Bill Gates is amazed at what he sees happening at KIPP charter schools. Bill has no idea those same things happen at Francis Lewis High School, and countless other public schools, each and every day. Because Bill believes in the very same “reforms” that have caused Francis Lewis, my school, to balloon to 250 percent capacity, he surreptitiously funded the Learn NY campaign to preserve mayoral control (in practice, mayoral dictatorship). So I don’t trust him, and I don’t think he knows much about education, despite the millions he throws around imposing his pet projects on us. Still, I withheld judgment when he sent his new program to my school. I did not participate, but I said nothing to those who chose otherwise.
The Measures of Effective Teaching program, sponsored by the Gates Foundation, is now at my school and many others across the city. Teachers were told this study would show what worked and did not work in the classroom. They hoped it would give them ideas on how to reach their students more effectively. How long should you pause after posing a question? Did certain seat arrangements promote more interaction? Is group work always more effective than lecturing?
A young woman from the program came to our school and told our teachers that the study was actually examining newer ways to observe teachers. Traditionally, said she, there’ve been only a few ways to accomplish this. The most popular is the traditional observation, in which a supervisor sits in the classroom and writes up the results. She also cited peer observation, and the notion of test scores being used to determine whether or not lessons are effective.
However, she said, this new study had an entirely new element — the panoramic camera. This camera, specially designed, could observe not only the teacher, but also the students. Are they engaged? Do they understand? Are they texting their girlfriends during the final exam? Should we grant tenure to the teacher in question? Perhaps the camera could tell all, if only they could get it to work properly (there have been issues, and they’re apparently working on a newer version).
Three participants told me that learning about the panoramic camera caused them to question the sincerity of the program’s sponsors. Why would program officials say they were measuring classroom techniques if in fact they were working new ways to observe us? Was this observation or surveillance? And didn’t the cameras smack a little of Big Brother?
One of the participants contacted a higher-up at the program, who said the young woman was entirely wrong. In fact, this person said, the camera was simply a tool. The program simply aimed to evaluate a series of rubrics for effective teaching. Actually the program was planning to give a test at the end of the study to determine which high scores, if any, aligned with which rubrics. If any rubrics stood out, they would therefore be valid and could be used to measure effective teaching elsewhere.
One participant said this might be worthy of support, but nonetheless, it was not what the literature and representatives had said the program would be. Perhaps this was not “Measures of Effective Teaching,” but rather “Measures of Measures of Effective Teaching.”
We’re still awaiting a written response from the Gates Foundation. But if what our teacher was told is true, that would represent a clear bait-and-switch. Personally, I doubt the validity of magic formulas. The studies that support them this year will inevitably be supplanted by studies supporting something else next year. Such infallible studies tend to be discarded and replaced on a rapid and predictable basis. Gates thought small schools were the magic bullet, and he was wrong. I doubt his search for a magic formula for teachers will prove any more fruitful.
Closer to home, a handful of Francis Lewis participants at are considering dropping out of the study, despite the attractive $1,500 stipend attached to it. One teacher told me the literature said only researchers would watch the observation films, yet showed me a participation slip for students saying school administrators would have access. Why tell teachers one thing and students another?
In any case, participating teachers feel misled. Personally, I can’t blame them at all. How can you work with people who say one thing and do something else entirely? How can you have faith in an organization in which the right hand doesn’t seem to know what the left hand is doing?
Bill’s 1,500 bucks could buy me that iMac I’ve been thinking about.
But I can wait.
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First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.