Bill Gates wants cameras in classrooms

April 26, 2013, 12:15 pm Anya Kamenetz Fast Company

"We need a system that helps all our teachers be as good as the best."

Actors do it. Professional athletes do it. Now Bill Gates wants America to spend $5 billion to overhaul the evaluation system for every teacher in every classroom in every district, including filming them in action.

The new system would include videotaped lessons, classroom observations by trained observers, student satisfaction surveys, and value-added calculations based on test scores.

Among all his foundation's educational initiatives for things like smaller schools and new technology, Gates has increasingly zeroed in on effective teaching as the key lever to improving education, as he discusses in an exclusive interview in Fast Company this month.

But how do you know effective teaching when you see it? Judging teachers by their students' test scores alone is crude and incomplete. In a talk he gave for a TED special on PBS to be aired May 7 (filmed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on April 4), Gates discussed the plan to measure teachers, its estimated $5 billion price tag, and the pilot program he funded--the Measures of Effective Teaching (MET)--conducted with 3,000 teachers in seven districts. They reported three years of findings in January on a teaching evaluation system that combines test scores, student evaluations, and classroom assessments, where teachers are graded by impartial observers.

The idea of reevaluating how we test teachers is spreading, but it remains controversial--even without the privacy issues involved in filming the classroom. "I know some teachers aren’t immediately comfortable with a camera in the classroom," Gates acknowledged, then said that could be overcome by allowing teachers to pick which lessons they want filmed--which would seem to undermine the validity of any findings.

Of the $5 billion price estimate, Gates said in his speech:

"That’s a big number. But to put it in perspective... it’s less than 2% of what we spend on teachers’ salaries and benefits.

The impact for teachers would be phenomenal. We would finally have a way to give them feedback—as well as the means to act on it. "

American states and districts have already spent millions of dollars overhauling teacher evaluation systems, only to have districts rating 97, 98, or 100% of teachers as "satisfactory" or better.

In his talk, Gates emphasized the idea of using this feedback system to help teachers do their job better. "We need a system that helps all our teachers be as good as the best," he said. "Our teachers deserve better feedback." He clearly wants to be seen as a friend, not an enemy, of teachers. However, the MET project, at least, has done nothing to demonstrate that these evaluations can actually help teachers improve--rather than just weed out the good from the bad.

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