Verletta White, superintendent of Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS), recently cut $85 million from her own budget proposal — the vast majority of which is being saved at the direct expense of teachers and students.
I’m a BCPS teacher, so to understate it, I’m upset. But I’m not upset because Superintendent White proposed a bare bones budget in the face of a grim fiscal report from the county executive. I could stomach a wage freeze if it meant reducing class sizes and hiring more teachers and counselors in the name of serving students better. I’m upset because she so starkly chose machines ahead of teachers.
At the beginning of the 1900s, our society was grappling with the realities of the Industrial Revolution. Society was shifting. Inventions and innovations drove people into cities where labor was becoming more productive. Business boomed and laborers — adult and child — worked long hours. At the expense of profits and productivity, we realized that there were limits to what should be expected of our people. We mandated an 8-hour workday. Children were prohibited from the workplace and required to attend school. We made these rules to ensure technology did not trump our values. We believed a child should receive an education. People should have time to themselves for leisure.
Similarly, today we are experiencing a revolution, an information technology revolution, where knowledge is easily accessible, and work can be done from home. Here in Baltimore County this revolution has seeped into our public schools through the STAT initiative, headlined by every 12-year-old carrying her own personal laptop. Teachers can always be reached. Students can do more work too by being plugged in every minute of their day. It’s almost like an assembly line, churning out products.
When I say I’m upset, it’s the misrepresentation of the way we should help students grow that gets me the most. We know the social landscape confronting our students is more complicated than previous generations. Yet, BCPS has added to the complexity by promoting the false notion that a person cannot get through their day — even at the age of 12 — without being connected.
Somehow the expectation is that the devices will solve our students’ problems and set them free. If the devices were solving our students’ problems and enhancing learning, the program could be defended. It’s not. In December, The Sun reported on the evaluation of the STAT initiative by a team of Johns Hopkins researchers by pointing out that “the scores are generally flat for grades three through eight.” The researchers called the student achievement under the initiative “encouraging but still indeterminate.” At best, STAT is a gamble to solve problems later, whereas a quality teacher has been shown repeatedly to help students grow.
To cut costs, the county should eliminate the budget for devices in grades K-3. Every minute the county had planned to have these students in front of a screen, change it to an extra minute of recess. My 5 year old and I will be delighted. Grades 4 and 5 need to be learning basic computing skills: typing, saving and accessing files as well as navigating web 2.0 tools. Students in middle and high school need the devices for a host of items from word processing to research. But, these needs can be met without everyone having a computer. If converting the K-2 initiative from 1:1 to 2:1 capabilities can save $15 million, imagine the savings from eliminating the K-3 element of the program and reducing our high school and middle school ratio to something like 3:1.
Superintendent White’s budget proposal and the STAT initiative forget the humanist element of teaching — the element all of us remember from school. It’s the part of our schooling where someone cared about us, and, in return, we cared about something. For me, it was Mr. Trumbull in 10th grade. He taught biology, and I didn’t care about photosynthesis. But, Mr. Trumbull didn’t dwell on that. Instead, he worried about me, as a person, and worked every day to spread his excitement for biology. His enthusiasm became mine that year, and while a love of Biology did not blossom, the idea that I could care about something because it mattered to someone else stuck forever.
The STAT initiative has become so monolithic that it is overshadowing Mr. Trumbull’s importance. The idea that a machine could equal Mr. Trumbull is offensive.