A Teachable Moment

Former local teacher union pesident Morty Rosenfeld periodically attempts to make sense of the increasingly senseless world of public education.

The High Tech Swindle

The November 3rd New York Times carried a front page article entitled “How Silicon Valley Plans to Conquer the Classroom.” The article, while focused on the Baltimore County schools, exposes the massive sales campaign of America’s high tech companies to infiltrate the public school market, using marketing ploys similar to those used by the drug companies on physicians on public school decision makers. Trips, meals and other ethically challenged ploys are used to convince school leaders of the necessity of massive investments in computers and software despite the fact that there is almost no hard evidence that these technology expenditures have any positive effect on student learning.

The publication of this article is a sign of the growing awareness of the abject stupidity of contemporary education policy that has witnessed massive expenditures of public funds on the fool’s errand of attempting to keep our schools equipped with the latest technological devices in the belief that we are preparing students for the jobs of the future. Once hooked on being technologically current, school districts effectively surrender significant portions of their tight budgets to high tech peddlers. Even more significantly and essentially unappreciated, they surrender control of what and how children are taught to corporate decision makers rather than knowledgeable and experienced educators.

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Educating with Screens

My God! I just read a Jay Mathews column that didn’t elevate my blood pressure to life-threatening heights. Mathews is the guy who has probably done more to advance the spread of AP classes to high school classrooms than anyone else. Viewing the AP program as essentially an academic scam, I risk reading Mathews from time to time simply to see what mischief he is stirring up for public school educators. But I guess to show me that the possibilities of human redemption are infinite, his October 8 column had me open to the possibility that Mathews just might be able to do teachers some good.

Reviewing the book Screen Schooled: Two Veteran Teachers Expose How Technology Overuse Is Making Our Kids Dumber, by veteran Virginia teachers Joe Clement and Mat Miles, Mathews credits their argument that often the engagement of teachers and students is the best way of teaching, providing not only for the transmission of information but, even more importantly, an exchange of ideas and feelings necessary for the socialization of young people into responsible citizens. As someone who has come to see the infusion of technology into the public schools as one of corporate America’s great swindles and a threat to the very existence of public education, I’m looking forward to reading this book and to the next column Mathews has promised on what its authors propose. I dare to hope that people are beginning to catch on to the fact that education is essentially a social process that is not well mediated by technological means. I dare to hope that savvy parents will rebel against having their kids who spend endless hours at home staring at screens going to school to isolate themselves in various technological cocoons.

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We All See What’s Happening

I met an old friend for breakfast yesterday. During our catching-up conversation, he found himself talking about his grand-children, noting their lack of social skills and correctly connecting that problem to their incessant connection to their smart-phones. We all see this happening, are distressed by the thought of a generation of children whose human connections may be stunted for their entire lives and yet are fearful of doing anything about it lest we be seen as enemies of progress, 21st century Luddites.

Next week children will be at school bus stops weekday mornings, staring at their phones, completely disinterested in conversing with their assembled classmates. They will file into their schools and in many of their class sit for extended periods of time staring at a computer screen, their schools promoting digitized education as the way to personalize a child’s instruction, letting them learn their own way, at their own pace. Few parents will voice any concern as to why their children are spending so many of their waking hours engaging a computer screen. Some of their teachers know that important elements of an education are increasingly being displaced by gadgets of one kind or another. Too often, however, they keep that knowledge to themselves lest they be judged by their supervisors to be inferior teachers. Other teachers, trained in the era of test driven accountability, technologically mediated instruction, I fear don’t even realize that they have become agents of a meretricious corporatism deskilling children of the abilities necessary to be engaged citizens of a democratic society.

Wouldn’t it be great if this new school year we began to think about taking charge of our technology and at least mitigating its control of us and our children? Why don’t we declare technology free school days. In every classroom, teachers and students talking to one another for the entire period, finding time to talk about what is going on in our country and the world, sharing each other’s humanity, maybe even talking about what new technologies are doing to that humanity.

