The Gates Foundation is spending millions of dollars to answer a very difficult question: What makes a great teacher great? The Measures of Effective Teaching, or MET, project comes at a time when education reform efforts are focused on teacher effectiveness as the best way to reach students.
The program relies in part on in-class video, and that's raised concerns about other ways those recordings could be used.
Watching a good teacher manage a classroom is like being at mission control during a rocket launch — there's a lot going on at once. Mahalia Davis, in her fourth year as a teacher at Ridgeway Middle School in Memphis, Tenn., changed careers midlife to become a teacher. But she looks like she's been doing this forever.
To teach her sixth-graders how to construct a five-sentence paragraph, Davis lines up five kids and gives each a role. She has a wide range of tools to get students excited — and to calm them down, including having them breathe deeply.
'It's My Goal To Be The Best'
Test scores show that Davis' students are advancing. But how does she do it? The Gates Foundation is spending $45 million to find out and to come up with a guide so that other teachers can learn from their colleagues.
They are analyzing test scores, surveying students and looking at thousands of hours of video from teachers who volunteered in six school districts. Davis signed up because she wants to help others and herself.
"It's my goal to be the best, and it's my goal to know exactly what I need to know as it relates to connecting with my students," she says.
Over the past year or so, Davis has been recorded several times. Technicians use a special camera that records a 360-degree view of her classroom. Along with the view of Davis and her students, you can see what she's doing on the board.
The video is sent to researchers off-site who will never speak with the teachers they are watching. Those analysts will scientifically code the steps that teachers like Davis use to reach their students.
"The purpose is to understand what multiple indicators, when added together, would give you a fair and respectful view of a teacher's effectiveness," says Vicki Phillips, who directs education initiatives for the Gates Foundation.
That clinical description of the project, however, masks deep sensitivities about what this approach may lead to.
"I have trepidation about using a camera to evaluate teaching service," says Keith Williams, president of the Memphis Education Association, the local teachers union. He says that no sooner did the Gates project get started than the district indicated it was interested in potentially using cameras as part of a teacher evaluation system.
Williams says he went along with MET's occasional, voluntary recordings because they were for a scientific study. But he says it is not fair to evaluate teachers from afar.
"A person is owed a professional audience" for evaluations, Williams says, adding that teachers deserve immediate feedback.
Filming Itself Changes Teaching
Across the country, teachers groups have warned that test scores alone cannot measure their worth.
Monica Jordan, who is coordinating the project for the district, says the district sees MET as a pathway to get away from subjective measures of teaching used in the past. She says it could lead to frank advice and a conversation like this for those who don't measure up: "Because we've measured you and then we've tried to coach you in these ways to get you up that teacher effectiveness continuum, and you haven't shown progress, we need to have a serious conversation about whether this profession is a good fit for you."
Despite union concerns, many teachers are embracing the MET project as a chance for professional development. In fact, some say the simple experience of being recorded is changing the way they work.
At Central High School in Memphis, freshman English teacher Melony Smith Wellington says being filmed has made her more self-conscious — in a good way. She says she's working harder to figure out which techniques will make her effective, but she can't bear to look at her own videos.
"I tend to overanalyze them," she says. "The first video I ever really watched and tried to tear it apart as far as what I felt I was doing — what I could have done better — made me not want to submit it. And so now I just do the taping, and I leave it alone, and I move on."
Many teachers say they look forward to the project's final report, but that isn't expected until 2012. Their attitude could change, though, if the district decides to build on the project and use video in a new way — one that may affect their future in the profession.