Cameras in classroom would increase school accountability

in Column/Education/Ray Peterson

By R. Ray Peterson, Cowley, WY 

Accountability from our schools has been an ongoing concern for years as the Legislature has struggled to understand how much the state spends for the results received. I remember a bill I sponsored years ago in an attempt to address this issue. 

The measure was nicknamed the “camera bill,” but its actual title was “Improving Teacher Evaluations.” It passed introduction, only to fail in the Senate Education Committee by one vote. Simply put, it was a concept for a pilot program to put cameras in the classroom to use for evaluations and provide security for both teachers and students. 

I thought it was an ideal time to implement the concept as we were building schools at a fast pace. The pilot program was to involve four schools, each of a different size, around our state. The program would continue for one year and a report on its effectiveness would be given to the Legislature.

The nexus of this concept came when I asked a few retired teachers how they were evaluated over the many years they had taught. Their answers were varied and inconsistent, which led me to believe that teacher evaluations across our state were somewhat of a “hit and miss” process. Stories of teachers suing school districts for wrongful termination or superintendents being reluctant to fire teachers with guaranteed contract status because of the personal hits they took led me to take a serious look at the evaluation process or how we might improve the process to address these concerns.

Think of it! The student and teacher would never know if the principal or instructional facilitator were watching! This alone would have a positive affect for both the student and the instructor. 

I only wish that every citizen from our state could have seen my presentation of this bill to the Senate Education Committee. Many certainly would have been entertained while listening to the point/counter-point between the Wyoming Education Association representatives and myself. It was classic. Perhaps this is where I made myself an enemy to these folks. 

Anyway, this idea was meant to be an additional tool an administrator could use to evaluate teachers. No disruption of the classroom with personal visits, no tip-off to give the teacher a chance to prepare. And the best part? Now a recording could be reviewed by the teacher, principal, the instructional facilitator and one of the parents of a student. 

Wait, a parent? How dare we suggest such a thing! Hold on, let me explain. The parent was to attend the viewing and submit a simplified evaluation form. Did the teacher seem prepared? Did he or she seem to maintain class discipline? Simple and basic questions. Then the parent representative would be asked to leave. Then the three people remaining in the room would get down to business while making recommendations and assignments for improvements as needed. The instructional facilitator would be assigned to work with the teacher in certain areas and all three would be required to sign off on the evaluation report. A work plan for improvement would be made, assignments given and a follow-up visit would be set to re-evaluate for these areas to be worked on. Think of the effect this would have on wrongful termination lawsuits. Or more importantly, how the schools could address the strengths or shortcomings of a teacher or administrator!

So why the parent involvement? In order for this to work, we must first, insure that the evaluations are happening. The parents group representative attends the monthly school board meeting to report on how many evaluations parents have participated in that month. Now everyone is on the hook! Not just our teachers and students but everyone from parents to administrators. No personnel problems or employee confidences are threatened. Just a quick report on whether the evaluations are happening to the school board and superintendent. 

Make no mistake, evaluations are the hardest part of school administration, but also the most critical. New school buildings and curriculum have less to do with a student’s education than a teacher’s desire and ability to teach. I would encourage parents around our state to ask their school administrators how teacher evaluations are performed in their own school districts. How often they are performed? How is the follow up performed? Who is involved in carrying out the improvement plans for an under-performing teacher? What you may find out could surprise you. It is as varied as you could imagine, from no evaluations to some. 

When I asked for myself, I was surprised to find out that the teacher was asked by the principal if the principal could attend a class sometime in the future. The time was set by the teacher and I’m sure the preparation began. I’m sure everything went to plan and the evaluation was deemed a success. I thought to myself, ‘How many things were wrong with this type of an evaluation?’ From reporting the evaluation to the effectiveness of the actual evaluation. Where was the hook or accountability for any of the players that we deem critical to our child’s education?

Second, we would reduce the wasteful wrongful termination lawsuits. Not only would we have documentation of the evaluations signed by all parties, but also from the instructional facilitator. This person is the best qualified teacher in each district, assigned the task of assisting other teachers become better instructors. The principal and the instructional facilitator would both work at improving the quality of teaching in our schools. This would also reduce concerns of personal attacks, inconsistent evaluations, new administration, personality conflicts and surprise terminations. Proper and consistent evaluations should remove all of these concerns.

Third, this proposal would involve and make more players accountable than just our teachers. Parents need to be more involved. How could a principal use the recording of a parent’s child struggling in one of their classes? How could parents reporting to the school board each month help improve the performance of our principals in conducting regular evaluations? If I were serving on a school board and the parents reported to us that they had been invited to only one evaluation that semester in a school with more than 20 teachers, I would think that we have a problem in evaluating our teachers consistently and properly.

Finally, this program would focus the efforts of not only our teachers and students but also our instructional facilitators, principals, parents, school board members and superintendents on educational excellence. If we really believe that education is the most important thing we do in this state, then I would ask the question, what is wrong with this concept? These are public institutions of learning and we have the technology to improve our efforts, so why not implement a pilot program to see what the effects might be? 

As a closing thought, having cameras in most parts of a school would only add to the security of our students and faculty. Bullying would be handled properly with video evidence being used to show all parties involved. 

Throwing additional money at a problem does not always solve the problem. Sometimes more effort is required. Maybe some courageous legislator can blow the dust off of my old bill and introduce it again. But beware of those that want nothing to do with accountability in our schools because they will come out in droves in opposition to this effort. More money is what they want.

I remain convinced that if implemented, this one improvement could do more for the quality of education in this state than anything else we could possibly do. More so than additional money or higher salaries, new buildings, more activities or even improved curriculum. This one effort to improve evaluations in our schools would hit the bullseye for boosting the quality of education in Wyoming. It would certainly eliminate the wrongful termination lawsuits. It would blow a hole through the guaranteed contract status of teachers and would provide the proper incentive to continually improve education efforts in schools. 

I’ve always believed that if evaluations were done correctly, we would have better teachers, happier teachers, accomplished teachers and better test scores for our students. Is it any wonder why our friends at the WEA were opposed to this concept? It did not fit with their desire for higher wages, guaranteed positions with less accountability. Perhaps it’s time for a new organization that puts our students first. W4E. Wyoming For Education. I would hope that such an organization would not fear innovation, technology, accountability, and responsibility.

Now who is serious about educating our children?

Ray Peterson served as a state senator for 13 years, from 2005-2018. He lives in Cowley.

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