Educational Technology is a false savior

I was a consumer of Educational Technology as a student; I benefited from taking computer classes in school. I started doing BASIC programming on a Commodore 64 when I was in fourth grade. I have a B.S. in Computer Information Systems, have worked in Information Technology for over fifteen years, was an I.T. teacher, and leveraged technology in the classroom.

I was also a producer of Ed Tech as a teacher. My colleague and I set up a Moodle server for our students, and administered tests and curriculum through that interface with positive results.

The most important thing I learned from these experiences is that effective Ed Tech comes from tech-savvy teachers who use tools in their own unique way. These technophile teachers still taught traditionally (myself included); they simply used technology to streamline and improve its delivery.

So let’s be clear: I do not espouse abandoning educational technology, but I think we have to be much more intelligent and methodical about purchasing it. In my own classroom I used technology, but only in ways I felt helped me do my job better, almost never by administrative mandate. In fact, I’ve always suspected top-down mandates and purchases of classroom technology are rarely effective, especially the haphazard way it’s implemented.

This morning, the BBC  reported on a study by the Organisation for Economic Co‑operation and Development that seems to confirm my suspicions:

[The] frequent use of computers in schools is more likely to be associated with lower results. . . If you look at the best-performing education systems, such as those in East Asia, they’ve been very cautious about using technology in their classrooms . . . Those students who use tablets and computers very often tend to do worse than those who use them moderately.”

I believe our recent attempts in the U.S. to measure and quantify Education have exacerbated the issue.

Teachers are evaluated on their use of technology. Their raises and even their employment are at risk if they don’t leverage computers to teach English or History. How many teachers know enough about effective use of computers to use them intelligently? How many teachers are sufficiently knowledgeable about technology to be able to take this increase in funding and translate it to an improvement in student learning? Almost none. Yet all of them are forced to take time away from traditional teaching to leverage these technologies they (quite understandably) don’t know how to use properly.

This well-intentioned but misguided thinking largely applies to how we approach Educational Technology. If a teacher is not extremely comfortable with technology — or if this technology creates more work rather than streamlining existing tasks — it will probably not have the desired result.

My experience as School Technology Coordinator and high school teacher (of Math, Science and Computers) has taught me a few things about Educational Technology. Here is my experience; others may have different experiences or may disagree, and that’s fine. Here is what I’ve observed:

  1. Technology advances are purchased without proper research.
  2. Technology advances are applied recklessly without proper transition or training once purchased.
  3. A significant percentage of technical advances purchased are best described as “solutions without problems”, which are invariably forced upon teachers who neither want nor need them.
  4. I have never seen User Acceptance Testing implemented prior to completion of an Ed Tech project.
  5. Borderline-inexcusable oversights (I certainly hope they’re oversights) like:
    • Issuing computer-based curriculum without making sure there are enough computers to deliver the curriculum to all students using it.
    • Issuing Macintosh-based curriculum to teachers without issuing Macintosh computers to teachers.
    • Issuing a class set of laptops or tablets without Wi-Fi access points that can handle an entire classroom.
  6. Replacing Intensive Reading (“remedial”) textbooks with iPads.
    • iPads are great, but a waste at $500-$700 a pop. Why not, for example, this $99 Kindle for Kids bundle that includes cases (to take the abuse students will inflict) plus a 2-year replacement warranty? And this $99 is a retail price, not a bulk contract price.
    • Again: these iPads were issued to classrooms without installing WiFi hotspots capable of handling 30 wireless clients at once.
  7. Everything is rushed. Superintendents and politicians have short terms, so they have to “do” something or “change” something in order to give the appearance of success.

I think of stories where American Government textbooks were removed and replaced with online curriculum. At any given time, there were always significantly more American Government classes than there were computer labs. And during standardized testing season (which is scattered throughout the entire school year), instruction would grind to a halt, unless teachers prepared their own lessons from scratch. This means the introduction of technology (a.) lowered the quality of instruction for students, and (b.) created extra work for teachers.

Technology should be a tool that makes formerly manual jobs more easily accomplished, and/or with better quality. Too often, it is quite the opposite in my experience. Educational technology is a false savior; we can’t just throw money at it and expect it to work. We have to be intelligent and informed in our purchases. And again, this is not scientific, just an observation that may be flawed. But I think there’s a strong basis of reality beneath the observation.

I can’t help but think that looking at ways to improve how Ed Tech is purchased and implemented would be a very interesting project and might alleviate some of the problems found by this study.

