How a small bet on technology could have a big payoff in learning

Charles Taylor Kerchner

Let me start by saying that I am not a technologist. I don’t lust after the new; I bought my first smartphone just last week. And I don’t for a moment think that tablets are going to replace teachers or that there is a software-driven fix for all the problems ailing California’s public schools. And, yes, teachers need a raise.

Why, then, advocate an investment in education technology? I believe that if properly put together an education technology policy could add enormous capacity to our education system in ways that existing policies do not.

For 40 years education reform policy has focused on two policies that have not successfully transformed our early 20th Century model of public education. The first is governance: Get the bad, obstructionist, wrongheaded and wronghearted people out of control and put in the clear-of-mind and pure-of-heart people who have no motives other than the service of children. From Title I parent councils to charter schools and mayoral takeovers, one searches in vain for a transformative effect. The second policy is accountability: Test and punish our way to better schools. Although I am a strong believer in data-rich systems that provide rapid, reliable feedback to teachers, students and schools, grading schools and teachers with arguably bad tests has not increased the capacity of the education system.

And that’s the point of making an investment in technology. Let’s adopt a public policy that increases the capacity of public education, one that makes existing schools winners again, and that empowers both students and teachers. To make a technology investment we need to simultaneously think small and think big.

Think small. Empower teachers and students to experiment with learning software by giving small grants to teachers. Doing this would help teachers—especially those in tough and expensive domains such as special education and English language learning—experiment with integrating technology into their pedagogy.

To do this, California should set up a small grants program, and maybe some of the technologically savvy foundations could top off a public investment. Make the program easy to apply for and to get: an on-line application and redemption at an e-retailer. The primary requirement for recipients is that they evaluate what they have done: how the software worked, how it was integrated into the program of instruction, and what evidence there is that learning increased, if it did. In this way, after 18 months the state would have results from a rather large field experiment.

The point is to do this quickly. Incentivize the use of technology at the teacher, student and classroom level. Don’t wait for all the interest groups to forge a deal.

The second investment is larger and more complex. California needs a statewide learning infrastructure. Scotland, for example, developed a technology link designed to enable collaboration between teachers and students and to build up a cache of lessons that would support that country’s national curriculum. While California does not need a replication of the Scottish system, it needs networks that link its students and teachers.

The network should provide students, teachers and parents with the information they need to navigate school and head toward higher education. Think of it as lights on the pathway to college and career. Currently, the pathway is not well lit, and it’s not level either. Professional-class families can illuminate the way to college for their children through the lived experience of parents. But for poor and working class families there are hidden rocks and potholes. By when should a child be redesignated as English fluent to have a good chance of getting into college? Why are class placement tests at a community college important?

California’s learning infrastructure should provide direct learning opportunities that would make classrooms more productive and allow students to avoid the excessive remediation that cripples the existing system, particularly at the community colleges and universities. It should allow teachers and students to collaborate and to draw on an increasingly wide range of lessons, lectures, simulations and projects available on the Internet.

It should provide opportunities for students to take tests and get credit without the seat time requirements that a particular subject must take a specified number of days and hours in a traditional classroom.

Create a small design team. There is plenty of expertise and philanthropic capacity in California. George Lucas once testified before Congress that the Scottish system was a good idea; there is now an opportunity to design an improved version.

Meet soon. Work quickly. Put an idea on Jerry Brown’s desk by June. The governor saved the state from its fiscal cliff. He may be able to help it get its educational mojo back.

• • •
These ideas are developed in more detail in a Policy Analysis for California Education seminar, several policy papers, and a slide show that describes Learning 2.0, education’s next full upgrade.

• • •

Charles Taylor Kerchner is Research Professor in the School of Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate University, and a specialist in educational organizations, educational policy, and teachers unions. In 2008, he and his colleagues completed a four-year study of education reform of the Los Angeles Unified School District. The results of that research can be found in The Transformation of Great American School Districts and in Learning from L.A.: Institutional Change in American Public Education, published by Harvard Education Press.

For previous commentaries that Charles Taylor Kerchner has written for Thoughts on Public Education ( and for EdSource, go here.

Filed under: Commentary, Reforms, Technology



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4 Responses to “How a small bet on technology could have a big payoff in learning”

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  1. Charles Taylor Kerchner on Nov 30, 2012 at 8:38 am11/30/2012 8:38 am

    • 000

    Thanks for this. Let’s brainstorm.

  2. Bea on Nov 29, 2012 at 3:38 pm11/29/2012 3:38 pm

    • 000

    Thank you. Good stuff here. Perhaps this would be a good place for George Lucas to focus his philanthropic efforts?

    As for this: ” Incentivize the use of technology at the teacher, student and classroom level. Don’t wait for all the interest groups to forge a deal.” — Totally agree. Working on a technology committee at both the school and district level, it’s abundantly clear that there are many low cost, quick to implement ideas that don’t happen because they have to be part of a larger initiative with buy in from too many levels.

    And as for the statewide effort, one place the state could help is to level the infrastructure playing field. If all schools and districts could have adequate & comparable access to bandwidth, hardware and power we could unleash a lot of innovation. Sadly, those quick to implement ideas that abound among our teachers are dead at launch when they can’t get online from their classrooms. Perhaps a statewide bond would provide the basic infrastructure we need so desperately.

  3. Leigh Coop on Nov 29, 2012 at 12:49 pm11/29/2012 12:49 pm

    • 000

    It’s good that you admitted upfront that you don’t understand technology in the classroom. Small grants for teachers are great, but if the data network is not installed in the district and in the school, nothing will work in the classroom. That takes loads of money to install, upgrade, maintain and repair districtwide network systems, do regular training at all levels districtwide, purchase curricular and business software districtwide and yes, hire staff in the central office to run the IT department. Sorry, you can’t do technology in one box at a time.


    • navigio on Nov 30, 2012 at 12:27 pm11/30/2012 12:27 pm

      • 000

      Well, I think you can to some extent. I really think something needs to be done about mandating technology in schools. I think it would make sense to mandate computer access (with the initial goal of becoming familiar with computers) in the form of a computer lab. Just one or two rooms to start out that has enough computers to support kids on a perhaps weekly basis. If access and use is restricted to that one room, the bandwidth requirement would not be prohibitive, especially in the elementary level where real-time use of the network is not a requirement to build up basic computer skills. The electric grid requirements would be real, but they would be much different than would be required to outfit the entire school.

      In the current environment, only the lucky–um rich–kids get to have computer access and that makes no sense.

      The concept of actual instruction happening on computers is something different, and there is probably a lot more debate about whether that is worthwhile. Building kids’ familiarity with computers should be a requirements. And it should be happening already.

      It should be noted that because computers are essentially optional, when they do exist, the benefits, analysis and disbursement for the programs very likely run through the school site councils. In our school, we have had a number of presentations from these groups touting their effectiveness. While these reports are not necessarily things that can be corroborated, I expect many school site councils have done exactly the kind of analysis you are speaking of. For title 1 schools, this may be for general programs. For others, perhaps programs dedicated to english learners or similar. An alternately involved body may be the PTA (though it depends on how the program is staffed). In the latter case, there is state and regional representation that may be able to provide studies from individual schools (or less likely, districts). For SSC, I dont really know of any over-arching body other than at the district level, and I expect they never have visibility into those site-level decisions or discussions. But if there were a way to access those groups, I expect there would be quite a lot of what you’re looking for already there.

      Btw, ed source should do a piece on SSCs. After a few years of being able to watch these at various levels, it seems clear that the process and implementation often leave much to be desired. It would be interesting to hear a broad array of experiences.

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