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Memphis City Schools teachers get an earbud-ful of class coaching

Ohanian Comment: BZZZZZ. Big Brother calling: Bill and Melinda Gates want to put coaching earbud headphones on teachers across the country. The Gates Foundation gives Memphis schools barrels full of money. And look at what happens next. They call it tailoring professional development. And guess who sees "lots of promise" in coaching teachers through earbuds--while they're teaching? Teach for America.

"We want to know, does it speed up the timeline in which a teacher develops?"

What kind of a timeline are we talking here? After all, most TFA people move on to more lucrative environments after two years.

Get this: The plan is to deliver this coaching model to the world. From the coach's mouth to teachers' ears. From Memphis, coaches will deliver instructions to teachers worldwide, helping them understand what it feels like to be successful.

Question: Can a teacher listen to the coach and to the students in her care at the same time?

Item: Lauren Braun Costello and Russell Reich offer important information in Notes on Cooking:

Twenty-four cooks assigned to the same mayonnaise recipe--the same bowls, same spoons, same eggs. same mustard, same oil, same whisks, same peppermills, same measuring cups, same room, same time of day, same marching orders--will create twenty-four different mayonnaises.

If a master chef, someone who had written a 200-page book detailing the four domains of mayonnaise-making responsibility and spelled out the 22 components of those domains, including the 76 descriptive elements that further refine our understanding of what mayonnaise making is all about, and then coached those 24 cooks--through earbuds--would they still create 24 different mayonnaises? Or would the chef be able to whip them into producing a standardized product?

Item:The NCTE 2011 Education Policy Platform is so busy supporting the LEARN act, with its allegiance to prescriptive "skills" training that it doesn't have time to address Gates' taking over teacher professional development. Maybe if NCTE officials ever get their heads out of the Congressional sandbox (they call it "having a seat at the table"), they'll address the issue of Gates takeover of education practice and policy.

By Jane Roberts

Some wired-for-sound city school teachers are testing the value of real-time coaching that the NFL has made as common as a Sunday in the park.

Through earbud headphones, the teachers hear cues from experts observing from the back of the room.

"Once a teacher understands what it feels like to be successful, it takes root immediately," said Monica Jordan, coordinator of teacher professional development in Memphis City Schools.

"The teachers get training first. It's not like someone walks in and shoves an (earbud) in your ear and starts rattling in your ear," she said.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is funding the work in Memphis, Tampa and New York, hoping to prove that tailoring professional development raises the needle on test scores.

When Jordan asked for teacher volunteers, 15 came forward.

"We have both ends of the spectrum. People either enjoy it or they're saying this is not a good fit for me. That's OK. That's what we are trying to find out," she said.

Cynthia Law, algebra teacher at White Station Middle, is one of nine teachers in favor. But she had her reservations.

"I thought, what if they say something in my ear and I lose my train of thought?" she said.

"And then I thought, so what if I lose my train of thought, I'll figure it out," Law said. "I'm not a play-it-safe person. I'm willing for my kids' sake to look foolish."

Teachers at American Way Middle and Wooddale High are also participating.

Teach for America in Memphis sees so much promise it is spending $15,000 to conduct its own earbud research next year.

"Essentially we are looking at a control group that doesn't get coaching to see to what extent coaching and real-time feedback enhances the process," said Athena Turner, TFA executive director.

"We want to know, does it speed up the timeline in which a teacher develops?"

The back-and-forth between the coach and teacher is happening through walkie-talkies now. As early as March 2, the coach could be anywhere in the world, coaching with digital video feeds from Memphis classrooms.

That alone, researchers say, holds enormous promise for the future of professional development programs, which tend to be delivered to teachers in one-size-fits-all doses.

As districts push to improve instruction, they're also focused on professional development. Last year, MCS increased its development budget 49 percent to $2.2 million, hoping stronger programs and online access would pay off in test scores.

"I think this new approach gives you an opportunity to differentiate professional development based on teachers' own strengths and weaknesses," said Thomas Kane, a Harvard University researching working with the Gates Foundation.

Kane's hypothesis is that teachers who can watch themselves work will see places to improve.

"Next year, we would hope to have enough classrooms so we can start to answer that question," Kane said.

Memphis ordered 11 180-degree cameras at $4,500 each. When parent permission slips are returned, the cameras will be set up in classroom corners.

"We're asking teachers to watch themselves and reflect," Jordan said. "What does it feel like to be your own observer? ... What would you tell yourself if you had to give yourself feedback?"

The technology is so new that the cameras, which also record audio, are being built as they're ordered.

"Memphis is right behind Harvard's order," Jordan said.

If teachers agree, the video could be used for coaching and perhaps eventually as a way principals and other experts will observe teachers for performance reviews and tenure evaluations.

"There's no reason that couldn't be done by video," said Charlotte Danielson in Princeton, N.J. Her "Framework for Teaching" is the basis for the teacher evaluation rubric currently used in Tennessee.

"It takes a lot of training to do a good job of observing. It's not just a checklist and going into a classroom, tick, tick, tick.

"Nothing worth using would be done that way."

Jordan is firm that those decisions will be left to teachers.

"Honestly, we are waiting to hear from them: Do you believe this works for everybody or does it need to be tailored specifically to individuals?"

— Jane Roberts
Commercial Appeal





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