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My speech to the Duval County School Board

Below is from the April 7, 2015 Duval County School Board meeting:


In 2013-14, the number of high school classes was increased by 14%, without properly funding extra teachers. This led to many elective and core classes having 50-100 students. Teachers were not hired to relieve these huge classes in many cases until over two months were gone into the school year.

In the meantime, secondary principals were given a choice to convert their librarian position to a teaching position. Given the situation above, I believe this was a false choice.

As a result, roughly 70% of existing middle school libraries, and roughly 80% of existing high schools libraries, were closed. Some will tell you they were open, but what they mean, is that the libraries were unlocked.

Twenty-eight librarian positions were eliminated for a cost savings of $1.8 million out of a roughly $1.8 billion dollar budget (1/10 of 1%). Meanwhile, the School Board and Superintendent agreed to save and set aside over 60 million extra dollars in a rainy day fund according to Khris Brooks of the Times-Union. Saving money is wonderful. But not when you are closing libraries and having math classes of nearly 100 students, as reported by First Coast News.

This is not new information. In fact, Joey Frencl, Duval County Teacher of the Year, told you about these library closings nearly two years ago in June 2013. Yet we continue to close down libraries. According to Denise Smith-Amos in the Florida Times-Union front page story last Wednesday, there is only one high school and one middle school left with a librarian. This hurts everyone, but most of all low-income children who have neither Internet access nor a ride to the public library.

Who is making sure books aren’t stolen? Who is doing inventory? Some have suggested volunteers and students could fill the gap. Meanwhile, retired librarians like Susan Santos have stated, “$600 digital projectors, $300 presentation carts, DVDs… cameras are walking out of the library.” I have heard reports from various reliable sources that thousands of books have gone missing from our libraries during this time without librarians.

I encourage those of you who are interested to read further information at miketheteacher.com. Also, please read the Times-Union article on librarians becoming an endangered species, my guest column in the Times-Union, and Superintendent Vitti’s rebuttal to my Times-Union column.

School Board, Superintendent, you have a chance to undo some of the damage. We must hire media specialists, and fund our libraries. Thank you.

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My guest column in the Florida Times-Union

My guest column in the Florida Times-Union regarding Nikolai Vitti’s leadership was published Wednesday. Superintendent Vitti’s rebuttal to my column was published alongside my column.

And for good measure, a letter to the Editor comparing our columns (I believe it’s the fourth letter from the top).

On the same day, Denise Smith-Amos’s story on our school libraries made the front page of the Florida Times-Union.

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Education is not the solution; it is an opportunity

Education is not the solution for poverty, injustice or even ignorance. Education is an opportunity — no more, no less — for each individual student to work their hardest to escape these evils. If we actually want to improve Education, we have to accept this.


When we lose sight of the fact we’re here to provide opportunities, we spend billions on redundant exams and unneeded curriculum changes while dissolving libraries (to save mere millions) and failing to prepare teachers properly for the constant change. We spend billions to fulfill the demand for guaranteed outcomes, when nearly any guarantee in Education outcomes is a fantasy; most variables are outside our control.

I think it’s obvious this trend stems from businesspeople lobbying and advising our government to run Education like a business. I actually think the people wanting to run schools like businesses are overwhelmingly well-intentioned — with some exceptions — but it doesn’t work. I’ve lived in both worlds, and they are extremely different. By nature, businesses have much tighter control of their input and processes. When you hire someone, you choose the person you think has the best chance for success and tell the other applicants (nicely) to hit the road. When an employee disrupts your business processes, you might fire them. If someone is valuable to your company, you have powerful incentives at your disposal like raises or bonuses to retain them.

But schools are not factories, students aren’t widgets, and they certainly aren’t our employees. Students have minds of their own. They have different backgrounds, aptitudes, desires and work ethics. In Education, we can’t (and shouldn’t be able to) hire and fire them, give them raises, or control their study habits, strengths and weaknesses.

And since students are the only ones who live with the privileges or consequences arising from their performance, all we can do — and must do — is ensure we provide students with the best opportunities possible, and encourage them to take advantage. But we still can’t guarantee any level of student success, because the rest is up to them.

Administrators say, “Kids don’t read much; why should we provide libraries for books to collect dust?” Administrators say, “Kids never take their textbooks home to study, why should we buy a book to issue to each student?” Even if many kids don’t use these resources, it doesn’t matter. If we are to reasonably provide children with the best opportunities, all of them should have the choice to take a book home for a couple of weeks (as I’ve pointed out numerous times, restoring librarians would be incredibly cheap), or their textbook home at night, and read it. Whether or not they do so, is up to them. Education is here to provide opportunities, not make guarantees.

