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Friday Guest Column: Making Redundancy a Value of Planning in Public Education

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John Thompson, is a Teacher in Centennial High School, Oklahoma City Public Schools

In much of life, when we want something done right, we build redundancy into the budget and options into the plan. In education, we buy "silver bullets" that will work for every school, every teacher, every student - as long as everyone does their job flawlessly. In sports, we deride "one man teams." In education, we celebrate heroes who defied the odds of systemic uniformity - and then try to replicate their unique accomplishments.

The school improvement industry has provided a vast toolbox of educational technologies, along with expertise regarding their proper mix and appropriate mix. Society has invested enough in public education to allow teachers to pick and choose from the array of tools. In other words, redundancy. Yet, No Child Left Behind and the technological imperative of American business have combined to increase school districts’ intraprenuerial energy, while reinforcing their top-down tendency to settle on one "quick fix."

At the district level, NCLB’s timeline and benchmarks towards 100 percent student proficiency by 2014 create little interest in reforms that would produce real improvements for smaller groups of students. District leaders are looking for something that works for every student. Reformers within the system are incentivized to a) settle on the one best approach, b) promote its use, b) discourage or prohibit alternatives (especially those favored by bureaucratic rivals), and d) press for taking the reform to scale as quickly as possible.

Periodically, my district’s central office administrators mandate the use of tutoring technology. I’m not sure when this cycle was initiated, but the latest round was touched off when someone discovered stacks of unopened tutorials, dusted off a pile of expensive hardware, and calculated the financial waste in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. No one stops to ask why teachers don’t find the technology useful. Maybe the source of the waste lies more with the decision to buy rather than the lack of use.

Congress mandated a scientific evaluation of computerized programs for reading instruction. A massive, multi-year, $10 million, state-of-the-art study of 15 reading and math products concluded, "products did not increase or decrease test scores by amounts that were statistically different than zero." Researchers concluded, "In all of the software groupings, students on the average spent only about 10% of the time," translating into less than 30 hours a year. Moreover, "When we observed the classrooms through the year and interviewed the teachers, we feel pretty confident that 10% of use reflects the sound judgment of the teacher about how often and for what kinds of instructional modules they want to use technology."

So why not aim for 15% usage in the first place, and budget accordingly?
My school is literally in the middle of a gang war. Many times, from the moment the students walk through the metal detectors they are juicing themselves up for violence. Any rational adult knows what Job #1 should be. But several times in those situations, a fifth of our staff or more have been pulled out for online tutorial training. Online tutorials might be the greatest innovation of all time, but many teachers are likely to associate the program with their perception of a central office that is out of touch with reality, hardly the best way to encourage program adoption.

If I had a magic wand, I would require many teachers to use tutorials. (If I had the power and could find replacements, I would take more drastic actions.) But to win bureaucratic battles, administrators must promote their agenda as cost effective, i.e. the lowest per student cost and transformative enough to meet NCLB goals. The "penny foolish" way to do that is to require one approach to teaching for all teachers.

There is a value in textbooks and the expensive materials that accompany them, especially for young teachers and those who do not understand standards. But our texts have always been written over the reading levels of my students, and today we are required to use books that require even higher skills. Pre-NCLB texts that are much more compelling are stored in warehouses. Redundancy would cost little, in other words - redundancy.

We invest millions in computers but ration chalk and consumables. Often, a teacher must request them, and in doing so they are made to feel unworthy. The message is that effective teachers do not want 20th century materials. But it would cost very little to flood our schools with disposable, high interest, appropriately skilled books.

The savings accrued from retaining time-tested and inexpensive materials could fund expensive digital investments, I would prefer the National Academy of Science recommendation that a much more aggressive effort to introduce digital gaming for classroom instruction. But it would be silly to mandate universal usage. Instead, we should recruit young talent who want to pioneer those tools and the level of our digital capital investments should be determined by our success in building human capital. Let all sorts of flowers bloom.

In our dynamic society, the digital world is a force for decentralization, creativity, and choice. The American way is to reject social engineering and rejoice in the multiple ways to skin a cat. Yet American public education has implemented technology in a manner reminiscent of Soviet Five Year Plans. Isn’t it time to education to adopt the value of redundancy?

Relevant podcasts on School Improvement Industry Week Online. Podcasts run 6-10 minutes. They can be streamed on a computer or downloaded to an mp3 player.

