Sunday, January 8, 2012

We Don't Need No Stinkin' Teachers

It's simply amazing what happens when people get elected to statewide office. They seem to become experts on everything. Today's Exhibit A is education, specifically in Idaho and New Hampshire, where the legislatures have passed legislation that not only threatens the role of teachers in their classrooms, but also undermines their expertise and reduces them to penitents at the altar of official incompetence.

I've been thinking about Idaho for most of the week. Not just because I used their yummy potatoes to make latkes for Chanukah (this should be Idaho's official dish), but because of a law passed last year that mandates the use of technology in public school classrooms and requires students to take two online classes in order to graduate high school. What's wrong with that, you say? Plenty, because it was passed with no teacher input and is based on faulty educational premises.

Why would any state pass rigorous teacher certification requirements and observe educators for a number of years to make sure they're competent, only to ignore them when making key decisions about how to implement a costly program of technological innovation? That's what happened in Idaho. Teachers had almost no input into the law, and even though the Governor said this was not a first step in reducing the number of teachers in classrooms, that sentiment was contradicted by the online course requirement.

It's not a leap of imagination to believe that if the online component proves successful, either academically or economically, then the course requirement would be increased. Further, part of the funding for this program would be taken from teacher and administrative salaries, which is usually the first step towards the self-fulfilling prophecy that says since we need computers and they cost money, we need to reduce staff because we're paying too much in salaries.

The even larger concern is the legislature's, and governor's, ignorant attitude towards the classroom teachers. From the article:

Idaho is going beyond what other states have done in decreeing what hardware students and teachers should use and how they should use it. But such requirements are increasingly common at the district level, where most decisions about buying technology for schools are made. 

Teachers are resisting, saying that they prefer to employ technology as it suits their own teaching methods and styles. Some feel they are judged on how much they make use of technology, regardless of whether it improves learning. Some teachers in the Los Angeles public schools, for example, complain that the form that supervisors use to evaluate teachers has a check box on whether they use technology, suggesting that they must use it for its own sake. 

The most effective scenario for any change in the curriculum is to have teachers at the table engaged in the process they will be asked to implement. Educators are the experts in child development, learning theories and styles, and how best to guide their particular classes (which change every year) so that every child has the opportunity to learn at their optimal level. When politicians get involved, you get attitudes like this:

For his part, Governor Otter said that putting technology into students’ hands was the only way to prepare them for the work force. Giving them easy access to a wealth of facts and resources online allows them to develop critical thinking skills, he said, which is what employers want the most. 

When asked about the quantity of unreliable information on the Internet, he said this also worked in favor of better learning. “There may be a lot of misinformation,” he said, “but that information, whether right or wrong, will generate critical thinking for them as they find the truth.” 

First, technology is not "the only way" to prepare students for the work force. Teachers know that technology can be a valuable tool in the classroom, but there are many other skills that students need to learn. Tell me how a computer teaches a student interpersonal skills. Tell me how technology actually teaches a student correct spelling, grammar and usage (and no, a red or green underline doesn't count). Tell me how a computer teaches someone how to negotiate for their salary. Tell me how technology alone teaches critical thinking skills. Tell me how technology teaches organizational skills. Tell me how technology teaches a student which websites contain legitimate information and which do not.

The truth is that teachers teach these skills. They can use technology as their activity or resource to support and facilitate the lesson's educational objective, but the technology is not the end itself. So when the governor says that technology is the only way and that computers themselves can teach critical thinking, he's wrong. And that's exactly the problem with the Idaho initiative. I applaud its goals. Classrooms should have technology available to all students because not all homes are equipped, but education decisions must include teachers. Even the students in Idaho's schools get what the state's leaders miss:

Last year at Post Falls High School, 600 students — about half of the school — staged a lunchtime walkout to protest the new rules. Some carried signs that read: “We need teachers, not computers.” 

