Monday, May 20, 2013

Sarah Brown Wessling and Bill Gates $5 Billion Dollar Video Recording Plan

When a popular, former National Teacher of the Year speaks in favor of Bill Gates' proposal to spend five billion dollars equipping classrooms across the country with video equipment, I take note, especially when that endorsement is one which I have recently argued against.



As a National Board Certified teacher, I know the value of taping, viewing, and reflecting on my practice, both during my initial certification and as a requirement for recertification. That inherent value exists in taping one's teaching isn't the issue. That's why I agree with the benefits Wessling articulates in  her Huff Post blog.

Indeed, I, too, have learned and improved from watching my teaching. In truth, I should probably record and reflect on my practice more often.

What's troubling about Wessling's post is the premise that we need to endorse and implement Gates' plan, a plan that would take a huge chunk of money and spend it on what's arguably a luxury expenditure, especially considering that a cheap Flip camera or smart phone offers the same opportunity installing video-recording equipment in classrooms does.

Additionally, Wessling contends that "teachers get better by watching themselves and other teachers do the work that requires both precision and fluctuation," as though this is the only way a teacher can improve. If this were true, few would advance beyond their first-year capabilities.

A video of one's teaching, while useful, certainly isn't a necessity for improving one's practice. Long before the easy access of recording equipment, teachers have worked to improve their practice, generally by learning more about their subjects and pedagogy and through meaningful evaluations.

Only in the NCLB world have meaningful evaluations virtually vanished. I had a wonderful department head, Ruth Stohl, who observed me during my first few years of teaching. Her evaluations were immensely helpful, as are my university supervisor's.

Additionally, in my capacity as an adjunct for Idaho State University, my Communication 1101 dual enrollment students complete useful evaluations of my teaching provided by the ISU department of Rhetoric and Communication Studies. They have the opportunity to write honestly and anonymously about my teaching. I learn from their comments, especially about areas I need to teach in more depth and concepts I need to clarify. I also have students complete informal evaluations periodically during the class so that I know from students' points of view what is and isn't working.

In contrast to the safety of recording myself, occasionally being observed by a colleague, and having students evaluate me, putting video recording equipment in each classroom smacks of Big Brother surveillance, regardless of Wessling's claim to the contrary: "First, let's get clear on why these aren't 'surveillance' cameras in either the literal or figurative sense." In Wessling's utopian video-viewed world, the camera aren't "to catch" teachers making mistakes. "They aren't there to judge." They aren't in the classroom as part of evaluation systems.

Perhaps these claims are true in Wessling's world, but that doesn't mean cameras can't or won't be used for such purposes in other places, places like Wisconson and Idaho where teachers and their professional organizations have been attacked relentlessly. Even after winning the three referendums that overturned the legislation stripping teachers of their master agreements, my district refuses to reinstate the master agreement we had prior to the passage of Propositions 1, 2, and 3.

Moreover, in my long career, I have witnessed egregious abuse of powers by subsequent administrations who refuse to honor agreements made by their predecessors. In fairness, I must also say the converse has also been true at times.

In short, there is nothing keeping teachers from recording and reflecting on their practice. Indeed, committing to doing so during the 2013-2014 school year is a worthy goal and one I'm making.

There are, however, many reasons to be wary of Bill Gates' $5 billion plan and reasons to question Sarah Brown Wessling's endorsement of Gates plan. We should all keep our eyes on their agenda and remember to watch and follow the money. That's something I'd love to record.