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Just Ask Google

If you haven’t read Natasha Singer’s front page, extended article in the New York Times on Google’s cornering the k-13 school technology market, it is a must read. While some of us have been sounding the warning about technology companies’ penetration of the public school market and their undue influence on what and how kids learn, the fact is that school leaders have accepted the marketing message of outfits like Google that traditional academic knowledge must give way to the skills needed by 21st century workplaces. Why bother to know how to solve quadratic equations, the causes of the American Civil War or the symbolism of the green light on Gatsby’s dock, when all one needs to do is ask Google or Alexa? Sadly, our school leaders and too many teachers themselves are seemingly incapable of answering that question. Singer exposes how Google cleverly and slowly but surely influenced teachers themselves to become de facto, unpaid sales representatives for Google hardware and apps. Perhaps even more concerning, she explores what may even be Google’s greater strategic interest, the collection of the personal data of people from kindergarten to death, the better to sell them all of the things that make people feel worthwhile.

I admit to extreme pessimism that articles like Singer’s will wake people up to the fact that powerful commercial forces are have a profound influence on what their children learn. Yet, I can’t help but have a germ of hope that when the subject reaches the front page of the New York Times, a least some people are waking up.

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Worth Reading and Thinking About

Two articles in today’s New York Times are worthy of note for what they say about the increasing absurdity of contemporary education, both here and abroad. The first is about the broad usage of webcams in Chinese schools that enable parents, or anyone else for that matter, to observe the goings on in classrooms and to comment on what they see. While some schools in the U.S. have experimented with this technology, no place has used it to the extent that the Chinese appear to have, although there will undoubtedly be increasing pressures to do so in our schools. That pressure is generated by the unexamined notion that because we have the technical means to do something, it is probably a good idea to do so. The notorious tiger parents, for whom their children’s success in school is of paramount importance, now have the means to scrutinize their children’s performance minute by minute, all the while keeping an eye on their teachers as well. In a surveillance society, the camera sees everything. No one seems to care that that the presence of the camera profoundly changes what it records.

The other article worth thinking about is one on homework. Some elementary schools in New York City that are experimenting with no homework policies are being hit with a backlash from some parents who are demanding that worksheets and such continue to be sent home. Some less well-off parents that they cannot afford to fill the time previously taken up with homework with enriching activities for their children. Curiously, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to them to simply let their kids relax, go out in the street to play or watch a movie on TV. Fact – There is no evidence that doing homework in elementary school leads to greater achievement. Fact – There is ample evidence that play is an important factor in human development and that American children have less and less time for it. So, by all means, let’s do away with elementary homework, but let’s not do it in the name of some snooty concept of enrichment. The enrichment our children need is play time and down time.

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The Latest Ed-Tech Innovation

My readers are well aware of my growing concerns about the infiltration of technological learning appliances and their debasement of what it has meant to be educated. Thus, I was not at all surprised to read that the latest “learning innovation” to be touted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a biosensor attached to students’ wrists and able to gauge their attentiveness to lesson before them. It won’t be long I suspect before some jackass of a superintendent of schools, spouting the empty rhetoric of 21st century learners and digital citizens, offers this up as the latest improvement in education. What it is in fact is the latest from a tech industry that has provided the tools of the surveillance society we have become. If we were interested in an educated citizenry we would be spending time at all levels of education discussing the increasing threat to our freedom these devices pose. We would also be wise to take seriously teaching students how to be intelligent consumers of media that are increasingly personalized to the point that we share less and less of a common reality and the concept of a fact appears to mean less and less with each passing day.

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Feeding the Portal

It seems as though each day brings some new insight as to the unintended consequences of the introduction of digital technologies to the operation of public schools.

In a discussion I was having with several colleagues about an increasing number of complaints from the parents of our community about the number of teacher made tests their children receive, one of person, somewhat angrily, blurted out, “I feed the portal all the time. The parents complain if we don’t have what they consider a sufficient number of scores on which to base our quarterly grades.” The portal she referred to is an online web based utility that permits parents to monitor everything from their children’s attendance to the completion of their homework assignments. So, because parents can now monitor their children’s grades 24/7, teachers feel compelled to give more tests and assignments to justify their grades leading to parents complaining about too many tests. A perfect system!

