The American Civil Liberties Union has filed what it calls a “groundbreaking” class-action lawsuit against the state of Michigan for failing to educate students in a Detroit-area school district. The suit hinges on a “right to read” provision in Michigan’s constitution, which says students who do not pass the 4th and 7th grade state reading tests should receive “special assistance” to bring them up to grade level. In the Highland Park School District, 65 percent of 4th graders and 75 percent of 7th graders are not proficient in reading, the ACLU documents.
The case also has an interesting instructional technology angle. According to the ACLU’s formal complaint, which includes individual plaintiff’s stories, many Highland Park students who lack basic literacy skills have been using online reading programs in class. For instance, the complaint states:
L.M. began using Read 180 during his homeroom period. In that program, he answered questions on the computer. Occasionally, his teacher assisted students around the room, but she generally sat at her desk and kept track of how students did on the computer exercises. In this program, L.M. did not receive any explicit instruction from an adult.
Jay Mathews of The Washington Post cites the unusual case as an argument against the notion that 21st-century technology will “save our schools” by providing a cheaper alternative to teachers. For Mathews, that notion is comparable to the craze in the 1970s over workbooks, which “were designed to remove that messy and unpredictable element of math education, teaching, from the equation.” That plan didn’t work, he explains.
But it’s worth questioning whether the higher-ups who implemented workbooks and online programs like Read 180 really intended them to serve as stand-ins for direct instruction. I’ve seen many classes in which independent learning activities such as these actually facilitated great teaching—that is, when they are part of a plan to differentiate instruction. Teachers can pull small groups while students do constructive independent activities at their level. Or teachers can split the class and put half the students on computers while the other half receives direct instruction in a mode that fits their learning styles.
I know there are some initiatives that aim to take the human factor out of teaching altogether, and those are undeniably a threat to teachers and their craft. But just because an online program can provide tutelage in a particular skill without a teacher’s hand doesn’t necessarily make it bad for teaching. When used with forethought and purposefulness, maybe it still could be an educational advantage. Teachers, please weigh in, as always.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.