Special Report

Teaching the Teachers

By Mary Ann Zehr — November 10, 1997 19 min read

Over the past two years, Duncan Hollinger has gone from having no computers in his classroom to having four. He’s also gained Internet access and acquired a printer.

But he’s still teaching pretty much the same way he always has.

“If you have 30 students and four stations, all of a sudden you have to do a lot of redesigning of how to present the material,” says Hollinger, a music teacher at LaSalle Middle School in Niagara Falls, N.Y. “You have to change your style of teaching to accommodate or individualize.”

So far, Hollinger says, no one has showed him how. Although the district taught him how to use various computer programs—and even provided him a laptop to practice with—little of that training addressed ways of weaving technology into daily instruction. And he doesn’t have the planning time to revamp his lesson plans.

Experiences such as Hollinger’s are all too familiar, national education experts say. They warn that a lack of adequate teacher training—or of any teacher training at all—could mean that much of the money being spent on hardware and software is going to waste.

“Often, states will spend millions on equipment, and may only spend a fraction—2 or 3 percent—on training,” says Glen Bull, an education professor at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. “If you’re not training, you’re throwing money away.”

There is little nationwide data on what percentage of teachers have received technology training, and even less on what form that training has taken. But a 1994 survey by the U.S. Department of Education shows that only 15 percent of the nation’s teachers had had at least nine hours of instruction in educational technology.

In part, the dearth of time devoted to training is a result of the lack of funding earmarked for that purpose. If a school’s equipment is to be used well, experts generally agree, at least 30 percent of a technology budget should be spent on professional development. In fact, the average figure is just 15 percent, according to a 1993 survey of districts by the research firm Market Data Retrieval.

Bull says administrators and policymakers tend to think they’re getting more for their money if it goes for something they can touch, and they can’t touch training.

“Clearly, you can show hardware and software to the community,” agrees Carol E. Edwards, the director of programs for the National Foundation for the Improvement of Education. Still, she thinks some other issues better explain the lack of funding for teacher training.

“There’s some notion that if one spends money on teacher training, you’re taking it away from direct spending on students,” she says.

In addition, Edwards says, many people believe that teachers ought to pay for their own training. “There’s something about that old factory model that says, ‘If you want to learn, you need to go out and do it on your own, and, if you’re lucky, you might become a supervisor or manager.’ ”

Of course, just because a district pays for training doesn’t mean it will be effective.

A poll of 582 teachers conducted this year by the Global Strategy Group for Jostens Learning Corp. found that 71 percent of the respondents said basic computer training was available. The proportion dropped to 48 percent when respondents were asked whether they had access to training for integrating computers into classroom instruction.

“If I told you how many courses I’ve taken in computers, you would roll on the floor,” says Bonnie Bracey, an Arlington, Va., teacher who was appointed by President Clinton to a federal panel on information technology from 1993 to 1995.

The problem is, those courses had “no connection to what I teach,” she adds. “It took us a long time to figure that out.”

Indeed, experts in instructional technology say, as the Internet and educational software become a larger part of daily school life, teachers need to adjust to no longer being the sole source of information for their students. In many cases, teachers might be less familiar with the technology than their students.

Teachers who use technology also must learn how to manage their classrooms differently. They need to become more comfortable with different students doing different activities at the same time, and they have to make sure all of their students—not just those who feel confident with technology—have a chance to use it.

“We’re taking teachers and trying to transform them into something very different than what they signed up for,” says Michael R. Haney, a program director for funding teacher training projects at the National Science Foundation.

Haney offers himself as an example, saying he went into teaching years ago because he liked giving a lecture and having a stage presence. “There was nothing about my training that taught me how to have kids go in eight different directions,” he says.

Technology training would be more effective if teachers themselves were involved in planning it, but they usually have no more than a token role, says Larry Cuban, a professor of education at Stanford University.

“The way that training is being framed,” he says, “is that teachers need to be trained in order for computers to be used in classrooms, and if teachers aren’t using computers, then it’s the teachers’ fault.”

Administrators and policymakers are often worried most about getting the equipment into the schools as soon as possible, Cuban says, while teachers have practical questions, such as how the technology should be incorporated into the curriculum.

“Whose questions are going to be heard—the administrators’ or the teachers’?” he asks rhetorically.

Larry Martinez, the administrator for school technology and information services for the Niagara Falls district, where Hollinger works, isn’t blind to charges that teacher training hasn’t included enough practical applications for the classroom.

