In Part 1 of this story, we shared how a little-known Gates Foundation grant pumped over $3 million into the Tennessee Department of Education to create a classroom video collection and sharing project, with video data and notes stored on a server owned by the camera company, thereNow.net.
From talking with the camera project director, Courtney Seiler, the TDOE never had a plan for how children’s images would be protected. In fact, the TDOE left data security to each system to manage on its own, with varying results.
For instance, Putnam County officials indicated that letters were sent home for parents to sign in order for permission to be granted for their children’s data to be captured, stored, and shared. In Washington County, however, no one knew the cameras existed until late December 2013, when building level educators learned that video data collection would be used during teacher evaluation observations. According to the Director for Secondary Education/Career and Technical Education, Bill Flanary, no action was required by the local school board, and no parental permission was sought prior to implementation of the video data collection project.
On January 14, during a monthly Washington County Education Association meeting, many teachers heard for the first time that cameras, furnished through the thereNow Project, would be used in their classrooms to collect video as part of their observations for teacher evaluation.
Teachers had many questions: Who will see these digital images? What if we don’t want to be videotaped? Why weren’t we told about this at the first of the year when we were informed about evaluation procedures for the 2013-1014 school year? How did Washington County get picked to do this? Will parents be notified that students will be videotaped?
With teacher concerns numerous and pushback certain, Leisa Lusk, the WCEA President put in a call Dr. Bill Flanary to get answers to their questions. That week the halls of Washington County schools buzzed about the coming snow and the mystery cameras.
On January 17, Lusk emailed WCEA teacher representatives and stated, “Dr. Flanary is going to send out an email to assure everyone that the only people that can look at their film without their permission is their evaluator.”
Emails began to circulate among teachers with information about the thereNow website, showing that thereNow is already being used in research studies conducted by Harvard, the University of Michigan, and the Gates Foundation.
Was the thereNow research connected to the Gates’ Foundation MET Study? The MET study used videos in researching teacher evaluation and has been critiqued by leading researchers in educational assessment at NEPC (http://nepc.colorado.edu/thinktank/review-MET-final-2013).
One Washington County teacher logged-in at the MET research site and asked this question, “Are Washington County Schools in TN part of this study. I am a teacher for Washington County and have heard we have just received cameras from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation for videotaping our teacher observations. I would like to know if this is part of the MET study/program.”
The teacher received a reply from a researcher at the University of Michigan:
Teachers from Tennessee are included in the Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project but only teachers from the Memphis school district, which Wikipedia tells me is in Shelby County not Washington County. Also, the video collection period for both the MET project and a later extension of the project have both been completed. Your district may very well be getting video equipment to record evaluations from the Gates Foundation, but if so, I know of no plan to add that video to this collection. However, I am not an employee of the Gates Foundation. I work for the University of Michigan as part of a research institute that specializes in publishing and archiving research data. I have no knowledge of Gates Foundation workings outside of publishing and archiving the MET project.
Unsatisfied, teachers began to compile questions reflecting their concerns:
1. How did the video component of the Gates’ evaluation plan come to Washington County? The second Annual Report on Teacher Evaluation (www.tn.gov/education/doc/yr_2_tchr_eval_rpt.pdf) says “Sixty wide-angle video cameras were deployed to 55 schools during the 2012–13 school year and nearly 100 more will be deployed during the 2013–14 school year,” but it does not say where they would be deployed.
2. Why did we find out about the cameras in Washington County from WCEA instead of our individual building administrators or central administration?
3. What information will be shared with teachers about the videotaping process and the data collected?
4. How much input will teachers have into this process?
5. Who will see these videos? Teachers only? Teachers and principals only? Teachers, principals, and central office staff? Gates’ staff of video reviewers?
6. Did state and local governmental bodies approve the collection, storage, and transfer of video and audio data from classroom interactions? If so, which ones?
7. Will there be consent forms for teachers to sign that explain the full extent of the purposes for and uses of the videotapes?
8. How will parents be informed that their children may be videotaped for transfer and storage by third parties for research purposes? Will they sign consent forms? What if they do not wish their children to be videotaped?
9. What protocols will be established and followed to guarantee responsible conduct of research, per requirements of U. S. Government Statutes, Regulations and Policies, as well as State of Tennessee statutes and pending legislative initiatives?
10. Does the use of these videos violate any privacy, confidentiality or other policies that protect teachers and students? Will we receive assurances about this in writing?
11. Will these videotapes be part of this year’s evaluation process? If not this year, then when?
12. Will these cameras be used at other times besides the designated evaluation times?
13. Can these videotapes be subpoenaed for legal purposes?
Teachers’ growing confusion became compounded by two bills in particular that were introduced by Delores Gresham and Bill Dunn, respectively, to the current Tennessee legislative session. The first bill, SB1469 (referred to the Senate Education Committee on Jan 15, 2014), “prohibits collection or reporting of certain student individual data without parental consent or consent of the student, if the student is 18 years of age or older. - Amends TCA Title 49.” (http://wapp.capitol.tn.gov/apps/billsearch/BillSearch.aspx)
The second legislative bill that concerned teachers was HB1549, introduced by Bill Dunn of Knoxville. This bill “establishes requirements for the adoption of educational standards; prohibits use of student data for purposes other than tracking academic progress and educational needs of students.” (http://wapp.capitol.tn.gov/apps/billsearch/BillSearch.aspx)
Teachers wanted to know how Washington County’s new cameras and video data collection program fit within this new statutory framework that is being introduced? Teachers wanted to know, too, where their own professional rights and responsibilities fit within this new program. One teacher stated that she did not want Bill Gates “to have any ownership of her image.”
On Sunday, January 26, principals and WCEA building representatives received word from Dr. Flanary via the WCEA President concerning some of the questions teachers had about videotaping in their classrooms. Flanary’s email stated that the county’s tech personnel were having some technical issues with uploading the video at school, due to the size of the files. Therefore, administrative evaluators would have to upload the videos at home until the school districts’ tech staff could resolve those technical issues with the help of thereNow’s staff.
His email further stated that to maintain the trust of the staff the videos could only be seen by the observed teacher and the principal and no one else without the observed teacher’s permission. If principals chose to give teachers copies of the video, they were to be reminded that the videos were for their professional use only, that “they contain student images and cannot be viewed publicly as a whole or in part without parental consent.”
There was still no word about a waiver that teachers would sign giving their permission to be videotaped and how parents would know this was happening.
Principals began meeting in mid-January with their faculties to discuss cameras in the classroom. Teachers in these meetings asked questions about privacy issues for themselves and their students, questions that teachers had been asking each other and their principals, individually. Lots of “what if” questions on legalities, logistics of using these cameras during the unannounced observations, and rights as to an individual’s image were among the most emotionally-laden questions.
Teachers reported that very few of the questions were answered but teachers were assured by administration that if they wrote down their concerns and questions and gave them to the administration, they would get the answers.
Teachers were also told the cameras would not replay video, so videos would be uploaded to an “account” to which only principals would have access. Principals assured teachers that videos would only be seen by the administrator and the observed teacher.
In answer to the question concerning why the videos had to be uploaded to the thereNow site and not a local site, the reply was that the files were too large for uploading on local sites and the thereNow site would make accessing the files easier for administrators and teachers to view. There was no mention that the contract with there.Now required the data to be uploaded to company servers in order for it to be reviewed.
Before many of these questions had answers, Washington County, as well as other counties across the state, are presently engaged in active videotaping of teachers and their students without the parental knowledge or permission and without any waivers given to the teachers.
Stay tuned for Part 3.