Recently I read a comment on Facebook that has been stuck in my head for a few days and it’s brought up a number of thoughts about some of my favorite people. For some small background, Pennsylvania is in the midst of a budget crisis. We’re closing in rapidly on 200 days without a budget. One of the most talked about budget issues is school funding, which is of importance everywhere but maybe most especially in a state where the difference between the most we spend per student and the least we spend per student is larger than any other state.
So people are talking extensively about what to do about education and the budget and that leads to comments like this:
I believe one of the reasons we voted for Wolf is because he is a businessman. He knows about budgets. Things are going to get much tougher before they get better. We can’t have everything we we want. I do know kids can learn without computers and many other resources. Let the teachers teach. Pencils, paper, chalk and chalkboards. Back to basics.
To be clear, this person is (I’m pretty sure) a Democrat, and they aren’t against public education. They aren’t being belligerent or flippant. They mean well. I’m not angry with this internet commenter, who appears to be making a genuine effort to engage in conversation.
My problems with this comment are two-fold and I’d like to start by talking for a minute about red herrings. Computers in classrooms are not stopping Pennsylvania from having a budget. The computers are – for the most part – already in the classrooms. Ironically, the pencils, paper, and chalk may be in shorter supply than the computers.
Clearly kids can learn without computers. No one is saying they actually can’t learn without computers. Human beings had been learning without computers for thousands of years, discovering amazing things up to and including – say it with me – computers. Technology has been slowly but surely evolving throughout our history, much faster recently than ever before. Technology has become an integral, undeniable part of our lives.
As an Oregon Trail Generation member with a mom who is also an early adopter, I am incredibly comfortable with technology. The tech has been growing up with me for my entire life. And though, yes, at times I have tried to be curmudgeonly about the progression – there were those couple years that I swore I would never be on Twitter and that time I was like “I’m too old for Snapchat”- but eventually I remember that I played text-based roleplaying games on Prodigy dial-up internet and I jump in. Understandably, not everyone is as into social media and technology generally and that’s totally fine. You can not be into something and still recognize its value. My husband has a Twitter account that he basically never uses. He doesn’t feel the need to overshare with strangers. This is 100% fine with me.
What is not 100% fine with me is when people (usually who didn’t grow up using technology) get overly nostalgic about pre-technological educational experience to the point of floating the idea that students don’t need computers. Students don’t need computers to learn the basics. Computers provide many advantages. One of them is knowing how to use a piece of technology that you will have to understand how to use for your life generally but also in almost every job. Just because a kid isn’t going to major in computer science doesn’t mean they don’t need to know the basic functions of computer. When I was in high school, my tenth grade class was the last class to taking typing on typewriters. Every class before mine had also taken typing on typewriters. It was a required class. Typewriters are very much a one-trick pony, but we were all cool recognizing that knowing basically how to type was probably a good skill to have in your pocket for a rainy day. No one railed that the teachers showing us how to type were not actually teaching.
This is, of course, not even to mention the kids who might actually want to go into computer science or some other highly computer-dependent pursuit. How are those kids supposed to jump into those career paths from an educational system that doesn’t support computer-based learning? It may be possible, but it sure as hell isn’t likely that kids who don’t have access to technology in their schools will be able to pursue high-tech paths in their post-secondary education.
Ultimately, however, this is only a prelude to my biggest problem:
I do know kids can learn without computers and many other resources. Let the teachers teach. Pencils, paper, chalk and chalkboards. Back to basics.
Teachers who use technology as a resource aren’t not teaching. This is a statement which, knowingly or not, says that when students use computers, teachers aren’t teaching. Computers are a resource. They are a resource like textbooks or pencils or paper or chalk or chalkboards, with the added benefit that that can be used as all of those things at once and then some. Teachers, I was told recently by a friend who is a teacher, have been restrained by any number of rules designed to keep The Bad Ones from being Lazy Teachers. So many people, most especially of a certain ideological bent, think the problem with public education is (well…the public part, but also) bad teachers. I think the problem is that we keep writing rules based on a fear of bad teachers instead of building a system that gives decent teachers the ability to become good teachers and good teachers the ability to become amazing teachers. Good gods can you even imagine what happens when we have a system that lifts up teachers who are already amazing?
If the only way that we can think of to fix our budget woes is on the backs of students and the teachers that are doing their best to prepare them for life after school I don’t know what we’re doing. I don’t. If you think that the belts we should be tightening are in education funding then your sight is so short and so narrow it is shocking to me that you can see at all. It’s bad enough that we have legislators who think we could just lay off 10% of all the teachers and go on with our lives, as though those teachers both wouldn’t be missed in their former classrooms and their no longer having gainful employment wouldn’t be detrimental to local economies across the commonwealth. Let’s not allow these people to back us into a position of bare minimum education funding to make up for the irresponsible spending habits of legislators who care more about their ideological purity than whether our commonwealth has the sort of education funding that assures students have an education that includes things like understanding what ideology is.
Support comprehensive education. Support schools having the technology they need to prepare students for whatever is next. Support the teachers. Never stop supporting teachers. They’re working evenings and weekends and summers. They’re buying their own pencils and paper and chalk. Teachers are looking for the best in kids who don’t believe there is a best inside them. Teachers are pushing students who think they’ve found their best self to find an even better one. So don’t tell me we need to go back to basics. We don’t need to step back. We need to step up.
2 thoughts on “Think Before You Comment: Teachers Are Teaching Edition”
I’m a reporter. I cover a school district which spent $100,000-plus to replace the computers Ed Rendell bought them because Windows XP is now a virus magnet. I also talked to a custodian who offered me free chalk. They can’t use it AT ALL because the dust breaks modern digital whiteboards. People need to think before they comment …
Weird fixation to choose in the post about the many issues with the attitude presented in the inciting comment, but what strikes me is… Is $100,000 supposed to sound expensive? Because if you know budgets, it’s not actually very impressive.
Since you’re talking about replacing computers from the Rendell administration, that means machines from 2010 at the latest, which apparently lasted till… 2015? Meaning the amortized lifetime cost for all those machines being replaced would be about $20,000/year. For a school *district*.
Just to ballpark that in meaningful terms, I’ll take the Wellsboro school district. In 2012, Wellsboro had a population of about 12,000, a bit over fifteen hundred children 5-17 (school age) in it — the numbers I have are a little old, but we’re covering a few years and there will be some variance, we’re just spitballing for scale. Wellsboro’s total *annual* budget 2013-2014 was about $23 million. That’s per-pupil spending on the order of $15,000/year (in 2010-11 it was $22mm/$14k p-ps, so it seems reasonable to stay in that neighborhood).
So, with all that context, amortized over the potential lifetime of the computers and spread among the pupils being served, that big $100,000-plus number turns into… $13-plus per student per year. So you’re talking about 0.087% of the per-pupil spending. It’s a drop in the bucket, spent to ensure students have access to something any white collar job will require them to be proficient in, if not expert with.
This is, ultimately, the hardest problem with getting into these debates. People fixate on things they find flashy that actually amount to only a minor financial impact, rather than seeking deeper for more meaningful solutions, and since the budget for a district of twelve thousand people is vastly different from the budget for a household, ALL the numbers sound big, out of context.