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

January 18, 2008 4 min read

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

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