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No Relief for English Teachers

Every subject taught in high school has its unique downsides. But as a former English teacher for 28 years in the same high school, I'd argue that grading student compositions has to be the most arduous in terms of time and effort. That's why I was elated to hear about computer scoring because its designers claim "virtually identical levels of accuracy" as essays graded by teachers.

But a closer look dampened my initial enthusiasm. According to Les Perelman, a director of writing at MIT, automated readers are easily gamed ("Facing a Robo-Grader? Just Keep Obfuscating Mellifluously," The New York Times, Apr. 23). The reason is that substance does not matter to the computer - merely form. For example, essays that are lengthy, contain sentences with many words, use connectors, and are sprinkled with stilted vocabulary receive high scores. Moreover, facts are of no concern.

I don't oppose the $2.2 billion spent on educational software in 2010 because I realize that technology has the potential to transform classrooms. But it's important to bear in mind that breakthroughs in education are nothing new. Recognizing past disappointments, the Department of Education last year launched what it termed a unique public-private partnership called Digital Promise ("A Digital Promise to Our Nation's Children," The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 19, 2011). The bipartisan initiative is supposed to change teaching and learning by the use of new technologies, at the same time creating a business environment that rewards innovation and entrepreneurship.

It all sounds so promising. But there is little evidence that heavy reliance on technology improves learning. For example, the Kyrene School District in Chandler, Ariz. has spent approximately $33 million since 2005 in making all its classes technology-centric. Yet since then, scores in reading and math have stagnated, while statewide scores have risen in the same period ("In Classroom of Future, Stagnant Scores," The New York Times, Sept. 3, 2011). Supporters claim that the scores do not reflect student engagement and other non-cognitive outcomes. That's true, but it's hard to justify such expenditures when teachers are being laid off.

The one group certain to benefit from the blind faith placed in technology are the companies involved. They track districts receiving federal funding and those passing tax assessments for technology. On the basis of the data, they make their sales pitches. But I seriously question whether anything will ever replace the professional judgment of teachers about what students have learned. For English teachers, in particular, that unfortunately still means long hours reading student compositions.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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