Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Technology in the Classroom

     The public elementary schools my kids have attended seem to be imitating the private school model in its quest for ever more (non-budgeted PTA wish-list spending) monies. Hawaii's public schools receive budgeted funds from state tax coffers for general operating expenses (general funds), plus capital funds for buildings and repairs (paid from general obligations bonds), plus specials funds (e.g. federal grants) for specific, targeted spending. These public sources cover greater than 98% of schools' funding needs. By contrast, PTA funds are received almost wholly from parents of students via fund-raisers and direct appeals for donations—sometimes for books, materials, and supplies. 
     Now, I believe public school teachers have some of the most difficult and important jobs anywhere and should be paid commensurate ultra-high salaries (versus entertainers, athletes, and overrated corporate CEOs). I also believe they do an excellent job teaching our kids. My gripe with these fund-raisers, then, is not with them, but with the process and results.
     Specifically, every year our elementary school-age kids come home with PTA fund-raiser packets that force us to read the contents and fill out forms even if we just wish to make a monetary donation because unsold tickets (for chili, cookies, and whatever) have to be returned and accounted for. The contents also include packets of other fund-raising opportunities for overpriced consumer goods, the bulky glossies of which may be discarded. It's an annoying waste of time (I have to count the tickets to make sure our kids' packets weren't short-changed lest I get charged for “missing” tickets) and guilt-inducing for Deanne. She always insists we give a certain amount for fear we'll be labeled “cheap” or “unsupportive” at our kids' expense (less attention or favorable treatment).
     I reassure her a token sum is all that's necessary. Schools get ample funds for their needs and the vast bulk of PTA monies for classroom use are spent on unnecessary technology (laptops, tablet computers, etc.)
     She knows my stance on technology in the classroom—an unnecessary crutch, largely ineffectual, and all-too-often just another example of lazy teaching. Kidbiz and Teenbiz are busy-work softwares that force users to read asinine articles and answer standardized multiple choice test questions about them and IXL (Math) is a software that muddles children's minds with endless math exercises. All are teach-to-the-test, test 'em till they go insane modern day torture implements that teachers love because they don't have to do a thing—just assign the work and forget about it, the softwares do the rest (self-correct, retest ad infinitum, and display results).
     Granted, these tools probably have improved my kids' standardize test scores a few percentage points, but at what cost? They hate these programs. I know because they never come home saying, “Awesome, I got to retake Kidbiz three times because I didn't score eighty-eight percent or higher my first two tries!” or “Oh yeah, I get to do two IXL's every week! Wonder if I can do more and get ahead?” No, they—normally very responsible about their homework—have let this one area slide more than any other. Unless we occasionally ask, “Are you up-to-date with Kidbiz? What about IXL?” we all-too-often find out later that they hadn't been via unpleasant surprises such as bad grades.
     (Call me slow but I only now realize what IXL means. Shouldn't vendors to elementary schools use standard English and shouldn't these products thus be renamed using proper spellings and grammar such as, “In the Business of Teaching Kids English”, or, “I Excel in Math”? In short, shouldn't they be be setting better Xamplz? (JOKE) Note to vendors: Kids think your products and their names are so not cool, Man.)
     Getting back to the fund-raisers, I'm also skeptical of how such funds are spent. The school has more than ample computers (perhaps more than one per child?) yet nearly every year, new computer hardware is purchased. First came desktops, then the laptops, and now electronic tablets. Such more-is-better inanity boggles my mind. The Voyager spacecraft—one of man's greatest technological successes—ran on a computer less powerful than a simple hand held calculator. So if a primitive computer was sufficient for one of the most prolific scientific exploratory vessels ever, shouldn't a low-end desktop a thousand times more powerful do for an elementary school kid? Today's devices are so advanced they could display text and equations that would take multiple lifetimes to read and comprehend. A laptop for a kid (or adult) is sort of like an ocean's worth of water for a tadpole, its computational, storage, and retrieval capacities are so vast.
     The weakest excuse for these devices is to familiarize kids with technology so they feel comfortable using them. What kid isn't comfortable using a computer these days? Even the Amish have them, so I've heard. I admit I go to Braden now for help when my computer crashes since he can get it going (almost always software issues) ninety percent of the time (because he uses them all the time and likes them—makes him feel smart—not because he's done Kidbiz, Teenbiz, and IXL exercises ad nauseum.)
     The most specious reason for technology in the classroom is they're useful teaching tools. I suppose they may beat no teaching at all, but compared to teacher-on-student (or even better, parent-on-child) teaching using printed materials, pencil and paper, and whiteboards these tools are huge wastes of time and money. I'll bet there are virtually no Kidbiz, Teenbiz, or IXL Math units or exercises that can't be taught equally well or better in-person. (As yet, I have yet to find one, and my kids have been using these their entire academic careers from second grade on.)
     A couple years ago, Penelope came home with a note from her teacher demanding $7.00 for a “necessary workbook.”
     This demand stank. Public education is supposed to be free. I don't mind paying for my kids' beginning-of-the-year classroom supplies or “optional” class field trips or overnight camps (usually very reasonable) but required classroom workbooks? Isn't that supposed to be paid from school budgeted general funds? Did Penelope's teacher neglect to include it in her classroom budget and was she now demanding that parents foot the bill for her oversight? (I would have felt more generous about it had she admitted such in her memo.) Or was this a new trend in which parents would be expected to pay more and more in-classroom education expenses? Wouldn't this be a perfect thing to pay with PTA funds (instead of more waste-money technology)?
     Out of principle and concern for less well-off parents, I called the school's front office and inquired. The receptionist said she didn't know about it but would notify the principal of my concern (though I didn't leave a name or number). It may have left an impression because we never received such a demand again. But I made sure to donate $10.00 less to the PTA the following school year anyway because giving should feel light and cheerful, not heavy and stomach-churning burdensome.

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