Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Teachers Matter

A father visited his son's fourth –grade classroom in rural Wellington, Kansas and came away with a vivid description of what he saw from use of the new web-based curriculum developed by Facebook engineers. ”We’re allowing the computers to teach and the kids all looked like zombies,” the father told Nellie Bowles of  The New York Times in her April 21 article   “Silicon Valley Came to Kansas. It Didn’t Go Well”

The Silicon Valley in the article refers to an educational program called Summit Learning, now used in some 380 schools nationwide. Summit is funded by Facebook’s billionaire founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan through their philanthropic organization the Zuckerberg Chan Initiative, which has committed $99.1 million to Summit since 2016.  

School districts in the mostly rural areas outside Wichita, where schools are primarily small and underserved, adopted the free Summit system in 2018 in an effort to boost student performance. Using laptops, students individually access lesson plans and tests online, completing them at their own pace.  Teacher roles in the Summit system are to supervise and guide special projects.

But there are drawbacks to replacing the human touch of teachers with the flat screens of technology, as the Times reporter discovered.

Within a few months of the program launch, a rebellion grew among some user students and parents. The community concerns regarding Summit centered on the reduction of personal interactions in the classrooms: teachers with students and students with students. There were also complaints from students of headaches, hand cramps and increased anxiety from immersive use of the computers. There were some classroom walkouts, parents pulling children out of schools, and protests at school board meetings.  Home-made yard signs popped up such as “Don’t Plummet with Summit.” 

This is not the first time the generous Mark Zuckerberg has funded attempts to improve the public education system. In 2010, Zuckerberg announced with great fanfare on national TV, along with then Newark New Jersey Mayor Cory Booker and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a $100 million gift to create The Foundation for Newark’s Future to repair the Newark public school system, so broken it had been taken over by the state in 1995.The gift was subsequently matched by another $100 million from various philanthropies. 

After five years, as planned, the foundation closed down. Analyses of the completed project by various studies concluded the results of the massive investments were minimal. The 2015 book The Prize by Dale Russakoff, explores the project in depth. She writes that what was left behind afterwards was “as much rancor as reform.”  In 2018, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka analyzed the experience: “You just can’t cobble up a bunch of money and drop it in the middle of the street and say “this is going to fix everything.” You have to engage with communities that already exist – to parachute folks in, it becomes problematic.” 

It would seem the adoption of the Summit program in Kansas is an example of “parachuting in.”  And the subsequent reaction shows that engaging “existing communities” such as teachers and parents apparently was not a priority for the planners. The human factor is critical to successful children’s education and where that is diminished or even replaced by screens and technology it should not come as a surprise when there is some resistance from students, teachers and parents.

 Most people would name a teacher or two when asked who was important to their development into adulthood. I certainly would. A teacher who recognizes some spark in you, who can help unlock a hitherto hidden storeroom of interest and curiosity, can makes a huge difference.

But the “top down” approach, such as seen in Newark and Kansas, to remedying the public education system, especially in underserved schools, has its drawbacks.  Compare that to a “bottom up” approach such as the “School Turnaround” program that supports and mentors the principals and teachers who are on the front line.

I know that difference as I serve on the board of a nonprofit The Rensselaerville Institute, or TRI , whose School Turnaround program helps schools improve performance from the “bottom up.”

Under contract with school districts, TRI specialists  - all are former teachers and/or principals- work closely with principals and teachers in  low income population elementary schools   to finds ways to improve performance mainly in math and reading. Concurrently with, and in support of, School Turnaround, an auxiliary TRI activity called Community Sparkplugs encourages and funds adults near the schools to develop programs to engage students in nonacademic enterprises.

TRI is result-oriented and is judged accordingly by the contracting school districts. The ultimate beneficiary of TRI’s work with the teachers and principals is the child.

The TRI school and community engagements are focused and intense, and not easily replicated wholesale. But the concept of helping public education succeed by first supporting the teacher should be spread abroad widely.  The tech emphasis of Summit Learning in Kansas and the mega “top-down” approach in Newark downplayed teachers important role –except, ironically, in Newark where the Foundation spent millions buying out contracts of teachers judged to be underperforming.

Like any other enterprise, public education has its share of people who do their jobs poorly in classrooms or administrative offices. Performance can be improved with encouragement and support of those on the front line. Concentrate remedial efforts for public education on the people upon whom we depend to make the difference for our children- the teacher.  Parachutes and checkbooks can follow.  

We want our fourth graders arriving home through the front door smiling because a teacher had encouraged them or praised them or they had learned something new and cool. We don’t want them coming home looking like zombies.

Comments on this post or any of the others found in the archive to the left are welcome at: gplatt63@gmail.com

Thanks to those who comment on my posts in advance of publication especially to a very good copy editor my daughter Lucy Platt Weeks. She can found at lucyfplatt@gmail.com for those with editing needs.