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February 01, 2011 6 min read
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The Myth of Video Evaluation

The Wyoming legislature has proposed a pilot project to video-record teachers without warning, with the teacher, the principal, a parent, and an instructional coach all watching the video later and using it as the basis of the teacher’s evaluation.

Since teachers would not know when the 60-minute video would be taken, and since multiple evaluators would rate the lesson, the rationale is that evaluations would be more reliable and accurate.

This proposal suffers from the misconception that teaching can be effectively evaluated from a videotape of a single lesson. I agree completely that only observing instruction during prearranged visits doesn’t give evaluators a clear picture of typical teaching, but I’m not convinced that video is any better.

It’s not clear from the news stories how many 60-minute videos would serve as the basis for a teacher’s evaluation in a given year, but even if it’s dozens, it wouldn’t matter. Teaching is a profession that requires both the exercise of skill and the fulfillment of myriad responsibilities, many of which are not evident in a video of a lesson. Communicating with parents, using assessment to inform instruction, contributing to a culture of professional learning and collegiality, and adjusting instruction as a unit unfolds are all parts of good teaching that can’t be captured on video.

At worst, the Wyoming proposal would create a system of spycams and evaluations by poorly trained observers using out-of-context footage of lessons. Even at best, it reduces excellence in teaching to excellence in presenting material and standing in front of a camera.

I’m among the voices calling for improvement in the evaluation process, but I find nothing in the proposal that intelligently addresses the problems we currently face. —Justin Baeder


They Are Coming for Our Pensions

I have tried to strike a balance between hope and concern about where we seem to be headed in education. Today, I am going to sound an alarm bell.

The pensions of teachers and other public employees are in jeopardy because a wealthy elite has decided it has better things to do with our money.

The shoe dropped when The New York Times reported on Jan. 20: “Policymakers are working behind the scenes to come up with a way to let states declare bankruptcy and get out from under crushing debts, including the pensions they have promised to retired public workers.”

The story indicates that there is not yet legislation for this purpose, and that there are concerns that if states declare bankruptcy, holders of state bonds might suffer. This would create instability in financial markets—which is of course intolerable to the bankers. But apparently robbing teachers of our pensions is quite acceptable, so the clever lawyers are hard at work to come up with a scheme that will allow the states to default on their obligations to pensions, while preserving their obligations to bond holders.

As teachers, our pensions are a form of deferred compensation. That money has already been earned, and the obligation to us is very real.

This is one more step toward the destruction of our profession. We need people to choose teaching as a career.

It is not just public employees that stand to lose our pensions, either. It is every person who does not have an independent means of supporting themselves when they retire. And this is both the greatest danger, and our greatest hope. We need to help our fellow Americans understand—they are coming for all of our pensions. Teachers and other public employees are taking big hits, but the biggest pot of gold of all is Social Security.

We need some good, old-fashioned solidarity. And we need to get ourselves into the streets for some old-fashioned protests. —Anthony Cody


The General’s Lament

Usually when some CEO from a dysfunctional industry shares his or her insights on how I can better do my job as an educator, it is easy to dismiss. I think educating another human being is far more complex a process than dentistry, but when it comes to root canals, I’m more than willing to defer to my dentist.

And yet, for whatever reason, everybody is an expert on what is wrong with our schools and what we should do to fix them.

James Comstock, a retired U.S. Army major general, is the latest nonexpert expert to weigh in on how screwed up our schools are. His is a little different take. He wrote: “A report by the nonprofit Mission: Readiness estimates that 75 percent of young Americans are not able to join the military, and one of the leading reasons is a failure in our education system.”

The major general cites the high school dropout rates, the high percentage of physically unfit kids, and the incidence of juvenile crime as deal breakers for joining the armed forces. And they are. But not having enough enlisted recruits to slake the military’s thirst for perpetual war is not what keeps me awake at night.

It’s not that I’m unpatriotic or that I don’t appreciate the military service of my father and my two older brothers and other veterans. I do. I want our students to be academically qualified for West Point—but not necessarily to enlist in the Army.

It turns out Maj. Gen. Comstock isn’t the only high-ranking officer who wants schools to do better in the interest of maintaining our military supremacy. Two former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gens. John M. Shalikashvili and Hugh Shelton, stated that “investing in our children through early education is a plain, common-sense issue critical to our national security.”


But I’d like to believe that the more advanced and effective our educational system becomes, the more equitable the opportunities we provide for our students, the more just our society, and the more civil and fair and moral our nation, the less we would have need for a military at all. —Kevin W. Riley


Conservative Love for Arne Duncan

If I were working in the U.S. Department of Education’s office of legislative affairs, I would be sending every Republican in Congress a very special copy of last week’s Washington Post op-ed by conservative columnist George Will (the guy with the bow ties).

Will, who has criticized the administration quite a bit, has lots of love for U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in the piece, especially his rhetoric on how class sizes in high-performing countries are bigger than they are here, and on raising standards while bringing back local control.

The op-ed contains this almost-too-good-to-be-true line: “The Education Department sits at the foot of Capitol Hill, where many new legislators consider ‘federal education policy’ a constitutional oxymoron. They have a point. They might, however, decide that the changes Duncan proposes—on balance, greater state flexibility in meeting national goals—make him the Obama administration’s redeeming feature.”

Someone at the department should put that on a gold-plated cigarette case and send it to Speaker of the House John Boehner. Or just give Mr. Duncan a T-shirt that says “Obama Administration’s Redeeming Feature” to wear to his meetings with GOP lawmakers on the Hill. —Alyson Klein

A version of this article appeared in the February 02, 2011 edition of Education Week as Blogs of the Week


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