A New Lens on Teaching

Can teacher-controlled video cameras transform the classroom observation process?

December 10, 2014
Woman illustration

When your supervisor points out a flaw in the way you do your job, you probably try hard to receive the criticism constructively and use it as a prompt to do better. But despite your admirable maturity, you’re human, and you may also feel defensive, or resentful, depending on your relationship with your boss. Or you may just feel confused — what she flagged may have gone unnoticed by you, or may not feel like a relevant indicator of your abilities.

All performance reviews are vulnerable to this kind of disconnect, but when it comes to classroom observations as a measure of teacher effectiveness, the stakes can feel particularly high. Classroom observations are not new, but they have been largely perfunctory in recent years, with more than 98 percent of teachers receiving the same “satisfactory” rating. A number of states are trying to restore integrity to the evaluation process (for instance, training and certifying supervisors on a formal rubric and encouraging supervisors to differentiate more meaningfully). But implementation has been uneven for a number of reasons, including inadequate training of supervisors, supervisors who lack content knowledge outside of their own subject, and the difficulty of finding time to do all the required observations.  

Assessing the Promise of Video

Is there a better way? Researchers at the Best Foot Forward project at the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University are testing the hypothesis that there is. In a controlled study now in its third year, they are looking at the effects of a new evaluation system that gives video cameras to teachers and allows them to record the lessons they choose. The teachers then view the recorded sessions and select the videos they want to submit for observation. Before submitting, they can even share the videos with peers to get feedback, possibly choosing to rerecord certain lessons for formal review. 

The process of selecting the videos to submit, researchers surmised, would allow teachers to closely consider their own practice, weigh and correct any missteps, and submit those lessons that truly reflected their abilities. The observation process would become more valuable to them, and it would generate a more concrete foundation for a richer post-observation conversation and for lasting improvements to practice. Researchers also wondered whether the video process would reduce the scheduling headaches that principals contend with as they juggle multiple in-person observations of every teacher. Finally, researchers wanted to know whether they would see any change in student achievement following the introduction of video observations.

Observations Transformed

Although it’s too early to assess that last question, the early results of the study bear out many of the project’s hopes, suggesting that video has the potential to transform the observation process into a far more meaningful tool for teachers and principals. Best Foot Forward — led by faculty director Thomas Kane and project director Miriam Greenberg — was piloted in 2012–2013 in 100 classrooms in New York City, Georgia, and North Carolina. Last year, more than 400 teachers and administrators from districts in Delaware, California, Colorado, and Georgia joined the study. (Another 88 teachers joined the study from Los Angeles Unified School District this year.) Roughly half the schools are allowing teachers to submit videos in lieu of in-person classroom observations, and the other half are continuing to do in-person observations.

Findings that have emerged thus far, drawn from post-observation surveys of participating teachers and administrators, include the following:

  • Compared to teachers who received in-person observations, teachers using video reported that their post-observation conversations were less frequently adversarial. Compared to administrators who observed in the traditional way, administrators using videos reported that teachers were less often defensive when receiving feedback.
  • Teachers who used video observations rated the observation process as more fair and more helpful than teachers in the traditional process. They said they gained insight into their lesson pacing, their time management, and their questioning strategies.
  • Teachers using video were more likely than their traditionally observed peers to be able to identify a change in their teaching practice that resulted from administrator feedback.
  • Administrators have reported that they prefer watching videos to scripting, saying that the video observations allowed them to focus on specific moments and provide concrete feedback linked to those moments. But they felt that the videos didn’t provide as much information about student understanding as classroom observations did. They also reported that the use of videos made observations easier to schedule, since they could watch at any time, but that the video process didn’t significantly reduce the overall burden on their time. 
  • Teachers who used the video process were significantly more likely than the control group to support the use of video for observations in the future (even though all the study’s participants had volunteered to use video for the study.) 
  • Best Foot Forward has tested and assessed a variety of technological solutions during the study period in order to find the most efficient and cost-effective equipment and develop a set of recommended practices. 

A report on the first year impacts (2013–2014) is due out this winter. For more information, visit the Best Foot Forward project.

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