A Teachable Moment

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

They Want to Wire the Students Now

The search for the magic bullet that will enable all students regardless of their genes, socio-economic background, parenting and physical and mental health to achieve equally is rapidly reaching the creepily absurd. News that the Edsurge Company is in talks with a Long Island school district to collect the brain waves of students in the hope of improving their education is but the latest attempt by the corporate to exploit public education. First they convinced us to wire our schools. Now they want to wire the children too.

I’d love to know which 21st century educator superintendent agreed to talk to Edsurge. If any of my readers know, please contact me at mrosenfeld@pobct.org.

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Exposing the Techno-Hoax

Anyone reading my work over the years knows of my deep suspicion of the motives of the private sectors interest in public education. In recent times, I’ve been sounding the alarm about the unexamined influence of our nation’s high tech entrepreneurs and their companies and their influence on public schools and the employees charged with educating America’s youth. At best, education decision makers have allowed the voices of people like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg to be amplified by their billions, creating the illusion that they know more about public education than experienced professionals do. I have characterized their philanthropy as giving to get, in that our public schools have spent billions of dollars on their high tech products without any demonstrable improvement in educational outcomes. One would think that if the efficacy of tech assisted education were as claimed, our public schools would be paragons of academic excellence by now, having spent billions over the last twenty years infusing technology throughout our schools.

It was therefore very encouraging to read Natasha Singer’s article in this morning’s New York Times questioning the influence of our high tech billionaires on our schools. The very existence of such a piece on the front page of the Grey Lady suggests an awakening to the fleecing of the public’s schools. Perhaps the techno-hoax is at last being exposed.

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Are We Catching On to The Tech Fraud?

My readers are aware of my view that digital technology industry has pulled one of the greatest rip-offs of all time on America’s public schools. Through the cleverest of propaganda campaigns they have convinced gullible public school decision makers of the impossibility of educating children satisfactorily without exposing them in any ways possible to technology mediated education. 21st century learners need 21st century tools. If like me you believe that a hideously stupid concept, you tend to get branded a Luddite, particularly if you are a certain age. Yet the evidence mounts that sending kids to school to spend a significant number of their hours there staring at screens is not only pedagogically questionable but downright damaging to the healthy growth and development of children. The good news is that people are beginning to catch on to this scam. When a mass publication like Time runs an article labeling the infusion of technology in our public schools a fraud, we may be coming out of the coma that has made us oblivious to the waste of billions of dollars of taxpayer funds that might have been put to much better use.

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A Techie Who Gets It

Readers know of my contempt for the notion that technology has an important role to play in the education of children. When I think of the million upon millions of dollars spent by public school districts on the latest electronic panacea only to have the gadgets be outdated by the time the incredibly slow purchasing process of school districts is completed, I get enraged at what could have been done with that money to make meaningful educational improvements. I will never understand why school leaders don’t get the fact that we have been infusing technology into public school program for over a decade. We have done so amidst an almost cultish belief in the efficacy of data to drive academic decisions. Yet, we have no evidence that our seduction by the purveyors of ed tech gadgetry has improved anything. Wouldn’t we have seen the results by now?

I came across this article by a higher ed techie, Joshua Kim, that has me hoping that we might begin to get a grip on our exuberance for high tech solutions to education issues. Here’s a tech guy who gets it. “The true value of education, the type of education that people will pay for, is only found at a scale where an educator can get to know a learner as an individual.”

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The Screen Invasion

Regular readers are well aware that I am at best suspicious of the importance of technology to the education of children, especially young ones. I see the infusion of technology in our public schools as a part of the corporate sponsored education reform movement that has cleverly but insidiously manipulated public opinion into almost a fetishistic belief that a modern education must be structured on a technological base. Without kids spending huge amounts of time staring at screens in school, all hope for rewarding employment in the future is jeopardized. Seemingly unaware that this belief gradually clouds the historic meaning of an education, its meaning coming closer and closer to training, ignorant and irresponsible school leaders seeking celebrity have become the unwitting handmaidens of the high tech moguls, using their power over public school budgets to purchase all of the paraphernalia a 21st century education is said to require. Once down this path, school districts are seemingly forever committing more and more of their budgets to trying to stay up-to-date technologically, not realizing that Silicon Valley has a business plan that renders this attempt impossible.

