pc learningLast weekend I participated in a panel on common core at the State GOP annual Lincoln Days, along with two other highly qualified and rational ladies from the Missouri Coalition Against Common Core: Gretchen Logue and Mary Byrne. On the other side of the podium sat school administrative officials who were there to speak in favor of Common Core: Kent Medlin – Superintendent of Willard School District, Danielle Sellenriek – Director of Curriculum, Instruction & Assessment Willard and, Craig Carson, Assistant Superintendent of Ozark School District. I admit it would have been more beneficial for the audience to structure the event in a different way. It was not fair to ask the administrators to defend common core, one piece of a much larger puzzle that is being pushed on them by the bureaucracy of the state. They believed they had no choice in the matter and preferred to look at it as an “opportunity,” not an unwanted intrusion.

Both sides of the podium viewed common core from different perspectives, which appeared to make us opponents, when in reality we were each concerned with very different issues.  The administrators were concerned primarily with whether they were doing a good job working toward the goals the state set for them. We were concerned with maintaining the governance structure of our country which is supposed to guarantee states control of education. Considering the vastly different concerns we had, it was difficult to come up with questions that both sides of the stage could reasonably answer. The back and forth tended to be a little awkward.

The panel did offer us a chance to hear how schools thought of their role in education and their belief in their continued freedom to self direct.

In one response, I mentioned the cost burden of the technology being required for the assessments. It has often been justified by the claim that so much of education was going to rely on computer technology in the future that schools were going to have to invest in the hardware anyway so, they may as well get to it now. Using a computer is a 21st century skill. Such investment, however, cannot be considered a one time line item. I have seen estimates that say for every dollar spent on hardware, a dollar should be permanently added to the budget for maintenance of the hardware and software. I added that I would prefer my children be taught by a teacher and not a computer.

The Superintendent of Willard responded to my comment by diminishing my concern over computers in school. He believed that there was no plan to replace teachers with computers, at least not in his district. But from the information in this Salon article, he may have to work a lot harder to keep that promise than he imagines.

Currently computer adaptive learning is most readily being used to catch kids up who are arriving at college unprepared for the coursework. On-line learning is handling remediation classes. There may be some benefit there, but k-12 is not being spared from computer aided teaching.

As much as 20 percent of instructional content in K–12 schools is already delivered digitally, says Adam Newman, a founding partner of the market-analysis firm Education Growth Advisors. Although adaptive-learning software makes up only a small slice of the digital-instruction pie—around $50 million for the K–12 market—it could grow quickly.

So, back to the rationale that schools are going to need computer technology to teach in the future. The biggest benefit so far seems to be to the bottom line of the suppliers of computer learning software developers and hardware makers. The benefits to the k-12 schools and students are, as yet, much harder to pin down.

Empirical evidence about effectiveness is, as Darrell M. West, an adaptive-learning proponent and founder of the Brookings Institution’s Center for Technology Innovation, has written, “preliminary and impressionistic.” Any accurate evaluation of adaptive-learning technology would have to isolate and account for all variables: increases or decreases in a class’s size; whether the classroom was “flipped” (meaning homework was done in class and lectures were delivered via video on the students’ own time); whether the material was delivered via video, text or game; and so on. Arizona State says 78 percent of students taking the Knewton-ized developmental math course passed, up from 56 percent before. Yet it is always possible that more students are passing not because of technology but because of a change in policy: the university now lets students retake developmental math or stretch it over two semesters without paying tuition twice.

Will Willard be able to keep their promise to use teachers to teach their students? Assuming the culture at large can get past the concerns of children being continuously monitored by computers and their performance recorded in state run databases, and that is currently a big assumption, computer learning will be a major part of the classroom. Eva Baker of the Center for the Study of Evaluation at the University of California, Los Angeles is not as optimistic as the Superintendent of Willard about keeping computers out of our schools. “The reality is that it’s going to be done.  It’s not going to be a little part. It’s going to be a big part. And it’s going to be put in place partly because it’s going to be less expensive than doing professional development.” Arizona State’s executive vice provost Phil Regier believes it is a de facto positive move that teachers will embrace. “[B]y the way, in three years 80 percent of them aren’t going to know anything else.”


Anne Gassel

Anne has been writing on MEW since 2012 and has been a citizen lobbyist on Common Core since 2013. Some day she would like to see a national Hippocratic oath for educators “I will remember that there is an art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding are sometimes more important than policy or what the data say. My first priority is to do no harm to the children entrusted to my temporary care.”

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