Education

Easier Does It

May 01, 2004 3 min read
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The Internet is gradually helping teachers manage their careers.

If it weren’t for his state’s high-tech recertification system, science and health teacher Ted Polette would have been up a creek without a paycheck last fall. Polette, who teaches at Clancy Elementary School in Montana, took some professional development courses last summer so he could renew his teaching certificate. Since the courses were required, he assumed the course transcripts would be mailed to him as a matter of course.

They never arrived, but his renewal deadline did. In the past, Polette would have been off the payroll for weeks. He would have needed to manually order the transcripts, mail in his application, then wait up to six weeks for the two-person state licensure office to send him a new certificate before he could collect his held-up salary. Luckily for Polette, Montana has a new system that allows teachers to renew their certificates online. He was able to log on, fill out a form, pay a fee, then print a new certificate from his computer—in about 15 minutes, and without missing a paycheck. “The online system really saved my butt,” Polette says.

Such high-tech administrative systems are hardly the norm in public education. Teachers in only a handful of states can apply for recertification online, and in general, schools lag far behind the private sector when it comes to automating or simplifying administrative chores with technology. “We’re back in the dark ages,” says Don Blake, a senior technologist at the National Education Association. Still, educators say technological modernization, inchmeal though it may be in most schools and states, is slowly but surely trimming teachers’ administrative burdens.

In Massachusetts, one of the more technologically advanced states, not only can teachers renew and track certificates online; they can also post résumés, search for jobs, read profiles of districts, and contact schools about openings. All of that is old hat in most industries, but many states still don’t have centralized education job listings; would-be teachers must call a hotline, search an unofficial job bank, or contact individual districts. “Technology could help speed up those processes,” notes Jamie Horwitz, a spokesman for the American Federation of Teachers.

Another innovation, the digital portfolio, helps prospective teachers present themselves and their skills. Like the paper-based portfolios required for graduation from many schools of education, digital portfolios can include lesson plans, graded assignments, teacher evaluations, and other materials. But by using Web-based applications, special portfolio software, or simply assembling files from various programs, teachers can publish a portfolio on the Internet or burn it onto a CD instead of lugging a three-ring binder. Electronic media also allow teachers to incorporate audio and video clips of their classroom techniques. “It really showcases who they are and what they know,” says Natalie Milman, an assistant professor at George Washington University and coauthor of The Digital Teaching Portfolio Handbook: A How-To Guide for Educators.

Professional development courses are also beginning to exploit the advantages of the Internet. Teachers in states and school districts partnering with Teachscape, a company that offers professional development online, can access video demonstrations and interviews, discussion areas, research materials, and activities whenever they have time to log on. And in Montana, the Office of Public Instruction is adding streaming video to its Web site so teachers can view training workshops without traveling to a centralized location. “A big issue in Montana is that there’s a lot of miles to travel,” says Steve Meredith, who runs the OPI site.

Taking the use of technology one step further, the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence’s Passport to Teaching allows aspiring teachers to bypass traditional certification requirements by completing a one-year online course and passing an examination and background check. States have been slow to approve the program, however. Pennsylvania did but then dropped it in favor of a process that includes a classroom component. And though the Idaho Board of Education recently approved Passport to Teaching, the initiative has encountered opposition from state legislators and some school officials. “Teaching takes an enormous amount of preparation, practice, and interaction,” says Cindy Bechinski, curriculum director for Idaho’s Moscow School District 281. “That does not come through a computer.”

—Denise Kersten

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