As we go into Idaho’s 2011 legislative session, Superintendent Tom Luna proposes a major overhaul of public education in Idaho. Prominent features are larger classes and fewer teachers for next year. He says this will be made feasible by giving every child a laptop computer. Starting next year’s 9th graders, every child will use his laptop to take two courses a year on line, thus reducing the need for so many teachers. Even after the computers are paid for, there will supposedly be a net saving over present expenditures for teacher’s salaries and benefits. As funds available for education continue to shrink, this sounds like an inviting solution if a partial one. But will it result in improved instruction?
I see one intriguing possibility. In “Math,” I related how, in the late 1960s and early 70s, Herb Grosdidier revamped the math curriculum at Payette High School, with the result that more students took and completed more math than ever before – or since. The most apparent difference between the “Grosdidier system” and the traditional math curriculum was that any given class was made up of students working at all levels. Algebra, Geometry, Algebra II, and the most basic Special Education math might be going on simultaneously in the same room. Upon completing a course, a student could move on up to the next course, and usually did. Algebra did not begin the first of September and end the first of June. It ended and the student moved up whenever the last test of the last unit had been completed. No longer was a child left behind when the class moved on to the next concept. No longer did a child have to sit there bored, waiting for his slower classmates to catch up.
This abolition of the “tyranny of the calendar,” as Herb called it, required nothing less than an extensive conversion to individualized instruction. After all, quite likely no two students in the same class would be doing the same thing at the same time. Therein lay the beginnings of the Grosdidier system’s problems. Standard textbooks do not lend themselves well to individualized instruction; instead, they demand “for tomorrow, [everyone] do the first 20 problems in Chapter 3.” Instead, Herb created most of his own materials. Never mind that he borrowed bits and pieces from various textbooks and repackage them in a format that fit the requirements of individualized instruction. It was labor-intensive to the point of impracticality. The other math teachers didn’t like it, finding it too much bother. I think Herb himself eventually burned out on it and decided to teach English instead.
Enter technology! Starting next year, 9th graders statewide will be issued a laptop computer and will be required to take two online classes a year! Imagine the opportunity here to make some meaningful changes in instruction. I don’t know what provider the state will contract with nor which particular courses will be offered (or mandated), and it all could, I suppose, be little more than the skill-drill teaching machines of yore. But the online courses that I do know a bit about lend themselves beautifully to individualized instruction. Each child relates one-on-one to his computer, and the software leads him through. What Herb labored mightily to do has been done (we hope) by the publishers of the online course. To someone like me, who did not thrive in high school math, this could be the proverbial better mousetrap that might have made all the difference.
But is this what is intended by Superintendent Luna and the other Policy-making Politicians? I am skeptical. The way I read it, the main idea is to save money. More computers will mean fewer teachers are needed. Supposedly, the computers and subscription to the online courses will represent a net dollar saving over teacher salaries and benefits. I am skeptical. My little dream math class might be a more effective way to teach, but it will not reduce significantly the number of math teachers needed, any more than Herb, having worked through the night to put together the next day’s packages, could spend the period in the faculty lounge drinking coffee.
Politicians love to conflate improved instruction with cheaper instruction, citing efficiency, lean-ness and mean-ness, etc. Of course they do. It’s good salesmanship, to convince the public that promised improvements are indeed being made. But I’m skeptical. This sounds more like salesmanship than substance.