Tag Archives: education technology

Three VIPs for New Teachers

You’re a new teacher, worried about how to start? Let me tell you about the three most essential contacts to make in your earliest days. Notice that none of these people are, technically speaking, colleagues. If you can find teachers who want to help you, great. I always make sure new teachers have a mentor or at least my help if they need it.  But this is about getting the support you need to do your job and other teachers aren’t really the first line of defense.

The Tech Guy

It’s usually a guy, so I will call him a “he”. Districts usually centralize technology, but each school site usually has a dedicated support guy. The first person you’ll meet is the principal’s secretary (more about her in a minute) but your first real friend must be the tech guy.

Few teachers recognize the advantages to being on first name terms with the guy with keys to the computer room, so they often won’t think to mention him. “Who’s the tech guy?” is a question that leads to other questions. Try “Is my email set up already, or will I need to request it?” or “Do you know if I have an account on the district server?” are excellent questions to elicit the tech guy’s name quickly.

I’ve been at three considerably different schools and found good tech support. But even if the guy is a lazy loafer with no real redeeming qualities, cultivate his acquaintance.

Take printers, for example. You can buy your own printer and request to set it up. This often violates several district policies, needs approval, and in some cases can’t be done at all. Alternatively, you can casually mention to the tech guy that if he has any spare printers, you’d be happy to set it up yourself, keep his workload low….and leave it dangling. Three schools, three printers set up for the asking in under three days. Old ones, sure. But they all worked, and I had them day one. And got replacements when needed.

I’ve seen teachers go two weeks without email, been forced to take attendance (shudder) manually, have no idea how to print to the main copy machine, all because they didn’t take twenty minutes to meet the tech guy. Meanwhile, I’ve gotten ten minute turnaround time when my DVD player doesn’t work on Movie Day, even though I make it clear my problem is non-critical.

Our school paid for our own tech guy for several years by giving up two class sections. He was worth every penny, and we’d still have him except the district technology director didn’t like him and reinstituted centralized control. Our current tech guy, supplied by the district, is also terrific. He likes green beans. I give him two or three bags of freshly picked beans from my garden, every year.

The Principal’s Secretary

Some schools separate actual secretarial support from the administrative tasks of running the school, but in my experience the job is usually centralized. Simply put: who does keys and subs? Who manages the missed prep list? Who runs work orders and facilities requests? If it’s not one person, you don’t need to worry. But it’s usually one person, and it’s usually the principal’s secretary. It’s almost exclusively a woman, so I will call her “she”.

She is actually the VIPest of the VIPs. You will meet her first when you start the year, but that’s the time to get out of her way. She  will be tremendously busy  and ferociously focused, particularly in the days leading up to the start of school.  Get your early business down quickly, smile, and begone.

In my experience, the principal’s secretary has an undocumented but strictly followed communications regimen. I’ll share the one consistent to the three I’ve known; yours may be different.

  • Email–only for work orders or other action items that go to someone else, something she can put in a folder for documentation.
  • Phone–only used for the immediate action of Send Someone Now. There’s a wasp in your classroom. There’s a fight in your classroom. There’s someone injured in your classroom.  You are about to vomit and need someone to babysit while you run to the john. Etc. You don’t call 911. You call her.
  • In person–the best way to handle three or four questions at once. Stop by during prep, or 15-20 minutes after the last bell.

In person, the five most important words to start all conversations with the principal’s secretary are “I’m sorry to bother you….”  Possibly add in “and it’s probably not your job, but I thought I’d check with you first.” Because in most cases, she will have sent out a document giving you the correct procedure, and in most cases you will not have bothered to read it. That’s fine, just slap your head and look apologetic, and try not to ask her two or three times in as many days for the same instructions.

Carefully restrict these in-person visits with questions in the first weeks of school. Don’t be a nag. Whatever other mistakes you might make, never ever think that your needs outweigh the importance of her job. You’re one of, what, 50? 80? If you don’t show up, a sub’s just a few minutes away. If she’s pulled away, a non-trivial chunk of school business gets put off until she gets back.