A Public School Marketplace: What's in it for Teachers?

• What if the Teachers Unions Bought the School Improvement Industry?: Parts I, II, III

Rules for Educators Purchasing School Improvement Programs

• Organizing the District: Parts I, II, III

2 Comments

John, I want to say, I feel your pain, I really do. To feel compelled by idiots--or those who are simply misguided--to go against the grain of what one believes to be right and successful is the essence of frustration.

That said, I really would appreciate some more careful analysis of where the pressures for change come from, as well as what they require. Edweek yesterday hosted a discussion on school reform--looking at what works. Those who have taken the time to listen to the stories of schools who have turned around have not come back with silver bullet strategies, in fact the summary is that it takes lots of smaller changes.

I can personally feel the urgency of including technology into teaching as the parent of a child whose written output is enhanced (to match with his oral skills) when he is on a computer with word suggestion software. In nearly a decade since this was revealed to me by a forward-thinking OT evaluator, this knowledge has gone almost completely by the wayside. His teachers prefer to "accommodate" his output difficulties by using watered down fill-in-the blank worksheets, or single sentence answers: locate the sentence in the text and copy it over (a laborious process for him). To provide him with assignments worthy of his intellectual capabilities would require that they rethink their approach to accommodation, not just for him, but for their entire classroom of students with disabilities.

Meanwhile they do worry about the gangs in the hallways, but prefer to close their doors and to complain that they cannot "discipline" (read: suspend or expel) students easily enough. There is a district-wide initiative to reform discipline. It hasn't been adequately resourced (not enough training for teachers--a "train the trainer" approach), but there is also no evidence that the concept of prevention of discipline problems has been embraced by teachers in the majority of schools (and certainly not by the union).

My biggest question has to do with how did we get here and how do we change it. To my mind the genius (by sheer serendipity) of NCLB is that while it sets the goals and requires that there be measures and that results be widely disseminated, it is largely silent with regard to methodology. Even requirements that various remedies be "research-based" are widely open to interpretation (or being ignored). Why have we chosen to interpret this openness as a search for a silver bullet?

I recall one of my son's teachers who lamented the district's choice of new textbook (and was allowed to use aligned segments of the old texts with his "special" population). When I shared this with another teacher, she simply was not buying it. Her response was--if we want more appropriate text-books, we have to get on the selection committees.

Your statement that the American Way is to reject social engineering and rejoice in the many ways to skin the cat caught me by surprise. Some of my personal (American) heroes have been women who bought heavily into "social engineering," fighting to bring about systems of public education, public health, public sanitation--all as means of engineering society to better meet the needs of all--and the downtrodden and overlooked in particular.

I don't know much about Soviet five-year plans. I do have some limited experience, however with Cuban improvement planning. There was a time (a better resourced time for Cubans) when this highly impoverished country (or its leaders) decided that a key element in improving conditions and moving up in the world was to reach for 100% literacy. My understanding is that they came very close and in a remarkably short time. It required some creativity (and a phonetically sensible language) and the marshalling of unexpected resources, but with a focus on that outcome, they achieved something much closer to success than we accept as possible regarding our NCLB goals. I don't honestly know if we can graduate 100% of our population. Maybe only 98% or 99%. What I don't understand is why we are debating that point when we stand at 70%.

John,

Well done column.

After one year of teaching in a middle class school system in Massachusetts, in a "traditional" fifth grade classroom, I concluded there had to be a better delivery system. Teaching one math lesson, one science lesson, etc., to the whole class of 32 kids simply didn't work. It was ineffiecient and unfair. For some, I was going too fast, for others not fast enough. So for the next 33 years I developed a system to individualize the instruction based on the appropriate pace for each student. If a youngster demonstrated they learned something to my satisfaction I moved them on. If they hadn't learned it yet they stayed with until they did.

It sounds complicated, but once in place it worked great. Parents loved it and I certaily felt much better as to how I was meeting the needs of all my kids, every day.

Back to your column. I was forever pressing the technology czar in my district for more teechnology that would be helpful in my classroom. The constant response: it was too expensive and it would be frowned upon by the unions to know that teachers or para-professional were being replaced by technolgy.

He did the best he could and I got some helpful programs but never what I thought was available. I was disappointed in its potential to help in a classroom like mine but realized the reality of the situation.

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