Having a new laptop “is not my favorite idea,” said Sam Hunts, a sophomore in Ms. Rosenbaum’s English class who has a blond mohawk. “I’d rather learn from a teacher.” 

New Hampshire's new law has nothing to do with technology. I wish it did, because it's even more frightening and potentially damaging to teachers and public schools. This Nashua Telegraph article tells the story, and here is a summary:

Public schools can now be forced to come up with an alternative to any lesson or assignment that a parent finds objectionable.

On Wednesday, the Legislature overturned a veto from Gov. John Lynch on a bill, HB 542, that will require school districts create a policy “allowing an exception to specific course material based on a parent’s or legal guardian’s determination that the material is objectionable.” 

The legislation does not attempt to define “objectionable,” giving parents complete discretion.

So essentially, any parent can't walk into any public school and demand an alternative curriculum by objecting to any lesson plan they want. As opposed to Idaho, Governor John Lynch vetoed this bill but was overridden by the Republican majority. The effect is the same, though. Teachers will now have to look over their shoulders at every turn and will need to craft alternate lessons, indeed an alternate course, if one parent objects. This not only undermines educational professionals in New Hampshire, but also subjects the schools to even more political mischief in the form of pandering to particular groups and stirring up dissent over familiar targets like sexual references, defense of non-western religions and vocabulary that others find objectionable. All you need to do is read the comments under the article to see what kind of damage awaits New Hampshire's educational community (Pete Perkins, you are my hero). Yes, parents will need to pay if there's a cost involved, but replacing a book or video for one child would have minor economic repercussions.

But there's also the matter of the new national test score craze.What happens when a parent opts their child out of enough lessons and the child doesn't perform well on the tests? Who's responsible? Is it the teacher's job to develop an alternative state test to measure what that students has learned in their curriculum? Will the parent be responsible for the parts of the test that the student never learned (already know the answer here). How can a teacher prepare all students when there are so many potential changes due to parent objections? Who's thought this one through (already know the answer)?

As a resident of New Jersey, I am used to having politicians with no teaching backgrounds expound on their damaging ideas. Governor Christie is a fan of using test scores to evaluate teachers, but he ignores the research that says how difficult it is to design an accurate evaluation model or the economic and curricular impact of testing every student in every subject every year. He's also excluded public school teachers from a panel that studied reform ideas that, surprise, concluded that Christie's ideas were more beneficial.  

A recent New York Times article used the Value Added Model to reinforce the idea that good teachers have an impact on their students that reaches far beyond the classroom. What makes a good teacher according to the research? Why, one that raises student test scores. I call this Reinforced Illogical Garbage, or RIG. And right now, the system is RIGged against informed, rational, collaborative educational policies that tap into the enormous knowledge base of teachers, who actually know best how to educate children.

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  1. I've seen plenty of kids with more technology than they can carry, and that seems to be more of a problem than a solution. Many kids are technologically literate but informationally illiterate. While they can find and download a pirated song or game in nanoseconds many are challenged by anything requiring a modicum of research and/or analysis.

    As far as politicians and parents dueling over graduation requirements, standardized testing, and minutiae such as specifics of lesson plans, students will lose and teachers [will continue to be] made the scapegoats. Perhaps this attempt to marginalize teachers as mere facilitators is part of the master plan to revamp compensation to the realm of the part-time cleaning staff?

    Mr Grundfest: care to postulate on where this is all going in 5-10 years?

  2. It's true that students know technology, but they only seem to know how to do tasks that relate to their lives as opposed to globally functional activities on a computer.

    My sense is that as we get more young teachers, who grew up with technology, into the classroom, this transition will become less problematic. Students will be allowed to use their machines freely, but the teacher will be able to monitor each device via a screen at their desk, or on their device. This will cut down on students doing whatever they want during class. Ultimately, I think we'll rebound from this anti-teacher sentiment as the far right goes into decline. That will begin to happen this year, but will take some time for the mouse to move through the snake.