of Michigan School of Education. “They’re trying to do something nobody’s done before, and do it very quickly.”

Actually guiding and training teachers as to mastery of their subjects should be welcomed with open arms. Of course, unsurprisingly teachers unions are unhappy.

The Gates research is by no means the first effort of its kind. Economists have already developed a statistical method called value-added modeling that calculates how much teachers help their students learn, based on changes in test scores from year to year. The method allows districts to rank teachers from best to worst.

Value-added modeling is used in hundreds of districts. But teachers complain that boiling down all they do into a single statistic offers an incomplete picture; they want more measures of their performance taken into account.

Yep same old tired arguments from teachers opposing any sort of change. The thing is they fail to offer any alternative other than the status quo. They are yet to learn that nature tells us that when a vacuum exists it is only temporary and then it is filled. Teachers are pretty much a vacuum when it comes to new ideas, there are exceptions, of course but they are rare. David Farrar highlights one today.

The Gates research uses value added as a starting point, but aims to develop other measures that can not only rate teachers but also help educators understand why one is more successful than another.

Researchers and educators involved in the project described it as maddeningly complex in its effort to separate the attributes of good teaching from the idiosyncrasies of individual teachers.

Mr. Gates is tracking the research closely. The use of digital video in particular has caught his attention. In an interview, he cited its potential for evaluating teachers and for helping them learn from talented colleagues.

Digital video has advanced hugely, and is now almost ubiquitous, to have mounted such a study before would have required enormous resources being tied up in specialist videographers and equipment. The key thing that digital tecnology ahs enabled is the ability to capture large amounts of video of effective teaching techniques and to share that information.

“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.”

The meticulous scoring of videotaped lessons for this project is unfolding on a scale never undertaken in educational research, said Catherine A. McClellan, a director for theEducational Testing Service who is overseeing the process.

By next June, researchers will have about 24,000 videotaped lessons. Because some must be scored using more than one protocol, the research will eventually involve reviewing some 64,000 hours of classroom video. Early next year, Dr. McClellan expects to recruit hundreds of educators and train them to score lessons.

Yes Anne Tolley really should be calling Bill Gates and seeing if he could do some experimentation in New Zealand. Of course that will give the teachers unions conniptions, which would, of course, be an added bonus.

“Video lasts,” Dr. McClellan said, creating possibilities for dialogue among teachers about improving classroom techniques. “Colleagues can watch your video and say, ‘Right here — where you did that — try this next time.’ So the teacher learns a new skill.”

There are advantages for teacher evaluations, too, Dr. Kane said.

With videos, for instance, several professionals, rather than just one principal, could rate the same classroom performance, making ratings less subjective, he said.

“It potentially creates a cottage industry for retired principals, or even expert teachers, to moonlight on weekends scoring classroom observations,” he said.

An Internet-based approach to teacher evaluation could also alleviate some pressures on school districts. New laws in many states, after all, are requiring more frequent observations of teachers.

And right there is a damn good reason for the rollout of Fibre to the Premises. Something that Labour, top heavy with ex-teachers and unionists can’t see the value in.

The costs aren’t that huge in setting up such a system.

Teachscape, a contractor providing cameras, software, and other services for the research, estimated first-year startup costs of about $1.5 million for a district with 140 schools and 7,000 teachers to buy one camera per school and lease the software to carry out classroom observations using digital video. After that, annual costs would drop to about $800,000, said Mark Atkinson, the chief executive of Teachscape, which is based in San Francisco.

Of course the single biggest hurdle to overcome is….you guessed it…the teachers unions.

In addition to the cost — which many struggling districts may consider too high — another barrier could be teacher opposition. The Memphis teachers union, an affiliate of the National Education Association, has partnered with the foundation for the project. But Keith Harris, its president, said the use of videotaped observations in evaluations raised troubling questions.

“Whose eyes would see these videos?” Mr. Harris asked. “Who would own them? This seems like an ‘I gotcha’ kind of thing. We think these observations deserve a human being.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, which has several affiliates participating in the research, also expressed reservations. “Videotaped observations have their role but shouldn’t be used to substitute for in-person observations to evaluate teachers,” Ms. Weingarten said. “It would be hard to justify ratings by outsiders watching videotapes at a remote location who never visited the classroom and couldn’t see for themselves a teacher’s interaction and relationship with students.”

Typical. The teachers don’t want people to actually see what they get up to. Same goes here with the secrecy the Teachers Council places on its deliberations on dirty, dodgy teachers. Transparency and clarity are always good. Note the stupid unionists who claims in the same sentence that “outsiders watching videotapes at a remote location who never visited the classroom and couldn’t see for themselves a teacher’s interaction and relationship with students.”

He clearly doesn’t understand that the whole idea of the video system is precisely so assessors CAN see the interaction and so they can learn, understand and correct in order to improve teaching outcomes.

Anne Tolley really should give Bill Gates a call. If she doesn’t know his number then she should just ask Williamson.


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  • nasska

    I can see why the pedagogues would be crapping themselves at the thought that parents might get to see & hear of some of the socialist garbage being instilled into their children if the videos reached the public domain. Amazing that the same people charged with educating the next generation are recycled Luddites when faced with technology that does not suit them.

    My personal opinion is that about 20% of teachers have the gift, about 60% are barely adequate & the remainder would cost the country less if they were offered a lifetime unemployment benefit. At least then the damage would be limited.

  • thor42

    You’re onto it, WO (and nasska too). I’m not sure that Tolley is though – my opinion of her is going downhill pretty fast.
    You need someone who is a real ballbreaker in that portfolio. Someone who can f**king-well **bang heads**, and I don’t think she fits the bill.
    Get rid of the damned teachers’ unions – they’re a blight on the country. Nasska is spot-on – there are a shitload of “teachers” out there who would be doing the children a favour if they left teaching tomorrow and went on the dole for life.

  • daveg

    I thought this might interest a few and maybe some of the Teachers out there who feel they are acting in the ‘best interests’ of the students. A very good opinion piece by a third form High School student in Otago. Says it all really and i particularly liked the last line.

    • Dear God, what a kid. He really wrote that? At, what, 14? At 14 he has more economic understanding than half the voting public. Thanks for the link.