Eventually, she shares her observations with the principal. You want her report to be positive.

The All Powerful One at my second school had clearly decided long ago that most teachers were trying to make work for her. So outraged was she at the most innocuous query that I resorted to pure groveling.  “I know this isn’t your responsibility, and I swear I wouldn’t ask you except I’ve tried everyone else and you always seem to know everything that’s going on. Do you know where the purchase orders are kept?”


“Oh, ok, it’s not your job to tell people where the purchase orders are kept. Could you tell me whose job it is to tell me where they are? I’m sorry again for bothering you.”

This, she found amusing and deigned to respond with reasonably useful information. After I left, an ex-colleague got in trouble when, irritated at her reflexive outrage, he snapped at her, “I’m helping kids. Your job is to help me.” This earned him a reprimand that went into his permanent file. I advise grovelling.

My current Principal’s Secretary is excellent, properly inspiring fear, respect, and rapid learning curves for all things administrivia. We’d gotten along well for three years until I didn’t call in a sub in a timely manner. No points were granted for my heroic attempt to avoid taking a day off.  I was originally somewhat nonplussed that she didn’t give a rat’s ass about my almost non-existent absentee rate. Then I realized that her job is to get coverage, which meant healthy, noble me was far more hassle than the teacher taking thirteen days a year with a properly notified sub. Humbling.

But she forgave me after a few days of grovelling. I bring her squash and cucumbers every year. Plus, she thinks I’m a pretty good teacher–she’s the mom in this story.

The Attendance Clerk

This will be less focused than the other two because in order to properly value the attendance clerk, you need to understand the importance of attendance.

On the first day at my second school, the union rep reminded us all of the two Do’s and one Don’t: do be on time, do take attendance, don’t touch the kids.  These, she stressed, were the essentials of the job. We all laughed at the truth so brutally expressed: actual teaching is a secondary consideration.

I got a call from my attendance clerk one time, “Why is Darby skipping your class every day?”

I was confused. “He’s at basic training.”

“What? No, he’s not.”

“He said he was accepted to the military and had all the credits he needed to graduate, so he was starting basic training early….this sounds really stupid now that I say it out loud.”

“Yeah, he’s lying. And he’s in all his other classes.”

“Um. No. He’s not. He’s out of town. I know this because he texted another student to ask me not to mark him absent, but I told him…”

“#(S&U#*(&*QT!” and the clerk hung up the phone.

Darby was in an entirely different time zone. His parents were out of town and thought he was in school. When his parents got automatic notifications of his first block absence, he told them he was sleeping in and showing up late. I was the only one of his four teachers marking him absent. The other three thought he was in basic training, too.

At best, that’s embarrassing. At worst, it’s a lawsuit. At really worst, it’s a lawsuit and millions in settlement.

Schools are legal custodians of the children (in loco parentis) while they are in school. Taking attendance creates a legal document, one that is audited and cross-checked, establishing that the student was in the school’s custody. (Note: Many high schools, like mine, have open campuses, allowing students to leave and return. I have never known how that squares with our legal custodial responsibilities.)  That’s not even getting into the fact that schools often get paid for each student in attendance, and the government likes schools to be able to prove in regular audits that they got paid for actual butts in chairs.

All sorts of  caselaw abounds defining school responsibilities, where they exceed parents, what a “reasonably prudent parent” would do, but we’re all just one nasty case and a cranky judge away from utterly ridiculous strictures. Fortunately most of it is out of your purview. Except attendance.  Most of the admins who’ve evaluated me have also checked with the attendance clerks to see how I’ve done. New teachers in particular want that report to be good.

But that’s all just about taking attendance on time, which you should do anyway. Why is it a good idea to be buddies with an attendance clerk?  As you’ll soon observe, these ladies are at best mildly friendly, at worst complete grouches. Their job requires a great deal of nagging teachers, apprehending students in the act of cutting,  and placating parents when teachers (raises hand) accidentally mark a present student absent.  Never mind the daily duties of nagging teachers to take attendance, sign off on their weekly audits, and so on.

