Tuesday, September 6, 2011

What Makes Sammy Learn? Robot Teachers Yes, Human Teachers No

Millions of dollars are at stake in education programs like “Race To the Top”. Determination of where federal money goes is highly dependent on student test scores. Whether a teacher is fired or not is dependent on student test scores. In NYC schools are graded from A-F and closed based on student test scores.

Yet according to a detailed
investigative report
, in a town (Kyrene, AZ) where millions were spent on technology in the classroom, student scores didn’t improve. And we’re talking about a lot of money:

Under a ballot initative approved in 2005, the district has invested roughly $33 million in such technologies [as laptops, big interactive screens and educational software.

Since 2005, scores in reading and math have stagnated in Kyrene, even as statewide scores have risen.

The same people who tout testing as the be-all and end-all dismiss the importance of Kyrene’s scores. Perhaps not surprisingly, many of those touting technology in the classroom have close ties to companies which produce these products. Some are major players in the administration:

Karen Cator, director of the office of educational technology in the United States Department of Education, said standardized test scores were an inadequate measure of the value of technology in schools. Ms. Cator, a former executive at Apple Computer, said that better measurement tools were needed, but in the meantime, schools knew what students needed.

Kyrene’s class sizes are increasing and teachers, who have not had a raise since 2008, make a median wage of $45,000. Many have second jobs to make ends meet. Money budgeted for technology cannot be used for any other purpose in the school district:

“We have Smart Boards in every classroom but not enough money to buy copy paper, pencils and hand sanitizers,” said Nicole Cates, a co-president of the Parent Teacher Organization at Kyrene de la Colina, an elementary school. “You don’t go buy a new outfit when you don’t have enough dinner to eat.”

Education budgets in areas other than technology have been slashed. The sole determinant of proof of student learning, test scores, so prized by educational reformers like Michele Rhee, does not show that technology without qualified teachers increases learning. There is no way to separate the effects of technology versus the effects of teaching on student learning.

But there are undoubtedly winners. The sellers of educational technology. They carefully track which school districts get federal funding and tax assessments for technology, then spring into action. The director of technology for the school district has decision-making power over spending those millions. Sometimes it’s used to replace that which is deemed “obsolete”. Kind of like “planned obsolescence”, where a household products company might add “X-Factor” to a detergent to shake up sales:

Last summer, the district paid $500,00 to CCS [Presentation Systems, a leading reseller of Smart Boards in Arizona] to replace ceiling-hung projectors in 400 classrooms. The alternative was to spend $100,000 to replace their aging bulbs, which Mr. Share [the director of technology at Kyrene] said were growing dimmer, causing teachers to sometimes have to turn down the lights to see a crisp image.

Mr. Dunham [a salesman for CCS] said the purchase made sense because new was better.

But Ms. Kirchoff, the president of the teachers’ association, is furious. “My projector works just fine,” she said, “Give me Kleenex, Kleenex, Kleenex!”

My advice to educational reformers who spout the wonders of unproven, high-cost, “sexy” technology at the expense of the rest education exercise some consistency in how they quantify the efficacy of reform. Are student scores important, or aren’t they? When faced with technology, do people in positions of power make decisions based on their intuition:

”My gut is telling me we’ve had growth,” said David K. Schauer, the superintendent [in Kyrene].

Or do they simply quantify teaching ability? That’s backwards. Technology is consistent, a fungible thing. Teachers are human beings, adaptive, social and capable of learning.

You better figure out how to educate future generations before you blow your wad on toys. No taxpayer will put out for a subsidy toward $100,000 x whatever for new bulbs. Unless they’ve been solely educated by technology salesmen and spokesmen.

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