Show and Tell for Teachers, Inspired by Reality TV

Show and Tell for Teachers, Inspired by Reality TV

Published: August 15, 2012

Great teaching, it is sometimes said, is one of those things where you know it when you see it. Now, teachers in Washington will be able to see a lot more of it.

In deference to a world enthralled by shows like “Extreme Makeover” and “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” the public school district in Washington has hired a reality television company to produce videos intended to improve the skills of its teachers.

The 80 videos, 5 to 15 minutes in length, are peppered with quick jump cuts, slick screen labels and a jaunty soundtrack. In short interviews and classroom snippets, the district’s highest-performing teachers demonstrate how they teach a range of lessons, from adding decimal numbers to guiding students of differing ability levels through a close reading of the Marshall Plan.

The videos, financed by a $900,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, were developed as a complement to Washington’s evaluation system, known as Impact, in which teachers are judged on student test scores and classroom observations.

Through these evaluations, versions of which are being put in place across the country, teachers receive feedback on the areas where they need to improve, as well as a numerical rating. But many of Washington’s teachers complained that they needed examples of the highest performing level.

“Teachers were saying to us, ‘Just be very clear about what good teaching looks like,’ ” said Kaya Henderson, Washington’s schools chancellor.

Because teachers spend most of their days isolated in their own classrooms, they rarely get a chance to observe their peers. The videos give them a way to peek behind the closed doors of their colleagues.

“Some things are much more easily conveyed through video than just words and text,” said Dan Cogan-Drew, director of digital learning at Achievement First, which runs nonprofit charter schools in Connecticut and New York and is among several charter groups — including KIPP and Uncommon Schools — that use videos for professional development.

Now, with new national curriculum standards driving teachers to modify their longstanding teaching practices, a broad range of school districts, universities, companies and nonprofits are rushing to develop online video libraries showing model teaching.

A nonprofit group allied with the New York State Department of Education is developing a series of about 200 videos demonstrating lessons aligned with the Common Core standards for reading and math that 45 states and the District of Columbia have adopted. Teaching Channel, a nonprofit, has a collection of more than 500 professionally produced videos of teachers recommended by school districts and other teacher organizations. The University of Michigan is indexing about 16,000 videos of fourth- through ninth-grade English and math teachers in six urban districts shot by researchers financed by the Gates Foundation., a popular sharing site for lesson plans, is working to develop a video component. And hundreds of amateur clips have been uploaded to YouTube by individual teachers.

Given this growing mountain of videos, “as much effort needs to be put into how to use this stuff as collecting tons of it,” said Deborah Loewenberg Ball, dean of the University of Michigan School of Education.

Education experts warn that video needs to be part of a broader program of professional development, comparing the use of video in teaching to how it is used by athletes.

A diver, for example, might want to watch clips of a top-performing competitor, said Thomas McDougal, executive director of the Lesson Study Alliance, a nonprofit education consultancy in Chicago. “But can the diver now go into competition, ready to do that dive? No.” Mr. McDougal said.

In Washington, evaluators and principals will recommend specific videos to teachers. Jill Nyhus, senior director of technology for the Washington schools, said principals or instructional coaches would also convene gatherings where teachers could discuss the videos.

Ms. Henderson, the chancellor, said she was initially skeptical.

“When you come home from a long day of teaching, do you want to whip out a professional development video and watch somebody else teach for 45 minutes? Heck, no,” she said. And, she wondered, “how do you make watching teaching sexy?”

The district hired Judith Stoia, a former producer with a PBS affiliate in Boston, and joined with Big Fish, a local independent production company, to create Reality PD (for professional development).

Jonah E. Rockoff, an economist at Columbia University who has studied teacher evaluation systems, said he was not convinced that the lowest performing teachers would “watch a video and a light bulb goes off.” But with extra coaching, he said, teachers in the middle range might well improve.

Dwight Davis, a fifth-grade teacher in Northeast Washington who has been rated “effective” three years running, said that after watching a video of Melanie Agnew, a 12th-grade English teacher at Calvin Coolidge High School, leading a class in analyzing “The Man With the Hoe,” a poem by Edwin Markham, he wanted to apply some of her techniques. “I said, ‘You know what? Why can’t I just use this and add this and take this away?’ ” he said.

But the video was just a beginning. “I was like, ‘What was your first step, and then what was your second step?’ ” said Mr. Davis, who has taught for nine years. “I really wanted to ask the teacher questions.”

A version of this article appeared in print on August 16, 2012, on page A15 of the New York edition with the headline: Show and Tell for Teachers, Inspired by Reality TV.

Similar Posts