But he responds that it’s been hard to get teachers to share information about what they teach so he can make the training more relevant. And, he says, some teachers expect technology to do too much.

“Teachers seem to want a perfect package—a perfect 7th-grade software program for blond-haired, blue-eyed students—and it’s not going to happen,” Martinez says.

The need for training is particularly strong among veteran teachers who earned their certificates years before the personal computer entered the market.

In the 1993-94 school year, the most recent year for which data are available, 24 percent of elementary public school teachers and 26 percent of secondary teachers were 50 or over, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Nearly a third of the teaching force had been teaching for more than 20 years.

But even many young teachers who are familiar with technology don’t know how to use it in a classroom.

“I couldn’t even tell you some computer programs that would help a child with reading or with math,” says 23-year-old Kathy Nestor, a special education teacher at Hood School in Lynn, Mass. She expects to receive a new Apple computer with a CD-ROM this year for her class and says she’ll “definitely need training.”

Nestor didn’t have any technology training at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts, from which she received degrees in English and special education in May 1996. She recalls that only once—in a course about testing—did a professor tell students about the use of technology in education.

Norma Horan, a principal for St. Timothy’s School in Columbus, Ohio, interviewed 30 people for five teaching positions at her school this year. The candidates were mostly young recent graduates from state universities.

During interviews, she says, “I ask them to rate their level of computer knowledge. Most respond either ‘non-user’ or ‘beginner.’ Very rarely do I get someone who says ‘very comfortable.’ ”

Kathleen Fulton, the associate director of the University of Maryland’s Center for Learning and Educational Technology, says colleges of education have been slow to integrate technology into their own curricula, in part, because many faculty members are too removed from K-12 classrooms.

“Most of the innovation in technology is at the K-12 level, not in higher education,” says Fulton, who was a senior analyst and project director for the now-defunct congressional Office of Technology Assessment.

A May 1996 survey of schools of education shows that only 45 percent of faculty regularly used computers, televisions, and VCRs as interactive instructional tools during class periods; 53 percent occasionally used some electronic technology to present information in class. Fifty-eight percent of schools of education didn’t have any classrooms wired for the Internet; 19 percent had no World Wide Web site. The survey was conducted by the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education and the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education of their 744 member institutions.

NCATE hopes to increase those figures by requiring schools to meet technology standards for accreditation after the year 2000. “We want to see technology move from the periphery to the center of teacher education,” says Arthur E. Wise, the president of NCATE, which accredits about 40 percent of the nation’s schools of education.

A report released in September by an NCATE task force offers recommendations for what the new technology standards should entail. It says, for instance, that colleges of education must be required to show how the role of technology is part of their main plan for teacher preparation.

“We are seeing this report as a way to send a signal well in advance,” Wise says.

One school that ranks among the current leaders in technology training is the University of Washington. The university requires all its education majors to take a course in basic computer skills or test out of it. Faculty members are encouraged to present educational technology examples in every course, and the school tries to match students for observation or student teaching with teachers in the community who use technology well.

Allen Glenn, the dean of the university’s college of education, says it’s more complex than most people think to merge technology skills with teaching and learning.

“The fact is that not a lot of people know how to use technology as effective instruction,” he says.

Glen Bull says it’s taken the faculty at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education a long time to figure out how to integrate technology into the curriculum without it seeming contrived. In fact, a committee has met twice a month since 1977 to identify how best to integrate technology into the teacher education curriculum.

Nearly all members of the education faculty make use of technology in their courses, Bull says. All education majors there are required to take a course that introduces them to the broad range of technologies they might use for instruction.

Colleges of education in North Carolina and California, meanwhile, will soon be required to emphasize technology.

Beginning in the spring of 1999, all teacher candidates coming from North Carolina schools of education will have to pass a state test in computer competency. In addition, all veteran teachers renewing their license will be required to earn three to five credits in technology.

“We’re always doing staff development if the people coming out of the universities aren’t trained,” says Elsie L. Brumback, the director of instructional technology for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.

In California, legislators recently passed a law requiring that, after Jan. 1, 2000, a teaching credential will be contingent on “demonstration of basic competency in the use of computers in the classroom.” To receive a permanent credential, which teachers are eligible for after five years, they will have to study advanced computer-based technology.

Research shows that training is most successful when it offers hands-on learning, opportunities to experiment, and easy access to equipment and people who can explain how to use technology well in the classroom, according to “Teachers & Technology: Making the Connection,” a key 1995 report by the Office of Technology Assessment.

Once teachers are certified, they’re lucky if they can find the time for any training at all, some experts say.

