Using Technology as Our Teacher

Examining a new, dynamic way of teaching students.

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Millions more for education! You've heard it before, and the results have disappointed. Now, the Obama administration has announced a $4.35 billion Race to the Top fund—and it could be different this time around. It's the largest pot ever in the history of discretionary funding for education reform for grades K through 12. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan calls it "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" to address a fundamental problem: Just 71 percent of students graduate from high school within four years. And the numbers for minorities are worse: 58 percent for Hispanics and 55 percent for African-Americans.

This time around, can we restore the great American tradition of providing a good free education, as we did in the 19th and 20th centuries? And can we attune it to the need of our time for analytic thinking, problem solving, independence, and the ability to seek out and assimilate new knowledge? I believe we can if we focus on the right key.

There is unanimous agreement on what that key is: better teachers. On average, children with a very good teacher will learn 1 ½ years of material in a school year. Those with a bad teacher will learn only half a year's worth—a difference of a year's learning in a single year. There is more variation in student achievement between classrooms in the same school than there is between schools. In other words, it is better to have a good teacher in a bad school than a bad teacher in a good school. A teacher in the top quartile of effectiveness can raise a student from the lowest quartile of the national achievement distribution to the highest quartile, an increase of 50 percentiles, in just three years.

Force multiplier. Teacher effects dwarf school effects and are much stronger than class-size effects. We would have to cut the average class almost in half to pick up the same benefit that a student gets after switching from the average teacher to a teacher in the 85th percentile. Halving the class size would require that we build twice as many classrooms and have twice as many teachers, an impossible financial challenge.

But how can we identify a potentially good teacher? How can average teachers become better teachers? The secretary's special funding could make a crucial difference by financing a national program exploiting the electronic miracles of the Internet and video. We could escape geography by using the technology to have the best teachers appear in hundreds of thousands of disparate classrooms. This is a force multiplier. The classrooms would be equipped with a large, flat-screen monitor with whiteboards on either side; the monitor would be connected to a school server that contains virtually all of the lessons for every subject taught in the school, from kindergarten through 12th grade. The contents would use animation, video, dramatization, and presentation options to deliver complete lessons, to convey ideas in unique ways that are now unavailable in conventional classrooms. The classroom teachers would play the role of enhancers, answering questions and helping students better understand the material covered electronically; they'd pause the presentation to ask questions and to prompt critical thinking. The whiteboard would be the platform for student involvement.

Technology-teaching would relieve the burden on teachers to prepare content for every lesson each day. It would help to teach special skills, such as foreign languages, that many regular schools may not otherwise be able to afford. It could also provide sophisticated remedial programs, especially in the most common problem areas of math and reading. Failing to learn in the primary years how to decode letters and sounds quickly, automatically, and unconsciously into words, phrases, and sentences often becomes a lifetime handicap. These programs would benefit millions upon millions of American students.

What's more, technology-teaching would make it easier for students with special needs, as well as the early high achievers, to get the attention they deserve. It would also enable principals and administrators to identify their most effective teachers—and the duds.