I’m thinking about all of this again this morning in response to my friend Jeanette Deutermann, the Long Island Opt-Out leader, drawing my attention to a piece in the Hechinger Report highlighting the mass introduction of I-Pads in the Mineola Schools. Deutermann was alarmed by what she read and wondered why more parents are not similarly aroused. The huge response by people to her Facebook posting of this article offers some hope that parents are beginning to recognize this invasion of screens into our classrooms as the serious threat to quality education that it is.

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The Latest Ed-tech Nightmare

While some have taken my criticism of the movement to infuse k-12 education with technology as evidence that I’m a 21st century Luddite, I’m actually interested in technology and its impact on the lives of human beings. From the advent of moveable type to the smartphone (Mine is called life companion.), technological advances often have a profound impact on the way we live, work and think. In challenging some of the uses of technology in education, I have often reminded my readers that education is essentially a social process, at its best involving a special kind of intimacy that grows between teacher and learner, an intimacy through which largely immeasurable subtle communications are exchanged that contribute to our development in ways far more important than the subject we are in a classroom to learn. I suspect that when we think of the teachers we remember best, we are recalling people from whom we absorbed ideas that remain important to us to this day, bits and pieces of thoughts that have been spliced together to make us who we are as thinking beings. Miss Levy, Mr. Jacobson, Mr. Gebhardt, Mr. Geshwind and Miss Vogel have been teachers from my school days who in ways I’m only half-aware of had a profound impression on me and who to a very real extent are responsible for who I am today. The extent to which we send children to school to stare at screens and attempt to provide them with an individualized education is, I fear, the extent to which we create barriers to this special kind of intimacy, a loss that can never be made up for or replaced. It is a loss with unknown social consequences, too potentially serious to blithely ignore as the ed-tech champions do.

I’m thinking about this subject this morning having read an NPR blog on a computer based math program being used in some New York City schools. The program is a technological step forward in turning instruction into a series of algorithms. As a principal who was interviewed for the piece observes, if the goal is teaching to high stakes tests, the program is probably good. To this teacher, however, it is a dystopian nightmare literally baby steps away from ending education as a social process. It is but the latest example of the substitution of training for education.

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A Must Read

As a young man, my elders always reminded me that my political views would grow more conservative with the passage of time. It used to irk me greatly to have my political thoughts countered with this bromide. I couldn’t imagine that simply as a factor of growing older and acquiring more my political sensibilities would gradually shift rightward. Was there some sort of political sclerosis that afflicts the aging that I knew nothing about?

I’ve been pleased to find that contrary to what I was led to expect, my intuition was correct. My political thoughts have grown more radical with the passage of time and appear to me to be directly related to knowing and understanding more about the world. I’m very glad that even as I reach my senior years, my mind is open to penetrating arguments like the one in Henry Giroux’s article “Barbarians at the Gates: Authoritarianism and the Assault on Public Education.” If you have followed and credited my thought on the real agenda behind the so-call education reform movement, if the substitution of training for education troubles you, if our increasingly blind faith in the centrality of technology to the education of our youth nauseates you, if you have suspected that the privatizers grab for public education is part of a much broader social agenda, read this article. You and I may not agree with it all, but it’s the kind of analysis that helps us challenge and clarify our own thoughts. I’m very thankful to the friend who sent it my way.

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The Smart School Bond ACT

Proposition 3 on the ballot in New York this Election Day is entitled the Smart Schools Bond Act. While it may be smart for the high tech industry, I don’t believe it is a wise move for the citizens of this state.

The Act proposes that the state borrow 2 billion dollars which then would be apportioned to school districts on the basis of their state aid to enable them to purchase essentially whatever they wish. Districts would be free to buy things like computers and tablets and other gadgets that are almost obsolete as you take them out of their packaging. Yet, the taxpayers will be paying for them long after they are seen as relics of a remote past. The judgment of some of our school leaders suggests that much of this money would be wasted on the gadgets de jour. We need only look the colossal waste of millions on I-Pads in Los Angeles, where dollars that could have been spent to lower class size and expand cultural programs ended up as a pile of useless junk instead.

