Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Hatchet Jobs By Video

One of the achingly stupid portions of Andrew Cuomo's budgetary assault on education is the mandated use of outside evaluators.

There has been some spirited discussion of how exactly that would work, or not. Carol Burris looked at it. Daniel Katz broke down all the ways it won't work. The folks at South Bronx School put fake ads for outside evaluators on Craigslist-- and got responses. But it was realitybasededucator at Perdido Street Schools who spotted tweets from a Cuomo flack that hinted at another solution to this boldly baldfaced bowl of balderdash.

The trail of tweetage leads us to an article New York Daily News article by Thomas Kane, the Harvard Graduate School of Education professor who has carried a lot of water for Bill Gates in his day.

Kane uses a metaphor that he's been milking for quite a while now-- the idea that you can't diet successfully without a mirror and a bathroom scale. I've addressed his use of this monumentally ill-considered and mis-constructed analogy before-- it's a simple image with a whole lot of wrong packed into it, and you can follow the link for the full treatment if you like. The short answer is this: if you need a mirror and a bathroom scale to tell whether or not you're getting healthier, you are either a dope or the kind of technocratic tool who believes that machine-generated data is more valuable than human sensory input.

Kane also uses Cuomo's own talking point to call for "better" evaluations-- too many teachers were evaluated well last year. In other words, we will be ruled by data, but only data that matches our pre-concieved biases about teacher quality in NY. If the data doesn't match our biases (NY teachers mostly suck) then we will keep tweaking the system until it gives us the "right" data.

Cuomo has done his best to tweak the system by expressly forbidding input from parents, community, students, or the teacher's actual boss-- in other words, anybody who's actually familiar with how the teacher does her job. But Kane acknowledges that the outside evaluator requirement presents some logistical challenges. He has a solution.

A lot of time could be wasted as observers travel from school to school. One alternative would be to allow teachers to submit videos to external observers (and, possibly, to their principals as well).

On the one hand, there is some value in watching yourself work on camera. It takes roughly thirty seconds to spot whatever annoying tic you had carefully blocked from your own consciousness, but which your students use to mock you when you're not around.

On the other hand, handing that video over to a stranger as a means of evaluation is just stupid.

First, the camera can only cover so much of the classroom. So the video observer will only see a portion of what was going on and catch only a fraction of the teaching environment.

Because of that, and because of time lag (shoot video, send video, find time to watch video), the feedback will be less useful to the teacher. And how about that, anyway-- if the observer is going to make the trip to have a post-viewing feedback session with the teacher, how much time and hassle have we actually saved, anyway? Of course, we could save more time and hassle if the "feedback" just came in the form of written comments on a form, or a swift e-mail.

That sort of feedback would be considerably less useful. And you know what else it would do?

It would remove the need for the outside observer to look a teacher in the eye when he's scuttling her career. As an outsider, the observer already has zero skin in this game, absolutely no stake on the line at all. Add the video, and the observer doesn't even have the minimal human stake involved in talking to someone face to face.

The distance created by a video version of observation removes one more relationship from the mix. The observee and the observer remain total strangers to each other. The observer need not be concerned about whether or not he's actually helping the teacher, and the teacher has no idea whether the observer is a wise mentor educator whose advice is worth heeding, or some jackass hack who just breezed through fifty videos in a day and whose advice is no more useful than that of some shmoe off the street. Heck, it might be a shmoe off the street who's just ploughing through videos in a Pearson evaluation video sweatshop. (That is, of course, before the day arrives that Pearson announces they've got software that can analyze videos to determine teacher quality).

Video observation is an almost certain guarantee that the observation process will be even less useful, less helpful, less instrumental in helping teachers improve and grow. Of course, is the only point of your observation process is to play "gotcha" with all those awful teachers that you just know are out there, then a video system should work just fine.

Look, there's no way to implement the outside observation idea that isn't bad, and dumb. But observation by video would be the baddest, dumbest method of all. Unfortunately, it would also be the most efficiently profitable for the company that lands the contract, so I'm afraid we may be onto something here. As always, best of luck and good wishes to my brothers and sisters in New York classrooms.


  1. Things are scary here in NY. Thanks for continuing to write about it, and thanks for the good wishes. It's nice to know that someone has our backs. Cuomo and Tisch? Not so much...

  2. The EdTPA Man Cometh

  3. Great article (as usual), except I have to argue with the word "stupid". Stupid implies Cuomo doesn't know what he's doing and is blundering around. I'd argue he knows exactly what he's doing. The word I'd use is "evil".