Joel Klein who was the chancellor of the NYC department of education under Bloomberg, published a insightful piece in the Atlantic a few months ago. Perhaps “insightful” is not the right word, as the article is more reassuring than anything of all the things that we already suspect wrong with public education system: teachers are incompetent, money is misspent, everyone blames anyone else, unions don’t care about anything except political power and cash, etc etc. There are some nice tidbits that give an idea of the backwardness of the whole educational enterprise, such as the quote from Albert Shanker, the late head of the UFT (Unified Federation for Teachers) “When schoolchildren start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of schoolchildren.” Somehow this just about sums up about the situation at large. The whole article is definitely worth a read, but what interests me for the moment is in the last few paragraphs where Klein discusses ways to improve the system and in particular via the use of technology:
But one of the best things we could do is hire fewer teachers and pay more to the ones we hire. And, as in any other field, technology can help get us there. If you have 5,000 math teachers, many of whom are underperforming, significantly improving overall quality is nearly impossible. But if you get the best math professors in the world—who are great teachers and who deeply understand math—and match them with great software developers, they can create sophisticated interactive programs that engage kids and empower teachers. Why not start with such a program and then let teachers supplement it differently, depending on the progress of each student?
This immediately springs a dilemma on me.
On the one hand, I completely agree and being a mathematician, long interested in education, and working in the technology side of the private sector I see many possibilities to make products that will aid in the process. We could make software that engages students and challenges them to think in a myriad of different ways. In a school with limited resources and few teachers in advanced subjects we could video link students to teachers in real-time, or to even university professors who are willing to help. This would provide a classroom experience that is otherwise unattainable. We could develop better assessment techniques for both teachers and students during the process of creating new technology. The sky seems to be the limit. I would love and find it amazingly satisfying, to work on such projects – they would be fun, challenging, and combine many of the things I am interested in. I am not the only one – Cathy, I am sure, would also jump at such an opportunity, as well as many others who have been watching US education fall into shambles enveloped in empty political discourse.
On the other hand…. Good education does not require any technology, or much sophistication in any way shape or form. Even in today’s age the most technologically advanced piece of equipment that you need is a blackboard and chalk (colored chalk if you really want to break boundaries). Yes, I am sure some of you are already wiggling in your seats about to hiccup an objection, but but what about computer literary and such things. Well, what about them?! Something tells me that anyone with a birthdate that makes me feel old is not going to have a lot of computer use issues, at least on a basic level. And of course, I am not opposed to technology based classes that teach students to think, such as programming, in school. What I fear is that going down the road of “we need to make our educational system technologically advanced” will just mask the problems at hand and create further rounds of finger-pointing, blame, and misspent funds. After all, effective education curriculums have been around for quite some time and we don’t need to infuse more options, we just need to make the basics work better. If you are doubting, just take a look at countries that teach well and you’ll realize that before becoming the most advanced technologically driven education system in the world we just need to make the basic, classical if you’ll allow me, system one first.
My mother works for the US military teaching at one of the biggest language education bases in the country. Once or twice per year someone at the top comes up with an idea in the form of “if we just had this gadget our students would be the best, our military would be the best, our intelligence would be the best, any objections?!” Of course, there are never any objections because who would object to better students and all that, so funds are allocated, money is spent and gadgets arrive. It takes a few months for the teachers to figure out the best ways to use these things, or how to use them at all, and by that time a new wave of upgrades are already in the works. The old are soon replaced by the new and since no one is ever willing to take responsibility for having spent a huge amount of money on such a short-lived endeavor the old are put into their final resting place. This is an immense warehouse full of tape players, cd players, laptops, ipods of every generation – thousands and thousands grave stones of great ideas and progress.