Teachers and nanny cams: compliance vs. trust

Guest blogger Jon Eckert is an assistant professor of education at Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL. Before joining the Wheaton faculty in 2009, Jon served for a year as a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education and in the Office of the Secretary. He taught and coached for 12 years in the middle grades in Illinois and Tennessee, where he completed his doctorate at Vanderbilt in 2008.

by Jon Eckert

For some, Mike Petrilli’s recent commentary in Education Next might conjure up some fairly humorous images of a tiny “nanny cam” embedded in a stuffed bear to catch teachers behaving badly, or a principal sitting at his or her office with a bank of monitors similar to a prison cell block to ensure that all is well in the school. But is he taking a potentially valuable tool for educators over “a bridge too far” and instead, continuing to de-professionalize the teaching profession?

In this piece, he begins by advocating for the use of electronic recording of classrooms with benefits similar to those achieved by having cameras in police patrol cars. I am a teacher of nearly 15 years, including four in Tennessee where my middle school science students achieved excellent value-added ratings. As a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education, I worked in both the Bush and Obama administrations on teacher quality issues and matters related to assessment and accountability. I see the tremendous benefit of digitally recording and analyzing the work of teachers and students. One of the most painful, vulnerable, and productive ways to grow as a teacher or prospective teacher is to analyze and reflect on your teaching or the teaching of others on video.

Currently, I am a professor in the oft-maligned world of teacher education, where this month I am also teaching a physics unit to 44 fifth graders and digitally recording each day’s lesson for analysis by me and my teacher education students. Later this spring, my students will be required to record one lesson a day for a week, view each lesson each night, and analyze what they have seen and how they can grow.

As Petrilli points out in his commentary, the Gates Foundation MET Project is using 360-degree cameras in the classrooms of 3,000 teachers to evaluate and provide feedback to teachers. Again, there is tremendous potential value in this type of practice.

However, midway through the commentary, Petrilli asks, “But why not go further?” This marks the point where we part ways.

He goes on to make the case that video cameras should be used for “monitoring” teachers. In his view, constant video monitoring will reduce child abuse, school violence, ineffective teaching practice both behaviorally and compositionally, and increase access for parents. There are at least three problematic assumptions that undergird Petrilli’s argument:

Assumption #1: We can define teaching effectiveness, or ineffectiveness, via constant electronic vigilance. Gross incompetence, such as teachers reading the newspaper, texting, or losing complete control of the class might be readily evident in Petrilli’s world of electronic vigilance. However, a decent principal can already identify this with the tools at his or her disposal. Effective teaching is not always seen easily, as scholars have found, when it comes to teacher evaluation, there are “limits to looking.” Effective teaching often rests on how teachers think about their students’ academic and socio-emotional progress and what they do about it before and after class.

Assumption #2: Effective teachers “have little to fear” because their effectiveness will be self-evident. There is no guarantee that those who are watching know what they are looking for and how they will determine what good teaching looks like on a video. A plethora of studies, including one by the New Teacher Project, suggests that teacher evaluation is undermined because administrators are not trained to assess teaching adequately. While Jacob and Lefgren found that some principals are quite good at identifying the top and bottom 10-20% of teachers, giving administrators a video monitor will not make them any better at this task. Not all principals are uniformly effective at evaluating teaching. It takes time and training and principals who were effective teachers themselves.

Assumption #3: Teachers cannot be trusted. Tony Bryk eloquently argues for and illustrates the power of trust in schools and its connection to improving schools. If we do not trust teachers to have good intentions toward students, why would we believe that having a camera in a classroom would keep them from simply perpetrating the offense elsewhere out of the view of the camera? What does this say about our respect for teachers and the complicated and challenging work they have to perform?

Ultimately, if we feel we need a “nanny cam” in every classroom in America to ensure compliance and competence, then we have lost our sense of teachers as trusted molders of minds and citizens. We are reduced to thinking of them as technicians transferring information in a prescriptive manner. If this is the role we expect teachers to assume, no amount of monitoring will repair the damage such marginalization will do to our democracy.

Learn more about Jon Eckert here.

Related categories: ,