According to a 1996 survey of public school teachers by the National Education Association, secondary teachers have an average of five class periods a week for preparation; 10.6 percent of secondary teachers have no designated preparation time. Elementary teachers average less than three hours a week of preparation time; 8.2 percent have no preparation time.

“Professional development is the biggest bottleneck to the implementation of new technology in schools, and the reason is that teachers are so busy,” says John D. Bransford, a professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University and a co-director of the Learning Technology Center at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College.

As part of a team that included a publishing company, Bransford helped create a reading series, called Little Planet, that uses videodiscs and computer software. His experiences with that project showed him the importance of providing time for training.

The team worked closely last school year with nine teachers who used Little Planet in their classrooms. Vanderbilt researchers met with the teachers for an entire day twice a month and also visited their classrooms regularly. A research grant covered the cost of substitutes at the teachers’ schools.

Given such support, three teachers interviewed recently said they felt they were successful in integrating the program into their curriculum, and they raved about the student response.

On the other hand, a few teachers who weren’t part of the pilot group, and were trained on how to use the series only during a one-day session over the summer of 1996, were less enthusiastic.

Little Planet Publishing had provided the materials and training for free to 30 Nashville teachers. But six weeks after the one-day session, the company called the participants and found that “a disturbing number of people hadn’t even opened the box,” says Paul Sloan, the chairman of the company.

Over the course of the school year, Sloan had his staff visit the teachers’ classrooms and help them teach the series or fix technical problems with their computers. By the end of the year, 20 of the teachers were using the series extensively, though five teachers still had not used it at all.

Districts providing their own professional development have experimented with various ways to go about it.

At Barnwell Elementary School in Alpharetta, Ga., technology specialist Diane Stephenson offers teachers an optional training session every week for an hour after school. She usually reviews one piece of software and gives teachers the chance to brainstorm how they might use it in their classes. “After teaching all day, it’s about all they can take,” she says.

Dare County schools in North Carolina have a more top-down approach. Four years ago, Superintendent Leon Holleman informed teachers and principals that they would have to reach a basic level of computer competency within the next year if they wanted to keep their jobs. A basic level included knowing how to use the Windows operating system, do word processing, and create and use spreadsheets and databases. Training was provided by knowledgeable teachers during in-service days.

“People were really upset. They would cry and beg not to do it,” says Landra Cartwright, the technology coordinator for the district, who designed the plan. But everyone met the requirements, even one teacher who had to take the classes four times, Cartwright says. Afterward, the teachers were given laptop computers that they could use in school or at home.

During the 1994-95 school year, the district began requiring teachers to take 20 additional hours of technology training each year if they wanted to qualify for merit pay. Most schools in the nation do not make technology competency a formal part of performance evaluation.

The Grand Forks school district in North Dakota is using a different approach to training, also with good results. Seven teachers have taken a two-year paid sabbatical from their teaching to be “technology partners” for the district’s 13 elementary schools. Teachers can sign up to have one of the partners join them in class whenever they try something new with technology.

“We are finding the opportunity to learn as you go is best,” says Beth Randklev, the principal of Ben Franklin Elementary School in Grand Forks.

When teachers take training courses, they don’t always remember everything when they return to their own computers, she says. “Often, what stops people is one little thing that they didn’t know how to do. If you have a whole room full of kids [when something goes wrong], it discourages you from trying it again.”

A technology partner helps the teachers’ trial lessons go smoothly, Randklev says.

Schools usually require their curriculum coaches to be technicians as well, and this can sometimes result in spreading their talents too thin.

At the Dennis-Yarmouth Regional School District in South Yarmouth, Mass., former library media specialist Kathy Schrock is responsible for coaching and training teachers, providing technical support, and evaluating and ordering educational software for eight schools.

She’d like to spend most of her time coaching teachers on curriculum. “I hope things will change,” she says.

In other instances, schools ask teachers who are comfortable with technology to help their peers on curriculum issues while juggling their other responsibilities. Sometimes, the schools offer stipends or release time to such teachers, but not always.

“I did two jobs last year,” says Dawn Caldarella, a teacher at West Lawn Elementary School in Falls Church, Va.

Requests from other teachers for advice got out of hand, she says, so her principal hired her this year to serve as a technology resource teacher and to provide technical support on a full-time basis. The school had to give up a teacher position to do so.

In addition to a lack of funding and planning time, another obstacle to training can be a reluctance on the part of some teachers to embrace new technology.

