In Sunday’s New York Times, Matt Richtel wrote an article entitled, In Classrooms of the Future, Stagnant Scores. He addressed important issues that educators are struggling with when it comes to assessing the value of technology in the classroom. As he points out,
The digital push here aims to go far beyond gadgets to transform the very nature of the classroom, turning the teacher into a guide instead of a lecturer, wandering among students who learn at their own pace on Internet-connected devices.
In the article, he profiles a school district of about 18,000 students in Arizona, the Kyrene School District. They provide classrooms with laptops, interactive whiteboards and software that drills students in each subject area. Under a ballot initiative in 2005, the district approved the investment of $33 million in technology upgrades.
One concern about this huge investment of taxpayer resources is that they have done very little if anything to improve students’ reading and math test scores in the Kyrene School District. So here are some questions I have:
- Is the point of integrating technology in the classroom to improve student test scores?
- Are the high-stakes tests that students take aligned to the best practices of how technology should be meaningfully integrated into classrooms?
- Are teachers trained on how to help students improve their test scores through the use of technology?
No doubt we can come up with dozens of other important questions that relate to this topic. After reflecting on his article, I think Mr. Richtel failed to explore some of these important questions in his fairly comprehensive piece. He skimmed over many of the critical questions that are on my mind.
From my experience as a classroom teacher who used available technologies regularly in my chemistry classroom, I see the issues surrounding their use to promote more engaged learners in this way.
- First, schools need to develop interesting, compelling and relevant curricula that focus on engaging learners. Efforts in these areas are most important and totally independent on the integration of technology.
- Second, schools should guide and support faculty becoming masters of different teaching pedagogies that will engage diverse learners. Efforts in these areas are another important task of schools and again independent on the integration of technology. Great teachers make the most difference when it comes to improving student achievement. The research on this is fairly clear.
- Third, schools should promote the effective integration of tools that help teachers teach and learners learn. These tools could be books, supplies, audiovisual aids, and advanced technologies. The purpose of these tools is to give teachers and students more flexibility to access the wealth of knowledge at their disposal.
Technology is not an adequate substitute for a great teacher in my estimation. I think we know from looking at some of the best independent schools in the country that great teachers in the midst of class sizes around 15 students is a recipe for developing high-performing learning environments. Why have public schools been so reluctant to research the efficacy of this model? The reason is simple that to replicate this model would have some high costs associated with it. OK! That’s true. But then why do we spend lavishly on technology and not spend on developing classroom models that will best support teachers and learners? Our priorities are really messed up.
Mr. Richtel writes:
Advocates of high-tech classrooms say computers are not intended to replace teachers. But they do see a fundamental change in the teacher’s role. Their often-cited mantra is that teachers should go from being “a sage on the stage to a guide on the side.” And they say that, technology issues aside, class sizes can in fact afford to grow without hurting student performance.
I am tired of this quote, “sage-on-the-stage to guide-on-the-side.” What does that mean and what does that look like? I truly believe we do not understand this concept very well. Can you be an effective “guide-on-the-side” in a classroom of 30-35 students with a curriculum that is not very engaging? In my mind, the answer is no.
So why is the Kyrene school district investing huge amount of taxpayer resources into fancy technology while investing very little into revamping its curriculum and supporting good teachers. It is clear from Mr. Richtel’s article that they are not focused on supporting teachers. He writes:
The spending push comes as schools face tough financial choices. In Kyrene, for example, even as technology spending has grown, the rest of the district’s budget has shrunk, leading to bigger classes and fewer periods of music, art and physical education.
In Kyrene, growing class sizes reflect spending cuts; the district’s maintenance and operation budget fell to $95 million this year from $106 million in 2008. The district cannot use the money designated for technology to pay for other things. And the teachers, who make roughly $33,000 to $57,000 a year, have not had a raise since 2008.
Can you imagine being in a profession that has not seen a salary raise beyond the cost of living since 2008? What kind of faculty morale would that create, even if you provide classrooms with all kinds of fancy instruments? If you have never taught, ask yourself this: “Can you imagine trying to effectively teach a classroom of students that keeps growing in size while the district does little to support you as a teacher? This sounds like a recipe for disaster not a recipe for improvement.
Mr. Richtel writes:
The district leaders’ position is that technology has inspired students and helped them grow, but that there is no good way to quantify those achievements — putting them in a tough spot with voters deciding whether to bankroll this approach again.
“My gut is telling me we’ve had growth,” said David K. Schauer, the Kyrene school district superintendent. “But we have to have some measure that is valid, and we don’t have that.”
Is it really sufficient to answer the question with, “my gut is telling me we have had growth.” With increased spending of millions of dollars on technology and decreased spending on human resources, I think taxpayers should be reassured with more than a gut-level feeling.
I say invest in:
- Improving what we teach students.
- Supporting the development of excellent teachers.
- Developing more authentic and balanced assessments of student learning.
- Supporting the creation of more innovation classroom environments.
- Supporting the integration of teaching tools, like technology, into the curriculum.
These five areas, with the above priority, should be our focus on how to allocate and spend precious resources. Then maybe student achievement will go up because learners will be engaged in what they are supposed to be learning.
Technology tools are seductive, but in the hands of poor teachers with uninspiring curriculum will not transform student learning. In the hands of great teachers with interesting and relevant curriculum will transform student learning. We owe it to our school systems to have better research on the effectiveness of advanced technologies in the hands of good teachers as a means to improve student achievement. Simultaneously, we need to get creative and develop better assessment strategies that authentically and effectively use advanced technologies and/or the skills that are being developed through their uses.
Finally, educators should step fully into this conversation and not let politicians or voters dominate the agenda.