But all of this is why it behooves any new teacher to seek them out and befriend at least one clerk. You’ll screw up occasionally. Or a lot, if you’re me. Don’t hide your mistakes. Don’t hope they won’t be noticed, because they will. Acknowledging your errors and emailing them will not irritate the clerks, but win their appreciation. I once apologized to my favorite clerk for being such a screwup–on more than one occasion I’ve somehow missed taking attendance for an entire day and had to email with a deep grovel and my best recollection of who wasn’t there. She laughed. “You’re in the top 15% of all teachers here. Twenty three percent of our teachers don’t ever take attendance.”  I bring them all a bag of heirloom tomatoes to great acclaim.

Pick an attendance clerk to be your “buddy”–she’ll call you up with questions instead of assuming the worst, allowing you to correct minor errors. She’ll send reminders. She won’t nag. She wants teachers to value her work, not despise her picayune corrections. Let her help you. If it ever comes to a lawsuit, you want to feel good about your attendance record.

What about…..?

If you teach K-5, custodial staff replaces attendance clerks. Custodial staff almost makes the cut, but honestly, you won’t need reminders to be nice to them. These are the first folks to enter your room after the last bell, when they get the trash, take a quick look around the room to plan for later. They’re often the first adult you’ll have seen in hours, so smile and take the time to talk.

Leaving administrators. Shouldn’t new teachers cultivate administrators?

Yes, but this is outside of your control. Administrators make their own choices.  I’ve been at two jobs where the teachers loved me and the administrators looked through me, and one job (here) where administrators loved me from the first day, while  three senior math teachers considered me a dangerous radical, best purged.

It sucks to be unpopular with your colleagues. But if you want the time to build relationships, then it sucks more to be unpopular with your administrators. I wish it were a choice. But schools are an ecosystem, and fitting in is outside simple behavior changes.

Of course, that might just be me.

In any event, you don’t need me to tell you to make nice with the boss.

Here’s to a new year.






Just Another Meaningless Policy Paper

I read so many reports that are utterly moronic from start to finish, with countless foolish assumptions and unfounded premises. Most of the time I can’t be bothered. But I don’t want to grade papers, so I thought I’d fisk this.

Are Schools Getting a Big Enough Bang For Their Education Technology Buck?

Let’s assume they aren’t. But that’s not the point.

Start with the author, Ulrich Boser:

Prior to joining the Center, Boser was a contributing editor for U.S. News & World Report, special projects director for the Washington Post Express, and research director for Education Week newspaper. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, and Smithsonian.

So Ulrich is a reporter. And if google is any guide, Ulrich was not an education reporter. Just exactly the kind of background needed to make recommendations about an insanely ambiguous subject like education technology spending. Well done, Center for American Progress.

On to the paper.

For American companies, leveraging digital solutions has long been a way of doing business, and over the past sixty years, the approach has resulted in average worker productivity climbing by more than 2 percent a year due in large measure to improvements in equipment, computers, and other high-tech solutions.

Educators, however, generally do not take this approach to technology. Far too often, school leaders fail to consider how technology might dramatically improve teaching and learning, and schools frequently acquire digital devices without discrete learning goals and ultimately use these devices in ways that fail to adequately serve students, schools, or taxpayers.

Do we have any idea how technology might dramatically improve teaching? Waiting. Still waiting.

No. We don’t. So how can schools consider this?

Meanwhile, are schools pushed to use technology? Yes. Are they pushed to use technology even though no one knows how to improve teaching with it? Yes. Do schools often get money shoved at them that they must use for technology even if they would rather use the money for other purposes? Again, yes. Report to the President on the Use of Technology to Strengthen K-12 Education in the United States

Oh, and the idea that American companies have a clear-eyed vision of how technology can improve their business, that all their tech investments are made with a hard-eyed assessment of the value the technology brings to the bottom line? Please. I worked in corporate America. Major investments sometimes took decades to pay off, or never did. One thing that wonks and educators have in common: they have no idea how much waste happens in business.

