D.C. Schools Aim for Selectivity by Requiring Teaching Candidates to Give tryout lessons

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(Courtesy of The Washington Post)

Tereasa Sowers, a middle school math teacher for six years, knew the lesson cold. She’d walked hundreds of students through solving systems of linear equations. It was the 360-degree digital camera planted at the front of the classroom that she wasn’t sure about.

The guest appearance by Sowers in an eighth-grade pre-algebra class at Jefferson Middle School was an audition, part of an effort by the District to bring more rigor and selectivity to its hiring.

With research showing that teacher quality is the dominant in-school factor driving performance on standardized tests, the District is joining a national movement to push cameras into the classroom. The objective is to capture the elusive recipe for teaching’s “secret sauce” — the attributes and practices that make educators effective.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is spending millions of dollars in an effort to define “measures of effective teaching,” a project that compiled video recordings of more than 24,000 classroom lessons in Pittsburgh, New York, Tampa and elsewhere. The District also has received a Gates grant to develop a video library of clips showing the school system’s top teachers in action. It will be rolled out as a professional development tool in the next school year.

The D.C. Public Schools hiring initiative is unusual because officials are relying on cameras at the front end, using classroom video to help screen job candidates.

“For many years DCPS was known as ‘Just show up and you’ll get a job,’ ” said Jason Kamras, chief of human capital for the school system. He is also an alumnus of Teach for America, a recruiting program known for selectivity.

“We would like to be one of the elite places to teach in America and for people to know that you’ve got to be really good to teach in DCPS,” Kamras said.

Teacher recruiting has traditionally been about resumes, references and interviews. Tryouts under actual classroom conditions remain rare. For example, a new survey of Los Angeles teachers by the National Council on Teacher Quality found that only 13 percent were asked to do a sample lesson as part of their screening.

With its audition requirement, the District is seeking to set a higher bar than its high-performing suburban schools. Neither Fairfax nor Montgomery county schools require a sample lesson, officials said, although some principals have asked for them. Fairfax is one of many systems that use the Gallup Teacher Insight Survey, an online test designed to screen candidates for core beliefs and capacity for engaging students in learning.

For Sowers, 29, who has taught in Prince George’s County and now works at Francis Hammond Middle School in Alexandria, the audition was the final hoop in a regimen that included an online “pedagogical content-knowledge test,” asking her to analyze a math problem a student had gotten wrong and to devise a strategy for re-teaching the material. Next came a 30-minute interview at D.C. school central offices, where she was asked to teach a 10-minute lesson in front of senior teachers on a topic of her choice. Sowers chose multiplication of polynomials.

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