I have written before of what for me is the scam perpetrated on the public by some of the high tech companies who have discovered public schools as a major profit center. While there is astonishingly little evidence that the huge expenditures on high tech produce any significant academic gains, corporate propaganda has had the public convinced of its efficacy. They have contributed significantly to the empty verbiage of today’s discussions of education in which people vapidly punctuate their remarks with meaningless expressions like “21st century learners” and “best practices.” While I recognize that I risk poisoning the well when I observe that former Google CEO Eric Schmidt is on the panel created by Governor Cuomo that recommended features of the Act and will “oversee” its implementation should it pass, the fact is to me it is the latest example of corporate infiltration and subversion of public education.

A recent meeting of our board of education offered an example of just how deeply corporate ideas have penetrated our public schools. Our district just spent many thousands of dollars converting from Windows XP to Windows 8, a conversion brought on by Microsoft’s termination of its technical support for XP. Rather than lamenting how we are at the mercy of the Gates Empire who can stop supporting their products any time they choose to, one of our board members thought it an honor that Microsoft offered us an opportunity to be in one of their commercials. Some honor.

Finally, future iterations of the Common Core aligned high stake tests are planned for administration over the internet. Should this act pass, it will facilitate this process. This fact alone should cause those of us battling the scourge of high stakes testing to vote NO on Proposition 3. Maybe the Smart Schools Bond Act is not so smart for taxpayers after all.

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Turn Off Your Child’s Screen

I’m increasingly the odd man out in discussions with educationists and lay people about the downside of our increasing dependency on in our nation’s classrooms. I’ve been writing for some time about the dangers, suggesting that research increasingly shows us that people read screen differently than they do paper text. While it has been comforting to see more and more research supporting my view, that research hasn’t had much impact on the leadership of our public schools who continue to be enthralled by the corporate claims for the benefits of high tech classroom.

Consider the latest research insight that appears to show that we have an area of our brains that equips us to read things like our twitter feeds and a distinctly different area for doing deeper more serious, more academic reading. Even more to the point, the studies show that screen reading doesn’t activate the part that enables deeper reading. What is more, the ability to engage the portion of the brain needed for deeper reading atrophies with disuse.

If we are open to the validity of this research (If we are honest with ourselves we will admit that we all read screens differently than paper), we need to get more serious than we have been about some trends in education. More and more schools are introducing e-texts to our schools. Many school districts are buying tablets or asking kids to bring their own devices to school so that students are doing more and more of their reading on screens. The national exams tied to the Common Core State Standards are to be administered online, tests which are claimed to measure students’ ability to read harder, more academic material. Does any of this make any sense? Are we ironically undermining the ability of Americans to do the very kind of reading and thinking that we spend so much time talking about advancing? More and more evidence seems to point in that direction.

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Technology Dependence

As I’ve gone around our district with Dr. Lewis, our superintendent, to listen to the staff, we always hear numerous comments about the sad state of the district’s technology. While my readers are well aware of my view that the value of educational technology has been grossly oversold to the point of being a corporate scam, the fact is that teachers of more recent vintage are lost when the equipment malfunctions. Their situation is roughly analogous to my generation of teachers being without books or paper. If all of your lesson plans and materials are stored on your computer for use on you smartboard, the system going down effectively cripples your instruction until it is fixed, which in our district can often take days, if not weeks.

We take attendance, record our grades, communicate with parents, store lesson plans and bookmarked websites for class use – all on the district’s computer network Teachers are evaluated at least in part on how they use educational technology. Yet in every school I’ve been in over the last couple of weeks, teachers spoke of their frustrations of being encouraged to be increasingly dependent on a totally unreliable system. The fact of the matter is we have neither the hardware nor human resources necessary to support instruction as it is done today.

In good economic times, it would be easier to remedy the technology fix we’re in. But in this era of state aid cuts and property tax caps, where is the money to come from? Are we to cut staff and increase class size in exchange for new machines and support staff? Schools have become addicted to technology, and it remains to be seen in what destructive ways they will respond to their dependence.

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