The role of unions in technological change
Greg Wilson pointed me to the O’Reilly site this last week, which has a series of blogs on how the solutions to our educational problems lie in tablets, and what’s preventing us from reaching this educational nirvana are teachers’ unions.
The poster child for the digital classroom is tablet computing. Tablets are traditionally seen as replacements for textbooks, but they can go much further than that: They’re musical instruments, design tools, personal trainers and art canvases. Tablet prices have dropped dramatically as well. When you add up the cost of a year’s textbooks, a tablet is often cheaper.
Tablets connect all of the stakeholders in a child’s education: parents, teachers, tutors and counsellors. But most importantly, tablets are two-way. When a student uses a tablet, the tablet can collect data: What’s read carefully and what’s glossed over; how long a student spends on certain topics; what works best and worst; and so on. In other words, when you learn from a tablet, it learns from you.
This is where my research went off the rails. Because a tablet is the perfect collector, it allows us to analyze learning patterns, identify root causes and compare students. What if the conclusion it reaches is that your teacher is simply awful? That Freakonomics piece pointed out that only 13 percent of eighth grade math teachers in New York City get 80 percent of their students to proficiency by the end of the year. Data acquired through a tablet is likely to point toward a bad conclusion for some number of teachers.
There’s a group that protects teachers from that kind of scrutiny and accountability: the teachers’ unions. In the U.S., teachers’ unions are the single largest political contributors. Teachers have a unionization rate that’s much higher than that of other industries. They have consistently opposed using student performance to rank teachers, despite extensive research showing that student performance is the most significant indicator of teacher competence. They’ve lobbied legislators to refuse donations to charter schools. It takes years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to dismiss a bad teacher. As a result, despite a lack of teaching ability, 99 percent of teachers get satisfactory ratings from their administrators.
It’s a series of foaming, not well-argued blog posts imbibed with faith that technology bestows silicon grace. Tablets are the answer because…well, MIT OpenCourseware exists! And Unions are the problem because…well, we can get three pundits to say so! I haven’t seen such faith in the power of technology to change education since Edison said much the same things about motion pictures (re: Larry Cuban).
I was simply going to ignore the posts, until The New York Times came out with an article yesterday defending teacher’s unions!
A combative labor leader who does not shrink from the spotlight, Ms. Weingarten has been fighting back. She issued a written rebuttal to “Waiting for Superman,” and she has publicly debated the film’s director, Davis Guggenheim, arguing that teachers have been made scapegoats. More to the point, the portrait of Ms. Weingarten as a demonic opponent of change — albeit one more likely to appear in a business suit and cashmere V-neck sweater, with a Cartier Tank watch and a red kabbalah string around her wrist — is out of date, according to many education experts.
In the past year, for example, she has led her members — sometimes against internal resistance — to embrace innovations that were once unthinkable. She has acted out of a fear that teachers’ unions could end up on the wrong side of a historic and inevitable wave of change.
“She has shrewdly recognized that teachers’ unions need to be part of the reform,” said Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, an education research group.
The solution to any educational problem is complex — you’re trying to change a system. I completely believe that tablets could bring a lot of benefits to classrooms. I am also quite sure that it would be hard and expensive to bring tablets into the classroom in a large way, and it could easily go wrong (e.g., teachers not taught how to use them well, lousy software), and then it’s just a waste of money. It may very well be that unions are inhibiting reform — but given my battles with faculty, public sector education administrators, and school board bureaucracy, I don’t see that unions have the trump card here.
The corner of education that I focus on is computing education. (Not “computer education” :-) And in that small corner, I don’t think that we know how to make everything work right, even if we had a magic wand to waive and “fix” the system all at once. Is the new AP class “Computer Science: Principles” going to get really good computer science into 10,000 high schools? That’s not even a well-formed question, since there are at least five different takes on that course now. We’ll have to see, and measure what’s happening, and change strategies and tactics to fix problems we discover as we go along. I’m pretty sure that dumping more tablet computers on classrooms will not make computing education much better.