Is EdReform Trying to Replace Teachers with Computers?

Any teacher who can be replaced by a computer should be.

I’ve heard this quote so many times, it’s practically gospel.  Replace ‘teacher’ with ‘job,’ and it pretty much is gospel across most industries – any manual labor task that previously used to be done by humans are increasingly being turned over to computers and machines.  So it’s not particularly surprising that this sentiment should be applied to education.

As tech makes its way into the classroom, tests are also receiving an inordinate amount of emphasis. This results in a narrowed curriculum, heavily focused on content knowledge, memorization, and recall, and less on providing authentic experiences to students to help them to connect to and understand the information being taught to them.

The application of “market-logic” to education is basically the heart of EdReform.  The push for merit pay[1. Despite the fact this proposal has been debunked over and over.], the fight against tenure (and unions in general), the emphasis on test-based accountability[2. Those who tend to invoke the “free market” in supporting accountability for education also tend to invoke the “free market” in opposing regulation for other industries.  Telling.], the imposition of the Common Core State Standards[3. This one in particular is a bit more convoluted, though the justification is usually twofold: a standardized curriculum will b) set a minimum bar for all students to be able to compete and b) allow companies to scale their products across markets/states without configuring for multiple standards.], and the support of charter schools are all backed by the same logic.

So, on one hand, we have the dumbing down of our education system to rote content knowledge, and the other hand, we have computers getting more effective at delivering exactly that.  Tom Whitby:

Some states have now passed legislation requiring a percentage of education be delivered in a blended form. Blended learning is a combination of delivery of instruction using the classroom and the computer. There is legislation allowing Charter schools to circumvent many of the restrictions of public education. There is the movement to increase class size in every state. Even more troubling, most recently one state is considering legislation to remove certification requirements of teachers.

Looking at all of those pieces as a whole, there seems to be emerging a possible threat to end Public Education, as we know it. States can create an atmosphere where kids can be placed in charter schools with few restrictions using computer-driven education, directed by non-certified technicians, delivering education to hundreds of kids, maybe in a single class, who do not even need to be physically present in a school. All of which was made possible through state legislation. It is cost cutting and might address the tax concerns of many.

You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to realize things are coming together very effectively to shift education out of the hands of educators.  It doesn’t have to be the purpose of each movement – charter and Common Core advocates don’t have to specifically be in bed with educational technology proponents. However, they are both underpinned by the same “market-logic.”

The introduction of technology to the classroom are a natural outgrowth of technological advances.  Every industry feels the impact of technology to some degree (even the Amish use a horse-and-buggy), and education is, in some respects, just another industry; the problem, though, with that is trying to apply the logic of industry and markets to education is that there are significant social impacts to small changes, and we don’t see those impacts for many years to come.  It’s really only after kids are grown that the full impact manifests itself.

A lesson taught at the age of three results in a behaviour at the age of 23. You can’t effectively measure the behaviour 20 years later, so you test whether the lesson was learned at age three. Which it may well have been – even if it was the wrong lesson. An intolerance or a prejudice taught at a young age is an undesirable outcome, but testing mechanisms have no way to detect for and correct this.

Our demographic and economic data today are in effect measuring the effectiveness of the education system of the 1970s and 1980s. These data show (to me, at least) that while we excelled in the teaching of the arts and sciences, we were weak in literacy and severely lacking in ethics and policy. These failings (not test scores) should be fed back into our understanding of the school system.

In industry, the sole focus on revenue and profitability, this singular metric, drives corporations to do things that an individual with his or her own moral code may not.  We’ve seen the fallout from the financial crisis, we’ve seen the damage done to the environment, and we’ve seen the employees who struggle on meager paychecks; all of these are a fairly direct result of the priority of profits over everything else.

The same problems are manifesting themselves in schools, and basically for the same reason: test scores, rather than profitability, as the single measure worth optimizing for, resulting in the same negative side effects.  There’s a reason we put government in charge of education: to develop a system where these problems are mitigated, to optimize for measures and the immeasurable worth optimizing for.

I support technology in education; we’re entering a world where kids who don’t have tech skills are going to increasingly be left behind.  I’m just not sure that the way we’re going about introducing them is necessarily the way we want to nor have we fully considered the impacts of that process.

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This post is part of the thread: Testing & Standards in Education - an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.