Thursday, June 2, 2011

Letter to the editor: Salina Journal

A recent editorial about school funding, specifically what constituted a “suitable” education, prompted me to write in disagreement.  Most of the article pointed out areas of school funding that indeed could stand to be reduced, although not enough to significantly counter the reductions being made on what seems to be an annual basis.  Near the end, a statement was made that, paraphrasing, basically said that the Journal takes issue with any district that spends more money on computers than textbooks. 

The statement is vastly wrong and obviously biased. 

The Journal, like all newspapers, struggles to remain relevant in an increasingly digital world.  I am one of the few 30-somethings I know who reads any physical newspaper daily.  I have 12 RSS feeds that deliver exactly what I want to read directly to my inbox almost immediately after publication for free.  In that kind of world, of course the Journal would prefer that children not be taught to harness the power of instant information.  Encouraging digital literacy almost guarantees the demise of print newspapers.

What the Journal doesn’t realize is that teaching kids to use these tools effectively to think critically and solve problems is exactly what will enable traditional newspapers to innovate their way into the future.  If they want to survive, they (and all other businesses) need people who can work with others, invent, create, and solve complex problems.  They can only learn to do that in tomorrow’s world by using the best tools we can provide today.  Those tools are expensive, and providing an adequate funding base absolutely needs to account for them.  

It isn’t even reasonable to compare the cost of a book versus the cost of a computer.  Other technologies are not cheap, either.  Books are usually in the range of $50-$100 each, while computers cannot be purchased for less than several hundred dollars. 

Visualization of the various routes through a ...A view of traffic through a portal on the Internet Image via WikipediaThe value of a book versus a computer should be obvious, but for those who still have their heads in the analog sand, let me break it down for you.  Recent estimates put the amount of all human knowledge contained on the Internet at about 97%.  That means that with an Internet connection, students have instant access to almost every fact known to mankind.  Not since the invention of the printing press in the 1400s has there been such a revolution in the amount and availability of information. This revolution is much, much bigger.  The potential is limitless, but the responsibility we have to teach our children how to use it wisely and responsibly is even bigger.

With a book, you get, well, whatever is in that book.  It’s heavy, and you can’t search it quickly to find just what you want.  It doesn’t have links to other books where you can get pictures, videos, songs, and games to help you learn about what’s in it.  I can’t use the book to create something else without tearing it apart and rendering it useless as a book.  I can’t use the book to communicate with anyone.  The book won’t keep track of my schedule and when my assignments are due.  The book won’t let me work on things with other people around the world, and I certainly can’t write in it!  The computer can do all of these things in one day. 

Districts should be spending more on technology than on books.  They should be spending a lot more than they are.  Studies keep coming out that support that assertion.  One of them was published in the Journal on May 13, showing that even the best scores in one classroom where a lecture style was used didn’t compare to the average score in another classroom using clicker technology and more hands-on interactive teaching methods.  Students did nearly twice as well in the interactive classroom using “clicker” response systems.  Another study by respected researcher Dr. Robert Marzano found that veteran teachers who felt confident using interactive whiteboards could expect as much as a 29 percentile gain in student achievement.  In short, that’s like getting 12 months of learning in a 9-month period.  But these technologies are expensive.  One set of “clickers” like the ones used in the classroom experiment in the Journal article can be around $2,500.  One interactive whiteboard with the projector needed to use it is around $2,000 and the cost goes up from there. 

Additionally, districts could be spending money on technology instead of textbooks.  One electronic reading device can store all of a student’s books.  The texts themselves can be created by their teachers and loaded on the device, along with other resources and assignments.  The digital versions of texts can be highlighted, bookmarked, and notes can be taken in the margin.  If a student needs to know the meaning of a word, they can look it up instantly by simply selecting it. 

Technology and computers make things possible.  A student with a disability may be a tremendous author, but no one would know because they have a hard time getting their ideas on paper before they disappear.  With a free application, they can speak a story and have it translated to text almost instantly.  They can copy and paste that text into an editor where they can revise their work, and then they can share it with a worldwide audience for feedback, discussion, and further learning.  An autistic student with an iPad can communicate his feelings and needs.  A third grader with an iPod can learn their multiplication facts, shoot a video for a project, and turn in assignments all on one device. 

Why are we not insisting on this kind of learning?  Why aren’t we demanding that our students be taught this way?  Why are we taking money from our kids at all, in order to pay for mistakes by some of the richest Americans?  Why do their salaries and bonuses continue to hit all-time highs while we blame our teachers for not doing more with hardly anything, all the while threatening to take away even more?  How can our Governor claim “a victory” for Kansas just because he managed to avoid raising taxes while allowing the playground bully-like thieving from our kids to continue for yet another year?  Does this make sense to anyone?

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