We found, for instance, that more than a third of middle school math students regularly used a computer for drill and practice. In contrast, only 24 percent of middle school students regularly used spreadsheets—a computer application for data analysis—for their math assignments, and just 17 percent regularly used statistical programs in math class.

Yeah, newsflash: Teachers don’t want their kids using Excel for their math homework. You know, there’s this whole other group of people who fulminate about kids and their utter reliance on calculators? Excel is a calculator. Moreover, the primary function of middle school math, assuming the kids are operating at grade level, is understanding proportional thinking. Excel does not do fractions or ratios well for the novice in proportional thinking, who has to start making connections between ratios and fractions, fractions and percentages, fractions and decimals. Excel is useless. Finally, vanishingly few middle school students (or high school students, for that matter) are capable of data analysis. One area in which progressives and reformers think as one is in their wholesale delusion that teachers could teach more challenging material, but simply choose not to.

These data varied widely across the nation. In Louisiana almost 50 percent of middle school math students said that they regularly used a computer for drill and practice. In Oregon that figure was just 25 percent.

Computers are introduced for drill and practice in regions with many, many low-skilled students, particularly in regions that are getting a lot of philanthropic attention. Are there, perhaps, demographic differences that suggest Louisiana students might need more drill and practice than Oregon students?

States are not looking at what sort of outcomes they are getting for their technology spending.

What outcomes would prove that technology spending is leading to better results? Higher test scores? What evidence is there that technology spending leads to higher test scores? Jeez, I dunno. How many articles have you seen like this one? I tried to find conclusive research on computer aided instruction, which is the most likely to have a direct impact on test scores, and I can’t find the knockout punch. And remember, Ulrich and his employers don’t like computer drill.

Lots of criticism, but I can’t see much indication as to what, exactly, we should be looking for in our technology spending that would allow us to say hey, look, it was worth the bucks! And of course, since everyone is looking to close the achievement gap and it almost certainly can’t be closed, education technology is probably doomed to fail.

We found that students from high-poverty backgrounds were far less likely to have rigorous learning opportunities when it comes to technology. Forty-one percent of eighth-grade math students from high-poverty backgrounds, for instance, regularly used computers for drill and practice. In contrast, just 29 percent of middle school students from wealthier backgrounds used the computers for the same purpose. We also found that black students were more than 20 percentage points more likely to use computers for drill and practice than white students.

In Geometry, for reasons passing understanding, we teach the Law of Syllogism. If x, then y. If y, then z. Ergo, if x, then z. Blacks and high poverty students are more likely by huge percentages to have weak skills. Weak skills are hoped to be improved by drilling with computers. Ergo…..

We found similar issues at the high school level here as well. We further noted racial disparities when it comes to computer use. Sixty-eight percent of white students regularly used computers for science class, compared to sixty percent of Hispanic students. Students of color were also less likely to have access to hands-on science projects, and just 37 percent of black students had experienced hands-on activities with simple machines in their science class over the past year. In contrast, 40 percent of white students and 45 percent of Asian students reported having such experiences.

Oh, come on. 68 vs 60? 37 vs. 40 vs. 45? Seriously?

Computers, tablets, and other devices can help boost the reach of highly effective teachers, allowing more students to study with the best math and reading teachers, for instance. Several schools have successfully experimented with such reforms, and in various forms, the schools will allow highly effective teachers to focus less on administrative duties and more on teaching. Under this approach, schools will often use support staff to take over noninstructional activities for highly effective teachers such as their lunch and recess duties, while more effective teachers take on responsibility for more students.

Cite? What schools have “successfully experimented” with these reforms? Is Ulrich talking about Rocketship? Because if he is, does he know that Rocketship Academy is all about putting Hispanic children on computers and drilling them on math facts? Which elsewhere in this article Ulrich implies is a Very Bad Thing?