“Some teachers are plain not interested and aren’t going to change no matter what,” says Diane Stephenson, who decided not to force teachers to attend her technology training sessions after she initially required it.

“I don’t think technology can be imposed on teachers,” agrees Libby Adams, a computer resource teacher at Troost Communications Academy in Kansas City, Mo.

She believes a couple of teachers in her building retired earlier than they planned because they simply didn’t want to deal with computers—something that became impossible to avoid when Troost converted to a magnet school in communications.

At the same time, at 59 years of age, Adams breaks the stereotype that older teachers are less inclined to use technology. She taught herself how to use a computer eight years ago when a principal let her take one home to practice on, and now she’s a full-time technology coach for teachers. “They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks—well, you can,” she says.

Other teachers are reluctant to use technology because they are ambivalent about its benefits.

“Our use of and emphasis on technology, especially for children and adolescents, has simply taught them to want everything faster,” says Marya D. Fitzgerald, an English teacher at Robert E. Lee High School in Springfield, Va. While she uses a laptop to record grades and has students use a computer for word processing when working on the school literary magazine, she says she gets concerned when students tell her they don’t like to read because “it’s too slow.” She thinks students ought to be taught how to do things “the slow way” first.

But on the whole, teachers value technology. In a poll conducted this year by Peter D. Hart Research Associates Inc. for the Milken Exchange on Education Technology, teachers were asked to use a 10- point scale to rate the importance of student access to computers, with 10 meaning “extremely important.” Ninety-two percent of the respondents recorded an 8 or higher when asked about high school students’ access; 68 percent recorded an 8 or higher when asked about elementary school students’ access.

For Sondra Burke, a 2nd grade teacher at Barnwell Elementary School, the turning point was learning about high-quality educational software.

“We didn’t know what was out there,” Burke says. “Once you know what’s out there and how it can help the children, you jump at it. And once they show you how easy it is, you go for the gold.”

Teachers who are excited about integrating technology into the curriculum say a supportive school culture is essential.

Kristi Rennebohm Franz, a 1st and 2nd grade teacher at Sunnyside Elementary School in Pullman, Wash., recalls how her principal and colleagues backed her when she decided she wanted to experiment with telecommunications projects. “They found a Mac LC for me. They found a modem and got me set up. The custodian helped me run wires from the main office to my room so I could use the dedicated line. The secretary let me know when I could use the dedicated line.”

Her experiments have sparked enough interest in telecommunications that her whole school has participated in technology projects.

Henry Jay Becker, a researcher at the University of California, Irvine, cites four factors in the teaching environment that tend to encourage the use of computers: collegiality among computer users; resources available for staff development and computer coordination; smaller class sizes; and school support for using computers for meaningful activities, such as producing the school newspaper and yearbook.

Becker estimates that to create such an environment would cost $1,375 per pupil per year.

“It’s an ideal, but my assumption is that unless you do this you won’t have a full teaching force of exemplary computer-using teachers,’’ he says.

Some teachers are having to make the best of school cultures that provide little support.

Mary Jane Christopherson teaches students how to create and analyze digital images at Chatfield High School in rural Minnesota even though she feels her technology expertise isn’t appreciated by colleagues or administrators.

“It has been a lonely battle and one I’ve thought about giving up,” says Christopherson, who learned how to use image-processing software for teaching science through a weeklong course offered in Rochester, Minn., by the Arizona-based Center for Image Processing in Education. “It is high stress because things break. … You ask yourself, ‘why bother?’ ”

In the end, she says, she bothers for the sake of her students.

George Cassutto, a 9th grade government teacher in Hagerstown, Md., knows the feeling. He’s the only teacher in the 1,200-student North Hagerstown High School who teaches with the Internet. Last summer, he and one of his students received an award from a software-development company, EdView Inc., for a World Wide Web site on the civil rights movement created by one of his classes.

“I have become the de facto Internet expert and the fix-it guy and the research guy. I relish that role, but it’s very time-consuming. It’s hard to be an effective teacher and trouble-shooter,” says Cassutto, who asked his principal if he could have a technology planning period for this school year; he didn’t receive it.

Cassutto, a self-taught techie who hasn’t taken any staff development courses on technology, has gradually changed his approach to teaching. While he still gives lectures, he also has his students do collaborative projects, even though it sometimes seemingly leaves him with nothing to do in the classroom.

At times, he says, he will pause to observe his students and marvel at how well they’re working together. “You get goose bumps when that happens,” he says.

A version of this article appeared in the November 10, 1997 edition of Education Week as Teaching the Teachers