I am not pretending that all, or (let’s be honest teachers), even most students are conscientious enough to take full advantage. That doesn’t matter, because the children who have (or develop) initiative should have the choice to better themselves. To take a textbook home, and study. To take a vocational book home, and get started on learning a trade. To take a novel home, learn to love reading and become better readers (And who knows? Reading scores might even improve if you provide kids books to read). Whether or not kids do so, is up to them. Some will, many won’t. We hope and strive to encourage  as many children as possible to do so.

I say this with the firm belief that we have already won 90% of the battle in Education over the past century with two strokes of the pen (Child Labor Laws/Compulsory Education Laws) and the struggle to enforce one Supreme Court decision that sets the ideal of equal opportunity for all (Brown v. Board of Education).

Yes, there are legitimate concerns and debates, but they pale in comparison to progress already made. The opportunity is there for the taking; parents and students must seize it. And as anyone who runs any kind of enterprise should know, unnecessary or improperly applied changes are at least as likely to harm than help. For this reason, I advocate common-sense boosts and moving spending towards the work of teachers and students, rather than sweeping reform that shifts spending towards administration and exam publishers. A bit of calming down all the way around may be what we need. This is much easier when we acknowledge Education is not the solution, but an opportunity for all.

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It would have taken less than $2 million to save all of Duval County’s libraries

From Khris Brooks, former Times-Union Education reporter, on May 31, 2013:

Because the School Board wanted 7 percent [instead of the required 5 percent] of the budget in the reserve fund, Vitti said he didn’t have enough money for the district itself to completely fund all media specialists’ salary. At the middle and high schools, principals will be given a choice between using district money to pay the salary of a media specialist or a full-time teacher.

It is worth noting that Vitti increased the high school day from 7 periods to 8 (14% increase) without increasing the budget for teachers by 14%. This change mandated high school principals to convert the librarian position to a teaching position in an (often futile) attempt to comply with the class-size amendment.

The Times-Union did some research regarding the school library situation with the results posted on scribd. Vitti was hired during the 2012-13 school year. I have analyzed this document for the 2013-14 school year, Vitti’s first school year in Duval County. Some notes:

  • K-8 schools were considered both elementary and middle schools
  • 6-12 schools and Exceptional Student Centers were considered both middle and high schools (The kids who are able to read at the Exceptional Student Centers deserve access to books as much as anyone else).

If I made any mistakes, feel free to let me know and I’ll correct them. Here are the numbers I found:

  • 74% of existing Duval County Secondary School libraries in 2012-13 (79% of high school libraries, 71% of middle school) were eliminated in 2013-14, Vitti’s first full year as Superintendent.
  • 90% of Duval County high schools (26/29) had no full-time librarian in 2013-14.
  • 86% of Duval County high schools (25/29) and 74% of middle schools had no librarian at all in 2013-14.
  • 58% of Duval County elementary schools did not have a full-time librarian, but all had at least a part-time librarian.
  • In 2013-14, Vitti’s funding decisions eliminated library positions from 28 secondary schools.
  • While 90% of high schools didn’t have a single full-time librarian, Paxon (the college prep school) received funding for two librarians.
  • Vitti cut the equivalent of 27.5 full-time positions at these middle and high schools where librarians were eliminated.
  • Vitti blamed the School Board wanting to save an extra $62 million or so for cutting librarians.
  • Estimated savings from killing our library system? 28 positions @ $65k salary and benefits = $1.8 million (roughly 1/10 of 1% of DCPS’s annual budget).

Why would the School Board demand, or even agree, to save an extra $62 million dollars they don’t need to save, when less than $2 million of that amount would have saved all of our middle and high school libraries?

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When it comes to school libraries, Duval County doesn’t understand the difference between “unlocked” and “open”

School Libraries are being killed off across the U.S., often by quietly defunding librarians, leaving the doors unlocked, and claiming the libraries are open to avoid criticism until it’s too late. This is a disturbing trend that Dr. Vitti seems to have effectively introduced to Jacksonville, FL. I believe it’s clear (see below) that Sandalwood, the largest school in Jacksonville, FL, is one of dozens of schools affected by District policies in this way. Please do not direct your support or opposition on this matter towards the principal or school, but towards the Superintendent (E-Mail | Twitter) and School Board. I’m often sarcastic, but this is 100% sincere: the principal at Sandalwood High School is too competent and cares too much about Sandalwood and its students to have ever wanted to close down Sandalwood’s library.


