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Education Opinion

Who Will Work in the Schools of the Future?

By Robin J. Lake — April 18, 2012 4 min read
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Note: Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) at the University of Washington, is guest-posting this week.

Chapman Snowden was really interesting last week, wasn’t he? (Plus, he has such a cool name.) I loved that he pushed the tech industry to pay more attention to the needs of end users. But Chapman also mentioned a big problem we have to face up to: “Too often,” he wrote, “schools throw tools into the hands of teachers without consideration for the specific conditions needed for success. While these conditions can be policy based, more often than not they are related to specific processes or beliefs within the school. And they can be changed to adopt and implement innovative tools.”

That was a nice way of putting something we all know but are reluctant to say: Many U.S. teachers are technologically illiterate and actively resist the new technologies principals and district leaders throw at them. It’s well past time we talked about what kinds of training and supports we have to muster so that school staffs can and will take advantage of the ways the world is changing around them.

Let’s face it: the people evangelizing about how technology will transform teaching and learning can be kind of annoying and hyperbolic. But the Luddite naysayers are wrong, too. The only way that industries become dramatically more productive is by employing new technologies to shift service delivery. In the 21st century, education will be no different. None of that potential will matter, though, unless teachers, principals, and central office leaders become equipped--quickly--to take advantage of what technology could do for them. Right now, we’re a long way off from the kind of open-mindedness, comfort, and skill that’s necessary for such a big culture shift.

The best technological innovations really are transforming the way kids learn and the way schools are organized. Some, like School of One in New York, are completely redefining how we staff schools, so that instructional hours are customized daily to each student’s unique learning needs. At Carpe Diem and Rocketship schools, the darlings of the “blended learning” world, technology makes it possible to pay higher salaries to fewer teachers who act more like highly specialized coaches than classroom instructors. A barrage of new apps and open source software are entering the market, allowing students, teachers, and parents to create their own playbooks of courses and supports. Of course, the hype surrounding many of these individual examples can be deafening, but their promise is too great for us to dismiss.

CRPE hosts a periodic innovation forum to look at what these and other innovations can do for Washington State. Nearly every session begins with enthusiasm about the innovations being presented, and ends in a depressing conversation about the inability of ed schools to train teachers to use--and want to use--these tools. Districts and states should take a lesson from New York City’s iZone, an effort to bring innovative tech models into existing schools. Early implementation suffered from inadequate training and engagement of teachers.

Principal training for the schools of the future is at least as worrisome. Leadership training programs based in ed schools focus too much on education theory and social justice, where they should be more concerned with turning out principals who can judge good instruction and manage teachers’ performance. Tomorrow’s principal will need to act as a wise consumer of the latest technology tools, help teachers adapt to new teaching styles, evaluate teacher effectiveness when much of students’ time is computer-based, and assess whether students’ tech-based experiences are adding up to a coherent set of skills. Few if any training programs are preparing principals for those new roles.

And what about district central office staff, who currently spend most of their time overseeing program compliance? The most forward-thinking districts are pushing employees to learn how to oversee school improvement and monitor performance, but it’s not coming easily. How are these same staffers, most of whom were teachers and principals trained in old-school instructional techniques, going to learn how to select and integrate from a fast-moving and complicated array of tech industry products? How will they recruit and hire educators who are well equipped to work in highly flexible, team-based environments rather than standing in front of a class, in some cases with co-teachers who are digital rather than human?

Even before throwing in the tech factor, we have a massive human capital problem in public education, especially in high-poverty schools. Our selection, preparation, and in-service training models are not designed to support high-performing organizations for the 20th century, much less the 21st. We need to act quickly to remedy that.

We can start by mapping the skill sets required for people who will teach in and run the schools of the future. The harder part will be figuring out how to recruit, train, and support them. It will take creativity and collaboration, open minds and tough conversations. And above all, it will take a common understanding that the answer doesn’t lie so much in the technology itself, but in what we do with it.

--Robin Lake

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.