Lights, camera, action

video camera

Photo by Frederic Bisson

Way back in 1989, James Q. Wilson defined “coping
organizations” as those in which managers can neither observe the activities of
frontline workers nor measure their results. Police departments were perfect
examples, as supervisors could not watch cops on patrol or easily gauge their
crime-fighting effectiveness. As a result, agencies had to enforce rigid
policies and procedures as the only way to manage their staff.

Then, in the 1990s, New York City introduced CompStat, and
this equation changed forever. The NYPD compiled and continuously updated reams
of crime data, which were used to identify hot spots and problem areas. In
weekly meetings, precinct commanders were held accountable for quickly
addressing crime spikes in their jurisdictions. Suddenly “management by
results” became possible—not just in the Big Apple, but in police departments

But something else also happened in the ’90s: Video cameras
were installed in thousands of patrol cars all across the country. The
rationale was simple: People who got pulled over could be told that they were
under surveillance, making dangerous behavior during traffic stops less likely.
Moreover, if cops knew that they, too, were being observed, they would be less
likely to engage in brutality or unjust searches. Maybe their supervisors
couldn’t ride along with them, but video cameras could serve as partial

Wilson also pointed to schools as prime examples of coping
organizations. “A school administrator,” he wrote, “cannot watch teachers teach
(except through classroom visits that momentarily may change the teacher’s
behavior) and cannot tell how much students have learned (except by
standardized tests that do not clearly differentiate between what the teacher
has imparted and what the student has acquired otherwise).”

As with police, education reformers have spent the last two
decades trying to change these assumptions. On the “managing by results” side,
there has been the big battle over the use of test data for accountability
purposes (CompStat for schools), culminating in the fight over value-added
measurement of teacher performance. Perhaps now we can finally “differentiate
between what the teacher has imparted and what the student has acquired
otherwise.” Yet even advocates acknowledge the imperfections of this approach.
What if a teacher gets great results in student learning, but does it by
“teaching to the test,” or, worse, cheating? What if she ignores important
parts of the curriculum that aren’t easily assessed? Or, on the flip side, what
if her value-added scores show lackluster student progress, but it’s due to factors
completely outside her control?

Understandably, teachers and their unions don’t want test
scores to count for everything; classroom observations are key, too. But, as
Wilson pointed out two decades ago, planning a couple of visits from the principal
is hardly sufficient. These visits may “change the teacher’s behavior,” thereby providing a skewed view of efficacy;
furthermore, principals may not be the best judges of effective teaching. Some
just aren’t much good at that.

So why not put video cameras in classrooms, and use the
recordings as part of teachers’ evaluations?

That’s a question Tom Kane has been asking. Kane, an
education and economics professor on leave from Harvard University, leads a
massive initiative
supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
that is developing new approaches to evaluating teachers, with high-definition,
360-degree cameras at the center. Three thousand teachers in six cities are
participating; for doing so, they receive stipends and lots of feedback from

“There are a number of huge advantages to video,” Kane told
me. “One is it gives you a common piece of evidence to discuss with an
instructional coach or supervisor. Second, it will prove to be economically
much more viable because you’re not paying observers to drive around to various
schools to do observations.” Furthermore, he contends, “If a teacher doesn’t
think that their principal is giving them a fair evaluation because of some
vendetta, they can have an external expert with no personal ax to grind watch
and give feedback.”

The Gates project is focused on using video only for teacher
evaluation, not regular monitoring. Teachers are videotaped only four times a
year, not every day. But why not go further? “That right now for us is a bridge
too far,” said Kane. “When the camera rolls out of the room, teachers know it’s
rolled out of the room.” And in many places, including Washington, D.C.,
collective-bargaining agreements explicitly
restrict the use of “electronic monitoring equipment.”

But it feels like just a matter of time. Already one
company—WatchMeGrow—sells Internet video-streaming services to child-care
centers; parents can log on to their computers at work and watch little Johnny
or Cassie all day long. (Cameras are placed in classrooms, on the playgrounds,
and in other common areas.) It’s not hard to imagine these parents wanting the
same opportunity once their kids graduate to kindergarten and beyond. And think
about the possibilities for curbing school violence or guarding against child

Teachers may scream about infringements on their
“professionalism,” but effective teachers will have little to fear. Already,
their expectation of complete autonomy—that they close their doors and do what
they want—has been undermined by standards, tests, and other reforms of the
modern era. Why not watch teachers in action? Sooner or later, that little
video camera, always on, will just fade into the background.

This piece appears (in a
slightly different format) in the forthcoming issue of
Education Next.

Michael J. Petrilli
Michael J. Petrilli is the President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.