Big Brother at Wyoming schools? Legislature considers filming teachers.

Wyoming lawmakers propose installing video cameras to help evaluate teachers' performance. But educators are concerned about privacy issues, among other things.

Teachers in Wyoming might someday have to add an extra step to their lesson plans: Smile for the camera.

State lawmakers have proposed installing video cameras and taping lessons to help evaluate teachers’ performance.

The occasional videotaped class has long been a tool for training and self-reflection. But the notion of tying recorded lessons to high-stakes evaluations raises a host of thorny issues.

Schools would have to consider who would be evaluating the taped lessons, what criteria they’d use, and how student and teacher privacy would be respected.

If such details can be ironed out, videos could lead to more-nuanced evaluations, says Elena Silva, a senior policy analyst at Education Sector in Washington. “There’s a lot of consternation [among teachers] about using just test scores [by students to judge them].... This is a way of bringing the human element into teacher evaluation,” she says.

That’s the main reason Wyoming Rep. Steve Harshman (R) last week proposed his bill, which calls for video monitoring and recording to be part of teacher evaluations. It would also require monthly written reviews.

Currently, Wyoming school districts are required to do only one evaluation of a teacher each year. “This is really an attempt to get our principals back into instructional-leadership mode,” says Representative Harshman, himself a teacher who has found that classroom dynamics change when the principal enters the room to observe.

With the Wyoming Legislature considering a series of accountability measures, including merit pay and at-will employment for teachers, he says, “We really ought to have good information and evaluate teachers properly.”

Harshman envisions principals spontaneously choosing a videotaped lesson to watch – rather than telling a teacher in advance, as is typically the case, when they’ll be stopping by.

“It isn’t an Orwellian thing,” he says.

But some educators can’t help but feel nervous about Big Brother overtones.

“Being observed is intimidating enough, and you just add that extra thing of a camera: It really stresses people out,” says Thomas Whitby, an adjunct professor of education at the Long Island, N.Y., campus of St. Joseph’s College.

Getting buy-in from teachers could be difficult “in this climate of teacher bashing nationwide,” says Kathryn Valido, president of the Wyoming Education Association, a union with more than 6,000 members. Teachers will worry that it’s an attempt to catch them doing something bad, she says, although she doesn’t believe that’s the intent.

Her other concerns range from the cost of installing and maintaining equipment to the privacy issues regarding who sees the recordings.

A bill introduced by Wyoming Sen. R. Ray Peterson (R) would set up pilot projects in four districts using camera monitoring for evaluations. That bill also requires that a parent representative be on the team doing the evaluation, something Ms. Valido calls “inappropriate.”

Unannounced observations of classrooms are more effective, but not necessarily via videotaping, says Kim Marshall, a former Boston principal who now trains school leaders. “Could you do [the evaluation] by looking at the camera? Yes, but I think it’s far better to get into the classroom ... and talk to the kids and look at the work they are doing” he says. A camera “might become an excuse for the principal to just sit in the office ... looking at the screen.”

But what if the video recordings could help both principals and teachers judge what’s working best in the classroom? That’s what researchers at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are exploring in a project involving 3,000 teachers in six school districts.

High-tech cameras resembling overhead projectors are brought in on carts to record the classroom in a 360-degree panorama. After the first few minutes, the presence of the camera stops distracting students because there’s not a person running it, says Thomas Kane, a Harvard education professor and a deputy director of research at the Gates Foundation.

These recordings aren’t being used for formal evaluations of the teachers that volunteered for the project. But researchers are using five sets of criteria to score teachers and then checking which of those scores most correlate to student-achievement gains. The research findings may eventually be used by school districts that want to move in that direction.

Professor Kane points to several advantages for using such technology more widely: Videos create a record in case there is any dispute between a principal’s and a teacher’s account of what happened in the classroom. Videos can be sent to outside observers for professional development or evaluation. Teachers learn a lot from watching themselves in action.

It’s not difficult to imagine cameras becoming ubiquitous in older students’ classrooms, since some parents already can watch their preschool children via webcam, says Michael Petrilli, an education policy expert at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington.

Teaching is a “public act,” Mr. Petrilli says, so having a camera observing is akin to policies that allow parents to stop by and sit in on a class. “If done right, it could be a helpful instructional tool,” he says. “It could certainly help bring a greater sense of accountability, and it could give parents a sense that they know what’s going on.”

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