Teaching Profession

Digital Dilemma: Can Computers Sub for Teachers?

By Andrew Trotter — October 16, 2002 6 min read
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A fight in a Connecticut school district over the use of computers to provide high school courses is raising questions about whether technology can replace teachers.

Some teachers from Nonnewaug High School in the Region 14 district say they were given no meaningful role in supervising a special remedial program in which instruction is provided entirely by computer. They contend the program violates a state mandate that a certified teacher be responsible for instruction, evaluation, and grading of students.

The teachers are upset because they were asked to approve students’ computer-assigned grades without seeing any of the students’ work or being involved in instruction or assessment. In some cases, the teachers said they hadn’t even met the students.

"[District officials] were sending grades up for me to sign,” said Tim Cleary, the head of the high school’s math department, who was responsible for supervising two students in the program. “I saw none of the work they did— no classwork, no homework, no tests and quizzes—I only saw their grades,” he said. “One student I hadn’t even met.”

Mr. Cleary, who is also the president of the local teachers’ union, the Nonnewaug Teachers Association, signed the grade forms, but added a note that he did so under protest. The union advised the other teachers to follow the same course, so they would not be found insubordinate.

The union and the affiliated Connecticut Education Association have since campaigned against the program, starting with a complaint last spring to the state education department.

Officials from the department’s bureau of teacher certification visited the program in the spring and again this fall, but concluded that the problems cited by the teachers could be easily fixed.

“We have made it clear [to the district] that a teacher should not be placed in the situation where he or she is asked to grade or sign off as ‘teacher of record’ if that teacher has not had involvement with the student during the semester,” wrote Theodore S. Sergi, the state’s commissioner of education, in a Sept. 23 letter to the CEA. “Region 14 administrators have agreed.”

But early this month, the CEA formally asked the Connecticut state board of education to declare that the computer-based remediation program violates state law.

“We focused on this issue because the state statute is very clear: Children should be taught by a certified teacher,” CEA President Rosemary Coyle said last week. “When you start using technology as the sole teaching device, you’re missing interaction with that teacher.”

Minor tweaking of the program is not enough, added Ronald Cordilico, the union’s legal counsel. He said the state needs to set specific guidelines that define the involvement of teachers in computer- controlled instruction. “Otherwise, we have 169 towns and cities and they’ll have 169 different standards,” he said.

The state board will likely consider the unions’ request for an evidentiary hearing at its Nov. 6 meeting, but the issue may be headed for state court, Tom Murphy, an education department spokesman, said last week.

Student Needs Vary

To David G. Pendleton, the superintendent of Region 14, which serves the towns of Woodbury and Bethlehem, this opposition by the local and state unions is putting in jeopardy a pilot program that could be a lifeline for some students.

“The system is based on the premise that how we deliver instruction today needs to be varied,” Mr. Pendleton said. “The students we’re trying to focus on do not do well in a regular classroom.”

Mr. Pendleton started the Student Technology Education Program, or STEP, last January, shortly after he was hired to lead the 3,000-student district. In the technology-rich Basehor- Linwood district in Kansas, where he previously was superintendent, more than 400 students attended a similar program.

Mr. Pendleton said students with behavioral and emotional difficulties, as well as those who are trying to advance faster than their peers, can thrive in a computer-driven course.

In STEP, selected high school students go to a computer lab at Nonnewaug Middle School, which is two miles from the high school, for part or all of the school day. They complete academic activities on any of a number of commercial software programs. An uncertified teacher’s aide is always on hand to assist students.

The courses, principally provided by Plato Learning Inc. and the American Education Corp., are updated heirs to the “integrated learning” systems used widely in schools in the 1980s.

Such systems—which are designed to provide instruction, assessment, and evaluation automatically, with little involvement by teachers—fell into disrepute in the 1990s in favor of educational technologies that give teachers a more active role.

But research demonstrates that they are effective instructional tools, said James A. Kulik, a research scientist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, who in the 1980s and 1990s evaluated the effectiveness of “integrated learning systems” in schools.

Another expert who has studied the use of the Plato system in several high school remediation programs said the programs have been effective with students who had difficulty in traditional classrooms. But that expert—Robert D. Hannafin, a professor of education at the College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, Va.—also pointed out that participation of teachers was a key ingredient of success.

At Nonnewaug High, in the town of Woodbury, teachers were asked to supervise the students taking courses in the teachers’ subject-area specialties. Each teacher was given an orientation that included a chance to try the software. Teachers said they were told that the students would contact them when they needed help.

Kathy Sobolewski, the head of the science department, said the orientation occurred in April, four months after students started using the system.

And immediately after she received her orientation, she said, the district’s administrator in charge of special services handed her a computer printout of one student’s scores in the biology course. Ms. Sobolewski said she was told the student had already completed the course, and she was asked to sign a form to give the student credit.

“They were just percentages,” she said, referring to the printout of the student’s performance. “They were just scores.”

Mr. Pendleton has accepted that teachers should be able to monitor students more closely; this fall students are supposed to meet with their supervising teacher weekly.

But he says the program has been a vast improvement over an alternative education program for failing students that the district ran for many years, which employed teachers to work with students on the subjects after school—often one-on-one.

That program, he said, “was failing, had lost support of most students and most teachers,” and was costly. It failed because it did not address students’ needs any better than the regular classroom, he said.

Still, the computer- based program currently is at a standstill because no teachers signed up to supervise students this fall, after the Nonnewaug union sent teachers a letter urging a boycott.

A Parent’s Perspective

Some parents are disappointed that the program may be in jeopardy.

Clara Hoffer said it has meant academic salvation for her son Michael, 17, who has attention deficit disorder.

The Nonnewaug High student took the computer-based courses last year in 10th grade, after a tough fall semester. “He was having a difficult time in high school, in the classroom setting,” she said. “It was difficult for him to concentrate—his attention span couldn’t deal with all the activity of students.”

Beginning STEP in January, her son passed the courses in 10th grade English, mathematics, social studies, and science, she said. The previous semester, in a regular classroom supplemented by help from a special education resource teacher, his grades were all F’s.

The program has given both mother and son—now in 11th grade—the proud feeling of academic success.

“Each day, he got more improvement,” she said. “When he got a print-out of what he had accomplished, he’d carry it around with him.”

Coverage of technology is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

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