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.
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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.
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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 (TOP-ed.org) and for EdSource, go here.