LIANE HANSEN, host:
Larry Abramson, let's talk about higher education because it certainly received a lot of attention this past year.
President Obama declared that the U.S. must raise the number of college graduates in this country. But at the same time, the administration cracked down on for-profit colleges and universities, saying they're burdening students with too much debt. Where is that fight right now?
ABRAMSON: Well, you know, it's coming to a head, Liane. As soon January or February, the administration is going to be releasing new rules that will tighten standards for these schools and could close down a lot of for-profit schools where students are leaving with too much debt.
The administration has a way of measuring this. They say it's going to be fair and it's going to identify schools that are not performing. The industry continues to lobby very heavily against these rules and says it's going to deny opportunities to lower-income students who are most likely to go to these for-profit colleges and universities.
There's since some talk of a compromise, of coming up with a middle ground in the standards that they're trying to set. But I think right now, the industry feels like it doesn't have any sympathy. Over at the Department of Education, they're talking about going to court. And they're going around Congress trying to get more support for, perhaps, legislative relief.
HANSEN: Talk about some issues on the classroom level. Student performance has always been an issue, but what about the emphasis on evaluating teacher performance? How will that issue play out in 2011?
ABRAMSON: Well, you know, this has changed a great deal in 2010. A lot of teachers' contracts that have been approved in places like Baltimore and Washington, D.C., now include some element of teacher evaluation as a prerequisite for getting raises. It's no longer enough just to be in the job for a certain number of years.
But in the end, I think what a lot of people are more focused on, since a lot of these merit pay or performance pay increases don't really offer very much money, they're trying to identify what makes an effective teacher.
And there's one program that I looked at, it's pretty interesting, from the Gates Foundation. They're spending millions of dollars to answer that question - what makes a great teacher great? It's called the Measures of Effective Teaching project, or MET. And it's coming at a time when, as you said, there's a lot of focus on this issue.
Now, this program relies in part on in-class videotapes, and that's raised a lot of concern about other ways those tapes could be used.
Ms. MAHALIA DAVIS (Teacher, Ridgeway Middle School, Tennessee): Okay. Diamond, you have it.
DIAMOND (Student): You have...
ABRAMSON: Watching a good teacher manage a classroom is like being at Mission Control during a rocket launch - there's a lot going on, all at once.
Ms. DAVIS: I need you to be quiet.
ABRAMSON: Mahalia Davis is in her fourth year as a teacher at Ridgeway Middle School in Memphis, Tennessee. She changed careers midlife to become a teacher. But she looks like she's been doing this forever.
Ms. DAVIS: What is he?
Students in unison: The preacher.
Ms. DAVIS: And what is she?
Students in unison: The prophecy.
ABRAMSON: 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 kids excited and to calm them down.
Ms. DAVIS: Breathe in.
(Soundbite of breathing)
Ms. DAVIS: Breathe out. Okay...
ABRAMSON: 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. They're surveying students. And they're also looking at thousands of hours of videotape from teachers who volunteered in six school districts.
Mahalia Davis signed up because she wants to help others and herself.
Ms. DAVIS: 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.
ABRAMSON: Over the past year or so, Davis has been taped several times. She shows me a video of one recent class.
(Soundbite of a videotape)
Ms. DAVIS: When I say appearance, what does the word appearance mean? Okay, Lauren.
ABRAMSON: Technicians use a special camera that records a 360-degree view of her classroom, along with Davis and her students who can see just what she's doing on the whiteboard.
The video is being sent to researchers off-site who will never speak with the teachers they're watching. Those analysts will scientifically code the steps that teachers like Davis use to reach their students.
Vicki Phillips directs education initiatives for the Gates Foundation.
Dr. VICKI PHILLIPS (Director of Education, Gates Foundation): The purpose is to understand what multiple indicators, when added together, would give you a fair and respectful view of a teacher's effectiveness.
ABRAMSON: That clinical description of this project, however, masks deep sensitivities about what this approach may lead to.
Mr. KEITH WILLIAMS (President, Memphis Education Association): I have trepidation about using a camera to evaluate teaching service.
ABRAMSON: Keith Williams is president of the Memphis Education Association, the local teachers union. He says 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 tapings because they were for a scientific study. But he says it's not fair to evaluate teachers from afar.
Mr. WILLIAMS: A person is owed a professional audience to do that, and one who can give immediate feedback.
ABRAMSON: Across the country, teachers groups have warned that test scores alone cannot measure their worth.
Monica Jordan, who's coordinating the project for the district, says Memphis sees MET as a pathway to get away from subjective measures of teaching used in the past. That could lead to frank advice for those who don't measure up.
Ms. MONICA JORDAN (District Coordinator, Measures of Effective Teaching, Memphis): And because we've measured you and then we've tried to coach you in these ways to get you kind of up that teacher effectiveness continuum, and you haven't shown progress, we need to have a serious conversation about whether or not this profession is a good fit for you.
ABRAMSON: 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 taped is changing the way they work.
At Central High School in Memphis, freshman English teacher Melanie 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 more effective. But she can't bear to look at her own tapes.
Ms. MELANIE SMITH-WELLINGTON (High School English Teacher): I tend to over-analyze them. 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've 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.
ABRAMSON: Many teachers say they look forward to the final report, which isn't expected until 2012. Their attitude could change if the district decides to build on this project and use video in a new way, one that may effect their future in the profession.
HANSEN: That's NPR education correspondent Larry Abramson. Larry, thank you for that report.
ABRAMSON: Thank you, Liane.