In a way these findings are not surprising. We know that students of color and students in high-poverty schools are allocated less money per student, and they are far less likely to be taught by effective teachers. These factors all contribute to the nation’s large achievement gap where, on average, black and Latino students are academically about two years behind white students of the same age.

hahahahahaa. Yes, it’s bad teachers that lead blacks and Latinos to have lower achievement. Bad teachers are so pervasive that high income blacks and Hispanics do worse or tie with low income whites.

We are certainly not arguing for the nation to stop or slow funding for education technology.

Why aren’t you? We have no idea whether educational technology improves outcomes, or what goals we have. So why should we be spending billions on technology if we don’t know whether or works or what we want it to do?

It is imperative that students graduate from high school knowing how to effectively use technology. At minimum, high school graduates should have the skills to create a spreadsheet and calculate simple formulas such as averages and percentages.

All high school graduates can create a spreadsheet. Most high school graduates do not really understand percentages, with or without a spreadsheet. That’s because we’re too busy pretending to teach them second year algebra, trigonometry and pre-calculus. And if we stopped pretending and only taught the kids who could actually learn those subjects, whilst teaching the kids who didn’t understand percentages how to work with proportions, Ulrich would be at the front of the line of people castigating schools for their racist attitudes and simplistic education for children of color.

Equally crucial is the need to increase access to technology for all students, particularly ones from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Hard to see why, really. We don’t have jobs for low ability kids, technology or no.

Technology is clearly fulfilling some of its promises. Virtual schools, for example, are offering students more course and curriculum options than conventional schools. Many virtual schools also appear to serve students relatively well. When the U.S. Department of Education conducted a detailed review of virtual education studies of both K-12 and higher education efforts, they found that students in online education actually performed slightly better than students who received face-to-face education. As the Department of Education report concluded, “[t]he meta-analysis found that, on average, students in online-learning conditions performed modestly better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.” But the report also cautioned that the increased achievement that is “associated with blended learning should not be attributed to the media, per se,” because of methodological issues.

So he starts by saying that technology is fulfilling its promise, cites a report that he says supports such a claim. Then he admits that the study actively warns against drawing any such conclusion. Does he then cite another report? No. So technology is NOT clearly fulfilling some of its promise.

So then Ulrich points out three apparently obvious recommendations:

  1. Policymakers must do more to make sure that technology promotes key learning goals. But we already know that the link between technology and educational outcomes is practically non-existent. I very much doubt that there’d be a lot of takers for a technology project that didn’t promise to improve educational outcomes. So based on past experience, policymakers should not support technology at all. The reason they support technology projects is the same one driving this idiotic report: happythink.
  2. Schools must address the digital divide. So schools MUST spend more money on technology for poor kids, even though they have no idea what they want and little in the way of evidence that increased technology spending improves scores or technology competence. And they definitely shouldn’t use computers for drilling.
  3. Advocates must push for studies of the cost-effectiveness of technology. In order to judge effectiveness, we’d need to have goals. And if the goal is “improve outcomes” then there’s little evidence now that technology does this, so perhaps we should ratchet back until we either have different goals or have evidence that technology spending improves achievement. But Ulrich and his people don’t want us to ratchet back on spending.

As I said, I have no larger point with this. I just had the motivation to write up my complaints, the better to avoid grading.

But what creates this nonsense? I assume these places have to generate meaningless position papers so their owning philanthropists think their money is well-spent? But who is evaluating their investments for effectiveness?

On ed tech itself, I would quote Larry Cuban, Does Online Instruction Work?:

These policymakers are not irrational [for pushing technology]. There is a political logic in mandating online courses for every student as a graduation requirement, starting pilot tablet and laptop programs, and encouraging a principal and cadre of teachers to create a technological innovation tailored to their school They consult with key stakeholders in the community before inviting charter management organizations like Rocketship Schools to establish blended learning programs in their schools. These decision-makers do not need researchers to tell them that these new technologies “work.” They believe in their heart that they will work. Push-and-pull conflicting urges pit solid research studies against strong beliefs and leave unanswered the question of what kinds of evidence matter. Too often beliefs trump facts. (emphasis mine)

So Ulrich and company aren’t going to get their policy recommendations any time soon.