Monday, April 22, 2013

Kopp Says Technology Can't Replace Teachers

Wendy Kopp argues that technology will never replace great teaching:

Tech visionary Steve Jobs understood better than anyone the impulse to believe that technology can solve our most complex societal problems. "Unfortunately it just ain't so," he said. "We need to attack these things at the root, which is people and how much freedom we give people. ... I wish it was as simple as giving it over to the computer."

That's certainly true when it comes to education, particularly in impoverished communities.
As a founder of two organizations that recruit top college graduates to expand educational opportunity, I've spent a lot of time examining what's at work in successful classrooms and schools over the past two decades. In every classroom where students are excelling against the odds, there's a teacher who's empowered her students to work hard to realize their potential. Whenever I ask the leaders of successful schools their secret, the answer is almost always the same: people, people, people. They are obsessed with recruiting and developing the best teams.
Research confirms that great teachers change lives. Students with one highly effective elementary school teacher are more likely to go to college, less likely to become pregnant as teens and earn tens of thousands more over their lifetimes. Faced with the choice between giving every child in a school his or her own laptop or putting 30 of them in a classroom with one exceptional teacher, there's no question which is the better investment.

So it's disappointing to see more and more people herald technology as an educational panacea while dismissing the indispensable role of people.

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Two responses to Kopp’s column:

Gisele Huff of the Jaquelin Hume Foundation:

Wendy Kopp waxes poetic and anecdotal about great teachers who admittedly and significantly improve the lives of their students.  There are about 3.5 million teachers in this country.  In 2012, there were 10,000 TFA members in American schools plus 9,300 TFA alumni (out of 27,900) who remained in the teaching profession.  Even assuming that all of these people were great, the math is devastating.  Think about tripling those numbers in five years (no easy task) – you would have 30,000 members and 21,000 alumni out of 3.5 million people in the teaching profession.

The “a great teacher in every classroom” mantra invoked by Wendy and many other education reformers is a literal impossibility.  In the history of mankind, there has never been a cohort along any criterion where the bell shaped curve was vertical on the right hand side.  Even if all the efforts invested in this dream were to become reality, it would only flatten the curve on the left hand side and move the bell somewhat to the right.  You still wouldn’t have, couldn’t have a great teacher in every classroom.  However, an average teacher empowered by technology can certainly become much better and considerably increase the achievement of his students.

Interestingly, Wendy makes a persuasive argument for the use of technology when she cites Rocketship.  But she is being disingenuous when she sets up the straw man of either/or: the elimination of teachers or the elimination of technology.

Michael Horn, Executive Director, Education Innosight Institute:

I don't think this is really an alternate point of view. I think folks making false dichotomies -- that Wendy rightly attacks -- represents the alternate view (heck, Wendy writes about how great Rocketship is in her op-ed!). The vast majority of serious people don't think technology in and of itself is a panacea for what ails American education -- and don't argue as such. Equally so though, people are increasingly seeing that simply investing in teachers in a failed and flawed factory-model education system is hopeless to transform American schooling at scale. What's critical is creating student-centric models undergirded by technology such that they can create a system that empowers teachers to be able to personalize for each child's distinct needs (learning and otherwise incidentally). This focus on implementing sound models undergirded by technology and supporting human capital to leverage them correctly is a big reason I suspect Gisele would tell you she is a founding board member of the Learning Accelerator, which is focused on bringing high-quality blended learning to U.S. public education at scale--and in which one of their most critical strategies is investing in the professional development and human capital-focused organizations needed for blended learning to be truly transformational. Although for technology to be meaningful, it should help to make teachers' lives easier and make good teachers great, that doesn't mean we can ignore that human capital piece of this at all.

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