The Litany


Investigating the Organizational Changes Needed to Make Technology Effective in the Classroom and Create an Environment Where No Child Is Left Behind

I tire of hearing the same litany: "Teachers must be facilitators of learning; students must be allowed to progress at individual rates of learning; all students can learn; technology can transform student learning; students should be responsible for their own learning; students should be engaged in active learning; no child will be left behind; etc." It's not that I don't agree with these approaches; to see these ideas brought to fruition would make me ecstatic. What bothers me is that politicians and educators seem to believe that if "the litany" is repeated often enough, it will be so. We have been hearing the same party line for many years now and it's still not so, except for a few groups of innovators sometimes called "Islands of Excellence." Unfortunately, islands are isolated, remote, and few and far between.

Curing Education's Ills

If people who are "in the know" believe that these things are the answer to curing education's ills, then why d'esn't it seem to happen? While the infusion of technology seems to make some differences, why don't we see technology being used to produce broad organizational changes that focus on improved student learning? Why can't technology be used to diagnose and follow student progress?

If I went to a doctor who attempted to diagnose my illness by putting me in a group of the first 30 patients he saw and gave a group diagnosis, I would look elsewhere for a doctor. But in a majority of U.S. classrooms, students in the same class get identical prescriptions. While there seems to be some changes in some isolated islands, for the most part, schools still maintain the organizational status quo from 50 years ago. We need to applaud the islands, while bringing their expertise to the mainland.

In most enterprises, technology changes the way business is conducted. To allow technology to work effectively, it must be accommodated. It would be ludicrous to purchase an automobile and then pull it with a horse. When computers were introduced in schools, many educational institutions, in their zeal to have students learn about computers, did exactly that. The new technology was forced to replicate the status quo. In many cases, computers were used to produce the same effect as scratching fossils on slate.

Schools have made progress as they begin to see some integration of computers as a tool instead of an additional curricular item. They are beginning to utilize other mathematical functions besides addition - namely substitution and subtraction - when addressing change. To have technology provide effectiveness and efficiency, new requirements need to be substituted for old ones. Instead of adding onto the curriculum, we must be innovative enough to combine learning objectives or eliminate irrelevant ones. Instead of spending more money, we need to look at places where reallocation of money makes sense.

Diagnosing Student Learning

I was involved in a project about 10 years ago that attempted to use technology to diagnose student learning, as well as increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the learning process. In short, the motto of the program was to make learning the constant and time the variable. Students were allowed to progress at their own individual rates. Some students were able to finish their basic work and master the courses of study designed by teachers. Others were given more time to show their mastery. A networked computer program was used to track individual students and let teachers know instantly of their students' progress. Students who found English easy and math difficult were able to finish their English and spend more time on math, or work on more enhanced problems in their coursework. Students were required to master units as they progressed through the course of study.

What I found interesting were the barriers to organizational change that arose from unexpected sources. I came to the conclusion that in the small semirural community where I taught, schools were more in the business of establishing social strata than learning. It seemed that the biggest concern of parents was not "will my child learn?" Instead, they were more concerned with the stigma attached to a late graduation and the embarrassment of a delayed graduation party.

An additional problem occurred when C and D students were allowed to repeat a unit, master the information and receive an A on the unit. Parents of A students felt that the students who received an A the first time had a better quality A than the students who required multiple tries. Somehow the parents of the A students were often upset because it seemed to challenge their status in the community. We realized quickly that the public perception of "all students can learn" was not the same as the perception of teachers involved in the project. Parents of students who were able to master the material the first time around were not in agreement with our contention that the important thing was learning, and that the quality of learning was the same for students who had to revisit the material. They wanted recognition that their children learned better and faster than other children - a caste syndrome.

Another concern that arose was the fear that students would fall behind - the same stigma of a child being held back a grade. One mother indicated that she would much rather have her child get a D in biology and finish on time, than get an A and finish a month later. The technology worked great. How-ever, the social impact of using the technology caused problems. The point? To make the litany real, three things are fundamentally important:

1. We need to be able to change the organizational structure of schools to allow technology and people to do their jobs effectively.

2. People make technology work, so it is the ability of quality educators that will make the difference in supporting organizational change.

3. Communities need to see the necessity of change in their schools.

To not leave one child behind will take a major restructuring of schools. Because some children are being left behind in the vast majority of U.S. schools, we can assume that the current organizational structure is not capable of producing the results we seek. Furthermore, it seems that schools are operating as effectively as they can within their current organizational configurations. So, changes will have to be accomplished by competent teachers and administrators. It has been my experience that technology in the hands of good teachers makes them great. Technology in the hands of incompetent teachers makes them more incompetent. Teachers need the support and leadership of visionary principals who can eliminate barriers that teachers and students face in effectively using technology.

Beyond having a plan and good people to carry it out, parents and communities must be open to change. The Declaration of Independence states "... that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed." Educational reform is OK as long as it happens to the other guy. Reform is OK as long as we don't have to change the way we do things. We will go to great lengths and suffer to avoid change. Even when districts are failing, there is a reluctance to make changes. Only when schools hit rock bottom are communities and parents willing to consider changing their organizational structures. The reluctance of communities to make wholesale changes without piloting and planning is understandable. Frivolous experimentation can be hazardous to learning, but to be so deadlocked as to never attempt to change is equally damaging.

A Fundamental Change

To help communities understand what leaving no child behind means, we need a marketing plan that is more than just a glittering generality. We need a marketing plan directed at parents and communities that shows a new way of approaching problems by examining the organizational structures that form barriers to getting the job done. We need examples of programs that help students, teachers, parents and community members envision what changes have to occur to make the litany come true.

A national vision must be created to allow people to see what children do in an environment where individualized learning takes place and no child is left behind. The "Islands of Excellence" must show how students spend time in their schools, as well as the part technology plays, so members of other communities can compare the difference with their schools.

This marketing must come from federal and state levels. It must model the activities of schools that exemplify the litany. To tell schools that they should educate all students to their highest ability, but that they should figure out how to do it, is not enough. A consistent message must flow from respected sources outside the community, allowing the public and educators to envision what an effective school looks like, how they are organized, as well as what students and teachers do inside.

Schools need the support of public opinion to make changes that allow their staff and students to work smarter and use technology to its full extent. An affirming body is necessary to make a fundamental change in the structure of schools. We need those who are propagating the litany to not only evangelize, but to find a grassroots voice in communities. Until communities allow schools to change, the litany will continue, but not much will be accomplished.

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2002 issue of THE Journal.