A Glimpse of EdTour 2012
The U.S. Education Department has wrapped up its 2012 tour, conducted under the banner “Education Drives America.” You can read about some of the events and interactions at the official blog of the bus tour: Teaching Ambassador Fellow Dan Brown wrote up a good summary. While I think its appropriate to maintain a degree of skepticism about public relations events like this, I credit the department for creating actual opportunities for relations. The events I saw in the San Francisco Bay Area on September 12th were more than photo-ops.
The tour began at Sequoia High School in Redwood City, California, with speakers and a panel discussion moderated by Arne Duncan. The panel participants were Andrew Ng (a computer science professor at Stanford), Sal Khan (who probably no longer needs any introduction), and Catlin Tucker, a high school English teacher, author, blogger, and member of Accomplished California Teachers. (Click to read Catlin’s blog postabout the event).
The conversation seemed fruitful and informative, exploring some guiding principles and best practices in technology integration in education. I was pleased that Catlin Tucker was so well received by the audience, as she was the only panelist whose comments elicited spontaneous applause. Tucker has plenty of great ideas about technology and blended learning, but always keeps her suggestions grounded in the very real and essential needs of students and teachers. The people come first. The audience of students, teachers, and local education leaders responded enthusiastically when Tucker remarked that technology is not going to save education; rather, if education needs saving, it will depend on great teachers whose skills include the effective use of appropriate technology to promote learning. The emphasis is important: teachers must develop not just their own tech proficiency, but also a deep understanding of their students’ learning needs. When the need can be best met by the use of technology, then you have an appropriate use and productive use of technology. When the technology comes first, we see results like SmartBoards being used as really expensive white boards or projectors, without much benefit for kids (search blog posts by Bill Ferriter or Larry Cuban).
However, I did take issue with one of Duncan’s questions to Sal Khan. He couched a question in the assumption that teachers see Khan Academy as a threat. That makes us sound afraid or unprofessional, as if we need to be soothed and reassured. In fact, I think teachers who know about Khan Academy have other reasons for voicing criticisms and concerns: some people critique the uneven quality of the videos; some object to the idea that Khan Academy is “revolutionary” change when it relies so heavily on basic direct instruction and multiple choice assessment. My main concern is that the Khan Academy narrative is grounded in stories of inept teachers who make video tutoring necessary: if that’s the problem, the solution should primarly involve hiring, training, and developing teachers, and providing working conditions in which they have a better chance of meeting the needs of every student. Khan himself says that videos are there to help the teacher, but I get the sense that the Academy’s most enthusiastic supporters are really more enamored of technology than teachers, and aren’t applying much critical thinking to solve the more urgent needs in most schools.
After the large, public event, there was a smaller town-hall-style meeting with three national education policy leaders engaged in genuine dialogue with about 50-60 local education leaders. The panelists were Karen Cator (Director of the Office of Educational Technology), Deputy Secretary of Education Tony Miller, and Steven Robinson (Special Assistant, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education for the White House Domestic Policy Council). In a room with mostly school board members and district level administrators, very few teachers and no media, I wondered what the tenor of the conversation would be like. Cator started off the event by stating simply that the purpose of the meeting was dialogue, and so the audience should just start asking questions. I was impressed by the overall candor that Cator, Miller, and Robinson displayed. It’s probably impossible to escape the political veneer on events such as these, so of course we weren’t going to see any major divergence from the party line on issues like NCLB waivers or Race to the Top. However, all three seemed comfortable hearing criticisms and not dodging the issues presented. One comment that made me grimace a bit was Robinson’s effort to deflect criticism of test scores in teacher evaluations in part by pointing to worse mistakes that could be made – like conducting pro-forma evaluations that ignore student learning – which is actually no defense of value-added measurement at all.
The most encouraging part of the event for me was that local leaders spent ninety minutes talking about education policy and only one question suggested that teachers or unions are considered a pressing concern. One trustee of a local school board said that he found the teachers and the union resistant to the idea of blended learning and the use of online instruction. Since he focused on his own experience, I could hardly take issue with his question. He didn’t generalize about all teachers and unions, nor did the panelists take this or any other opportunity to cast blame on teachers or unions for any of the challenges we face.
Other than those few minutes, the discussion focused on budgets issues and their impact on instructional technology, Common Core implementation, and professional development, along with some talk about NCLB waivers, and the ongoing, unreasonable constraints of No Child Left Behind. My impression was that school board members and district leaders are not as intensely focused as the media, teachers, unions, bloggers, and advocacy groups focused on the divisive politics of teacher evaluation, value-added measurement, and “last-in-first-out” (LIFO) policies.
Coincidentally, I had the chance later that same day to meet an educator undertaking an extraordinary tour of his own, an odyssey much smaller in scale than the Education Department’s Bus Tour, but more sustained in its effort to examine student learning and educational success in a variety of settings around the country. More to come in my next blog post!