The latest development in the never-ending struggle to improve teaching involves “A bug in the ear” AND “A fly on the wall.” This insect-based approach has a highly-trained but distant observers watching (on closed circuit video) teachers at work and giving them instructions and suggestions in real time, so the teachers can modify methods and instantly improve their instruction.
According to Education Week, what’s called ‘Bug in the Ear Coaching” is being used in about a dozen states. “The premise is simple: A teacher wears an earpiece during a lesson, which is being live-streamed for an instructional coach who is somewhere else. Throughout the lesson, the coach delivers in-the-moment feedback to the teacher, who can add something or switch gears based on what she’s hearing in her ear.”
I reached out to some of the sources I developed in my 41 years of reporting for a closer look. One enthusiastic superintendent, who requested anonymity, said that the system would pay for itself in higher scores on standardized tests. “While the initial investment of $500,000 per school for cameras and directional microphones for every classroom, a dedicated room of monitors, the cost of a half-time tech person, and the salaries of the instructional experts who monitor the teachers, looks like a lot, once those standardized test scores go up, it’s smooth sailing.”
Are there other costs, I wanted to know?
“Our experts wanted all the teachers to wear identical loose-fitting shirts and blouses to minimize sound interference. I had a great deal worked out with the company that makes the uniforms they wear at the federal penitentiary in the next county.” He chuckled, “But without stripes, of course.” However, he explained, the teachers union shot the idea down.
He (and some educators cited in Ed Week) say that most teachers like the immediacy of the system, saying that instant feedback is really the only kind that sticks. “It was really nice to feel supported and get direct feedback in the moment,” a special education teacher in Washington State told Ed Week.
However, when I reached out to some veteran teachers I respect, I found no support for the approach. (Stop reading here if vulgar language offends you.)
One woman, call her Mrs. Jones, scoffed, “I would sooner have ants in my underpants then have some so-called expert muttering in my ear. If you want to help me get better at teaching, come to my classroom.”
“Likewise,” her male colleague, call him Mr. Smith, agreed. “A bug in my ear? No way! I would rather have a tick on my dick!”
Wanting to know more, I arranged to spend a day with an expert who monitors teachers to help them improve. We met in the small windowless room where he spends his weekdays. Mitchell Rheese is in his late 30’s, a former Teach For America member with an MBA who also spent four years with McKinsey. He allowed me to make audio recordings but no video or photographs. Below are transcripts of three interactions, slightly edited for clarity. (I have changed the names of the teachers to guard their privacy.)
1: First period Social Studies, Mrs. Burris:
The entire class, including the teacher, sat silently for about 90 seconds, while Mr. Rheese grew visibly agitated. Finally he spoke quietly but forcefully, “Mrs Burris, you appear to be wasting valuable instructional time. This is not good! May I remind you that the state exams are fast approaching!”
She answered quietly, “Sir, we are observing a moment of silence. One of my students lost his twin sister last night. A drive-by shooting. She was sitting on the stoop talking with friends, and now she’s dead. Everyone is hurting, and I decided that peace and quiet would be the most supportive gesture we could make. In a minute, we will all hug each other, and then try to move on. I hope you understand.”
“Of course I do, and my thoughts and prayers are with your student. But district guidelines specify that moments of silence should not exceed 45 seconds. And hugging is specifically prohibited. May I make a suggestion?”
“Don’t get into fruitless discussions of gun control and gun violence, because that’s not part of the unit you are supposed to be covering: How a Bill Becomes a Law.”
2: Third period American history, Mr. Cody
Mr. Rheese watched intently, again growing visibly agitated. Not by silence, but by the noise level. We could hear loud laughter and shouts of encouragement from students. Mr. Cody appeared to be smiling broadly, and at one point got up to clap a student on the shoulder. Finally Mr. Rheese spoke to Mr. Cody.
“Mr. Cody, have you lost control of the classroom? Should I call the principal’s office?”
“It’s all good here, sir. We’re studying the Gettysburg Address, and my assignment was for them to deliver a modern version. Perhaps in a song, maybe a sonnet, maybe rap. And that last one, the rap version, was just off the charts terrific. I am so pleased.”
“I don’t see why you are pleased. I am not. How does rap help prepare your students for the exam? Do they know when Lincoln delivered the speech? Do they know how many words it was, or how long it took for him to deliver it? That’s what’s going to be on the test.”
“Let me ask them. Hey, kids, how many words are there in the Gettysburg Address?
At this point we could hear a chorus of ‘Who cares!’ and ‘Why does that matter?’
“Tell them, Mr. Cody, that the Gettysburg Address contains 272 words and it took two minutes to deliver. That’s all they need to know for the state exam. And I will see you on my next visit to the school.”
That hadn’t gone well, and so I asked Mr. Rheese whether ‘Bug in the Ear Coaching’ might be a better fit for math instruction. He said we would monitor a 9th grade Algebra class. “This should be straight-forward,” he told me, as he consulted the state syllabus. “The goal for today is to learn the formula for the area of a polygon, a 4-sided figure with irregular length sides. The students are supposed to solve 12 problems during the class period and another 18 for homework tonight. Repetition, repetition, repetition, that is the key to learning!”
With that he turned to the monitor showing Mrs. Ravitch’s Algebra class. He expected to see kids in rows at their desks, but what we saw were small groups of students, three or four, huddled around desks, whispering and sketching.
“Mrs Ravitch, what on earth is going on? Your students are supposed to be learning how to find the area of a polygon. Why are they gossiping? Why aren’t they doing the problems?
“They aren’t gossiping, sir. They are trying to figure out the formula.”
“You are supposed to TELL them the formula so they can solve 12 problems before the bell rings!”
“Yes, I know what the state recommends, but, if I give the formula to them, they will forget it once the test is over. If they figure it out themselves, they’ll own it, because the key to genuine learning is students’ wanting, needing, to know. Once their curiosity is engaged, there’s no stopping them. Can I tell you how I am getting them involved?”
Mr. Rheese did not respond, and so she continued.
“First, I drew a polygon on the board and told them it was a big tract of valuable land. They owned half, and I owned half, but we wanted to make sure we divided it equally before we sold it. So we had to figure out exactly how much land we had. They jumped at the challenge, and I will bet that at least one of the small groups will get it right. Once they do, then we will do some problems.”
“Mrs. Ravitch, I hope you know that you are not going to fulfill the state requirements today, and that’s not good for your career.”
“Maybe so, but I will bet you that every one of them will always remember the formula.”
“I am not a gambler, Mrs. Ravitch, and I don’t think you should be gambling with your students’ futures.” He paused. “And your own.”
At that point Mr. Rheese terminated our interview and my access to “Bug in the Ear Coaching.”
As for me, perhaps if I did more reporting and dug deeper, I would change my mind about “Bug in the Ear Coaching”, but right now I feel exactly the way Mr. Smith does.
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