Nothing can replace a good teacher


In this Feb. 1, 2012 photo, a student works with a computer and a calculator during a pilot math class at Reynoldsburg High School in Reynoldsburg, Ohio. (Jay LaPrete/AP)
July 15, 2012

Those who hope 21st-century technological wonders will save our schools should read a recent lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan. It tells the story of Melvin Marshall, a seventh-grader at Barber Focus School in Highland Park.

During the just-completed school year, the lawsuit says, “Melvin was enrolled in a class called ‘Virtual Learning English Language Arts,’ in which he answered questions on the computer. While he worked on the computer, his teacher graded papers or did other work on her own computer. His teacher did not lecture or use the blackboard for instruction. Melvin did not receive direct instruction from his teacher and was frustrated that, although the computer program would indicate whether he answered a question correctly, it never explained why a particular answer was correct.”

In January he began using in his homeroom an online course called Read 180, “America’s Top Reading Intervention Program,” according to its owner, Scholastic. The lawsuit said “occasionally, his teacher assisted students around the room, but she generally sat at her desk and kept track of how students did on the computer exercises. In this program, Melvin did not receive any explicit instruction from an adult.”

When asked about his school, the lawsuit said, the child wrote: “My name is Melvin Marshall I go to Barber foucs school. I wish it was a batter [illegible] in the clean bathroom. Batter teachers and batter Lunch.” When his reading proficiency was evaluated in May, he tested four grades below his age level.Other students had similar experiences, the lawsuit said.

The Scholastic.com Web site says hundreds of studies verify the effectiveness of Read 180. But Scholastic spokeswoman Kyle Good said it, like other programs, won’t work “unless teachers are actively involved.” Highland Park school officials did not respond to requests for comment.

For at least a century, school districts have bought new technologies to save money. They assume the kids will learn more with the new devices and the school won’t have to pay so many teachers. This has turned out to be false. Radio, film, television, computers and the Web have all been hailed as potential saviors of our schools. In each case they have had little effect without good teachers in charge.

Dianne Boyagan Pors, a veteran math teacher and administrator in the East Side Union High School District of San Jose, told me what happened in the 1970s when classroom workbooks were the hot new device. As a rookie teacher, she was assigned five sections of Math 1-4, a remedial course taken by more than 60 percent of the ninth-graders at her school.

Similar to some ventures today, the Math 1-4 workbooks were designed to remove that messy and unpredictable element of math education, teaching, from the equation. Pors was told to give the students a quiz when they arrived and then hand them workbooks. If a student finished one, he would get another. If a student asked a question, Pors could try to answer, but otherwise she was told to sit at her desk and keep quiet.

It didn’t work, she said. But the dream of a cheaper path to enlightenment lives on. We think our best minds should be able to invent instructive exercises that don’t need inefficient human teachers. We all know students you could give a textbook or a software package and come back later to find they had mastered the subject.

Sadly, most of us are not like that. Many of us resemble Melvin Marshall. We need more help. As the ACLU lawsuit says, the Highland Park, Mich., schools are among the many in our country in terrible financial trouble. The temptation is great to find some cheaper substitute for teachers.

That is a dead end. It will only lead to more students like Melvin, confused and frustrated, losing precious time.

For previous Jay Mathews columns, go to washpost.com/local.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years.
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