School Choice & Charters Opinion

Maybe We’re Fighting Over The Wrong Vouchers

By Steve Cohen — March 21, 2001 6 min read
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One way to prevent technology’s potential from becoming a casualty is to shift some of our energies to a different and more promising type of voucher: teacher vouchers.

‘It is easier to move a graveyard than change a school.” That’s the warning my partner roars every time I suggest ways we might extend the e-learning revolution to public education. We’re true believers in technology’s potential for becoming a powerful educational tool, even at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. But we also believe computers and the Internet are more likely to remain fancy typewriters, inefficient research tools, and classroom babysitters—unless schools start to focus on using technology for teaching as well as learning.

Though schools have spent billions on buying state-of-the art PCs (one for every five students) and wiring classrooms to the Internet (72 percent connected by last year), we’re still struggling through a serious education crisis. Despite the highest per capita spending on education in our history— coupled with smaller class sizes, more training for teachers, and a plethora of standards and tests—40 percent of 4th graders and 38 percent of 8th graders still can’t read at grade level.

One reason we’re in this sorry situation is that e-learning is caught in the cross-fire of the school voucher debate. Both school administrators and teachers’ unions appear to be paralyzed, unable to take even the smallest steps to restructure how instruction is delivered, and thus unable to capitalize on technology’s potential.

There is little doubt that the school voucher fight will rage on. One way to prevent technology’s potential from becoming a casualty is to shift some of our energies to a different and more promising type of voucher: teacher vouchers.

Let’s give schools vouchers to purchase “teacher services.” Schools could still hire individual full-time teachers, but they could also engage specific pieces of a teacher’s services. Utilizing technology, those services would not be limited by the teacher’s physical presence in a school. Schools could bid for the services of teachers from a national pool of talent; and teachers would be able to sell their skills and time in a marketplace not constrained by where they live or how far they are willing to commute.

In the typical one-size-fits-all classroom, all teachers are expected to be interchangeable. Teacher vouchers and technology can change that.

How would teacher vouchers help kids? Think about what really takes place in a school.

First, there is the transfer of knowledge, from teachers to students and from student to student. Second, there is child care. And third, there is community-building and citizenship, which grow from friendships, extracurricular activities, and mentor-to-student role modeling.

For a school to be successful, it needs all of these functions. Unfortunately, because of the way schools are organized and operate, virtually every teacher is expected to serve interchangeably in every function. There is little flexibility to account for a teacher’s skills or passions. Some teachers love to perform in front of the class, bringing subjects alive, making connections between disciplines or eras. Others are terrified every time they stand up in front of a room full of students, but are great in stimulating small-group discussions.

Some elementary teachers make reading magical for their students, but in the very next hour don’t know how to help kids make sense of simple math. Some teachers see themselves as each student’s “coach,” guiding the student to find answers on his own. Others revel in Socratic exercises: questioning, prodding, and, yes, sometimes terrorizing the kids.

There is no one “right” model for all teachers, just as there is no single way for all children to learn. Not all teachers are good at all the functions required of them. But in the typical one-size-fits-all classroom, all teachers are expected to be interchangeable. Teacher vouchers and technology can change that.

One- way video-streaming can deliver fascinating lectures from the most dramatic teachers. Add an audio-feedback loop, and you have a virtual town-hall meeting. Two-way video-conferencing can link 20 students and a teacher in a just-the- right-size seminar. And individualized, interactive exercises with one-to-one teacher tutorials can help students and monitor their progress.

Teacher vouchers enabled by technology would allow schools to deliver master teachers to a wider range of kids. And teachers who may not want to work in the inner city may be excited about the prospects of teaching the kids who live there—but through a virtual classroom.

This is not a shift to “distance learning.” There would still be teachers in classrooms, project labs, and workrooms, but they would be the teachers who want to be there. Smart school administrators would also recognize that some teachers don’t feel comfortable with any pedagogic style, but connect with kids, serving as counselors and role models. Their most important function takes place outside the classroom, and teacher vouchers would cover that as well. Schools would still provide “child care,” counseling, extracurricular activities, and community (with adult supervision), but they would have much more flexibility about how best to organize and deliver those services.

Teacher vouchers could change the quality and delivery of education, to the benefit of both kids and teachers.

A teacher-voucher system could work much as the online company e-Bay does, connecting sellers (teachers) and buyers (schools.) Private companies would undoubtedly facilitate this marketplace and provide value-added services ranging from technological expertise to training to content. Why? Because they would quickly recognize that of the $375 billion spent annually on K-12 education, fully $250 billion covers teacher salaries and benefits, and that would be “put into play.” (To put that figure into perspective, schools spend only $20 billion on instructional materials of all types, including computers.)

Teacher vouchers could change the quality and delivery of education, to the benefit of both kids and teachers. But they would require a willingness to challenge two traditions: the one-teacher-to-a-classroom-of-25-students model; and the one-size-fits-all, teachers-are-interchangeable presumption. Both are formidable challenges, but not impossible. Parents would have to believe that their children would perform better on high-stakes tests. Teachers (and their unions) would have to believe that their job satisfaction would be enhanced and their job security maintained, if not increased. And school administrators would have to believe that teacher vouchers would increase their chances of accomplishing their educational missions in a new era of school accountability.

Technology can make a difference in educating kids. The question is how to trigger the e-learning revolution. With so many students still failing under the current system, can we afford not to explore whether teacher vouchers can be the key to unlocking that potential?

Steve Cohen is the chief executive officer of www.4to14.com, an e-learning company based in New York City. A former school board member and the author of five books, he was previously a managing director at Scholastic Inc.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 21, 2001 edition of Education Week as Maybe We’re Fighting Over The Wrong Vouchers


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