In January, the school district received a shipment of 16 cameras — one for each school plus the central office — made by thereNow, paid for through a grant awarded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Assistant Director of Schools Bill Flanary said the cameras were to be used in a pilot program testing their effectiveness for teacher evaluations, a cornerstone of the state’s accountability reforms under the Tennessee Educator Acceleration Model, or TEAM, program.
Each mobile camera unit contains two video recording devices, one focused on the teacher during her lesson and one trained on the students to gauge their reactions, and microphones to record sound.
Flanary said the teacher and the designated evaluator, either a principal or an assistant principal, would each be granted a “key,” that looks much like a USB flash drive.
When the teacher is ready to record, he or she plugs the key into a slot to start capturing video and sound, and when the evaluator is ready to access the recordings, he or she plugs the key into the device to upload the information to thereNow’s servers.
“They make a video of them doing what they do as professionals, and after it’s over, they can see themselves in action,” Flanary said. “We figured the teacher will watch themselves, and then the principal and teacher would sit down and talk about what they were doing right and how they could improve. The only people alive that will ever see the video are the principal and teacher.”
But some teachers, who said the district never informed them about the upcoming project, are worried that their students’ images won’t be secure on thereNow’s third-party server in Utah, or could be illegally accessed during some other part of the process.
“The largest apprehension was: Once these are on the cameras, how are they going to use them?” Washington County Education Association President Leisa Lusk said Monday. “There’s a privacy issue with the students and their parents giving permission for them to be used anywhere but in the classroom.”
Tony Padgett, the parent of a student in a Washington County school, said he attempted to contact the district with those concerns after he learned cameras were being used in his daughter’s classroom.
“I’m not happy about it at all,” Padgett said. “We have to sign a release every year for our kids’ images to be put into a yearbook, but nobody asked if they can videotape my child?”
Flanary said the district has a strict policy governing the public dissemination of students’ photographs and images, like in yearbooks or when media outlets visit classrooms, but said the school system didn’t feel special permission was needed for the camera evaluations, because only the teachers and the evaluators would be allowed to view the videos.
He said students were already recorded everywhere in school except bathrooms and classrooms, and no one had objected to that.
“But there’s a difference,” Padgett protested. “On security cameras, the videos are in the office, they’re not leaving the property. When the tapes are being evaluated, we don’t know where they’re going to go.”
Objection to the new evaluation process reached as high as Nashville, where state Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, filed a bill this month prohibiting the state Department of Education from requiring a local district to record students or teachers in the classroom.
Hill said he witnessed one of the cameras in use when he visited a Washington County classroom earlier this year and saw the device recording the class.
“We already have an evaluation system in place,” he said from Nashville during a phone interview. “Having teachers and students videotaped without their consent, I think that crosses a line.”
Hill said his legislation would allow a local district to choose to use a camera evaluation system if it desired, but forbids mandates to do so from the state.
“That’s the way it should be,” he said. “I talked to some of the school board members about this, and they said they never voted, they said the cameras just showed up one day. I trust the local school board, and if they think that’s something they should do, then they would be able to vote and approve it.”
Because of some of the legal questions, Flanary said the video evaluation system has been put on hold until the district can get more information, but he said 19 other districts in the state, including Carter County Schools, are currently experimenting with video teacher evaluations.
“I totally understand why people are concerned about cameras in the schools,” he said. “But nobody sees these tapes except professionals. This will bring about better classroom instruction.”