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A New Approach to Fleecing Public Schools

The titans of the high tech companies many of whom have fleeced our nation’s public schools, promising that each new digital product would revolutionize education, are apparently coming up with a new game plan. Correctly sensing that the public is rapidly turning away from the kind of school reforms sponsored by public school predators like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, the new gig to keep those taxpayer dollars rolling into their companies appears to be personalized learning, tailoring the education of individual students through the use of technology. Seemingly oblivious to the fact that education is a social process with goals much more encompassing than the acquisition of skills, business people are correctly reading a market trend. More and more the public seems to expect its schools to treat their children individually. School leaders have responded to this unreasonable demand by defining good teaching as individualizing instruction. Now comes an emerging business model that promises it can overcome the inability of teachers to provide a unique education for each of their students. Cheaper, better and, better yet, more profitable for the hardware and software companies.

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The Technology Scam

Rajen Sheth is the director of product development for the Chrome and Android divisions of Google. He is known as the father of Google Apps. Trained as an electrical engineer and computer science person, he has no recognized qualification in the field of k-12 education. He designs and sells Google products, products which are capturing more and more of the public school market.

The current wave of “education reform” is driven in part by technology hucksters like him whose meteoric economic success appears to suggest to Americans that their opinions on subjects outside their professional domain are somehow more worthy than the average Joe. So Bill Gates knows how to evaluate teachers, and because of his billions, policy makers take him seriously. Sheth’s job is to sell Chrome Books, a tablet device that has captured over half of a very lucrative public school market. So he gets to blither away at what education should become, belittling the extraordinary work of all of the hard-working teachers in America’s classrooms. He know that the model of one teacher for 20 to 30 students doesn’t work anymore, that through Chrome Books and various apps, we can individualize instruction, perhaps even avoiding the need for teachers at some point in the future.

People like Sheth have been such successful marketers that few in leadership positions in education ever challenge the assumption that the massive introduction of technology has significantly improved the quality of public education in the United States. Why aren’t Americans more suspicious of education ideas promoted by people who want to sell us expensive things? This year, companies like Google and Microsoft have sold 13.3 million devices to schools. Can we reasonably expect them to be honest about the usefulness of their products in the teaching of the nation’s children? Why do we continue to allow their voices to be amplified in proportion to their wealth?

After putting this posting up, I read Diane Ravitch, writing today about the corporate money behind “personalized learning.”

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Our Technology Fetish

It’s not just in the areas of high stakes testing and the Common Core State Standards that the corporate designed and supported public education reform effort has been winning. The absolutely blind faith with which school leaders have embraced computer technology as central to what they increasingly call 21st century learners is a tribute business acumen of the leaders of our high tech companies who for some time have understood the enormous economic potential of educational institutions as profit centers. Convince school leaders, teachers and the public that a child who goes to a school without the latest technology will be unable to compete for the jobs of tomorrow and you have made your product essential for the welfare of our nation’s children. We seem to spend as much time and effort talking about the digital divide than we do about the appalling poverty of a quarter of our nation’s children.

I found myself thinking about this technology fetish while attending last night’s meeting of our board of education at which something called our Technology Visioning Committee presented its report. Granted I should have known that a report from a committee with such a title should have alerted me that it was time for a little extra high blood pressure medication. Sure enough, after watching a video of what were essentially advertisements for products soon to be marketed, the audience was introduced to this little twenty five thousand dollar robot that is programmed to perform intricate physical movements and to do a sales pitch for itself to the audience. It comes with the ability to be programmed in a number of computer languages so that children of all age can learn to make it work. The audience was mesmerized, and to be sure it was interesting to watch. But why in hell a school would want to spend twenty- five thousand dollars on such a thing in an environment in which academic programs throughout the state are being cut, teachers being excessed, teacher wages, like those of much of the middle class stagnating, is a question no one asked. There was a conspicuous lack of questioning about the report, the robot having answered them all.

When we are completely Wi-Fied, when every child has a personal device on her desk, when we can conference with any person in the world, when bio sensors inform virtual teachers on the moods of their students so that they might adjust the tone and substance of their instruction, do we really believe that children will think more logically, write more coherently, be better equipped to be citizens, understand the importance of freedom and privacy to human existence or more intensely experience and appreciate great music and art? Or will our technology fetish inexorably still the voice of our better nature.

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