According to multiple reliable sources, including an e-mail to the Sandalwood faculty, Sandalwood’s library was marked to be dissolved. All books were being given away, the books would “not [be] available after this school year”, “[did] not need to be checked out”, and the remainder would be mothballed in the Bulls Bay warehouse in order to convert the school library into a testing center (the latter part was announced verbally by administration according to multiple independent sources). No matter what smokescreen the District puts up, this is “dissolving a library”:

Sandalwood's faculty was told that books at Sandalwood's library would be completely unavailable next year.

And why not? Sandalwood’s library has been dead in the water without a librarian (“media specialist”) for the past two years. So in a practical sense they might as well clear out the books and use that space for something, since Vitti is determined not to fund it.

But now, after many contacted the school, District and media with concerns, leadership has “backtracked” (the exact word used by multiple sources) and stated we were mistaken; that Sandalwood’s library will not be closed.

In a sense this is true; Sandalwood’s library is already closed, and has been closed for two years, along with the libraries of 31 42 other middle and high schools.

At Sandalwood, I observed the former librarian teaching ESE classes full-time in the library. The doors to the library were unlocked so these students could attend the ESE class, but students were not able to research or check out books at the library.

Yet the District will tell you with a straight face the library isn’t closed; District officials are literally equating “unlocked” with “open”, or in a few cases, equating “open several random hours per week” with “open”. Don’t take my word for it. Visit your neighborhood school and see for yourself. Nearly all high school libraries are in reality, closed. Most middle schools as well [EDIT: Please read update below]. I am unaware of the state of elementary school libraries but I invite feedback from any elementary school employees — I don’t need your name, just your school’s name, and I’ll do the rest.

If a school does not have a budgeted Media Specialist, make no mistake: the library is all but closed to students. And as much as we poke fun at librarians in pop culture, think about the tens of thousands of books and other media that have to be managed, ordered, checked out, the follow-up on missing books to ensure books are returned, etc. When we think like this, we can all agree it’s an honest-to-goodness profession that holds enormous responsibility; it requires a master’s degree for good reason. Yet Vitti thinks we can replace librarians with high school students who don’t yet even have their diploma (no disrespect meant to the students), as has been done at multiple schools (students at these schools, including Englewood High School, say that these libraries are useless and rarely/never have the books students need for their classes):

The plan is for students and volunteers to run libraries next year.

I strongly believe this is a smokescreen from the District (not the school) so the District can continue to claim these dead libraries are “open” when they are useless to students. So forgive me; when some from DCPS claim closing the Sandalwood library was never their intention, I don’t believe them; their actions speak too loudly to believe any words to the contrary. And I don’t think you should either.

For anyone who doesn’t understand why this is an issue: what is a low-income/working class/homebound kid without access to the Public Library, Barnes & Noble or Internet supposed to do on the off-chance they want to read a book? Or do research? This question deeply troubles me. I believe it might be the most important question facing our schools in Duval County.

I believe it’s of primary importance because it is an easily reversible manufactured crisis that Dr. Vitti is completely responsible for creating. At $65,000/year per librarian (this is roughly the figure used by the County for the full cost of a teacher/media specialist), the eliminated school librarian positions would cost roughly 1/10 of 1% of the annual budget. Vitti wasted — literally wasted — close to that on the Iowa Test that the District quietly discarded.

If you have stories about your school, please contact me. I will confirm the library’s closure (or opening) myself. Feel free not to use your real name or DCPS e-mail address when you use the contact form.

I have contacted the Times-Union Education Reporter about this. Please also feel free to contact other media outlets, your School Board member, etc. and let them know politely, but in no uncertain terms, that dissolving school libraries is not an option. Each school needs a fully funded, full-time media specialist so our children have easy, equal access to read books and do research.

UPDATE: I’ve done more research and have some solid numbers on Dr. Vitti’s effect on our school libraries for 2013-14. Additionally, Denise Smith-Amos of the Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville’s newspaper) wrote a front-page article Wednesday, April 1 with even more up-to-date information:

There is exactly one public high school and one public middle school left in the city of Jacksonville with a library that our students can count on.

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“What was taken away from my children’s education in order to make them better at taking standardized tests?”

This decades-old quote from Alfie Kohn is as true today as it ever has been, because everything in life is a trade-off. We have limited time and resources. If we increase the importance of testing in our schools, we decrease the importance of something else. We must ask ourselves: what is that “something else” that’s being taken away?

The arts? Creative learning and teaching? Physical activity? Recess? Joy in learning for its own sake? Joy in reading for its own sake? Weeks of instruction per year?

We may want to take time to think about what we lose when we introduce “accountability” and seek “higher test scores” at all costs.

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March 13, 2015 · 11:46 AM