Teachers’ Aide

As students were preparing for a new school year bright with promise, the looming impact of the Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was gradually coming into sharper focus for educators from coast to coast.

The NCLB rules first proposed by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) in early August (see “Ed floats school reform rules,” Front Page) were set to solidify into the program that supporters and critics alike expect to radically alter the relationship between public and private education.

Change, it appears, is afoot on every hand.   When addressing the issue of systemic change, educators and others like to observe that teachers, not technology, will determine the success of instruction in America’s classrooms. Granted an adequate supply of teachers, that axiom would be as true as it is satisfying to say. In fact, NCLB’s rules dwell at some length on requirements for an adequate supply of high-quality teachers, especially for elementary school reading and math instruction.  

Unfortunately, the 245 pages of rules offer no clue as to where such a supply might be found. Fact is, the supply of such teachers is nowhere near adequate and is dwindling fast. A new report from the National Research Council (see Page 8) calls for a program to recruit Ph.D.s to enter the elementary and secondary school teaching force. Admirable as this idea certainly is, the likely affect—even if the program exceeds all expectations—will be negligible. This is, by no means, any reason not to pursue the plan with full vigor. It’s just that neither this nor any other suggested remedy I’ve heard of seems likely to offset the worsening shortage of qualified teachers. As the council report pointed out, fully two-thirds of the current teaching force is expected to leave the profession in the next 10 years.

The salvation embodied by NCLB—as its most vocal advocates seem to envision it, at least—is to liberate students and the associated per-pupil funding from a failing public education system—which they say is dominated too much by teacher unions, anyway. The remedy is to send the kids and the money to faith-based and corporate schools largely free of organized labor.     Regardless of the demerits of that view, the faith-based and corporate schools will find themselves up against the same fundamental problem as public schools do: too few qualified teachers. The impact is likely to be masked for a while, because private schools will be at liberty to reject those students least likely to succeed. Eventually, however, educators in schools of all stripes will have to find new ways to leverage the salutary impact of those high-quality teachers who remain at their posts.   Certainly, we must develop and implement more effective methods for attracting, preparing, recruiting, and retaining good teachers. But those initiatives alone will be insufficient. 

Technology, as a secondary but powerful adjunct, is essential if we are to have any realistic hope of weathering the drought of excellent teachers. For that reason, the struggle now under way in Congress to secure adequate funding for school technology (see “Ed-tech budget battle begins,” Front Page), is more critical than usual.   Amplifying the impact of each top-quality teacher is possible. Distance learning, virtual schooling, and technology-enabled instruction all can become strands of a viable strategy for reducing the adverse effects of the teacher shortage. (Just take a look at the innovative uses educators are making of technology in the service of chronically under-served hearing-impaired students—Page 40.)   Instructional software still too often fails because of its mind-numbing, drill-and-kill mediocrity. But signs can be seen that this is beginning to change. Your editors have been at work scouring the field for software that holds promise to augment traditional instruction. We have been concentrating on the two areas emphasized in NCLB, reading and math. In the July issue, we presented a selection of reading software full of potential (see Twelve solutions to help you meet the new federal reading requirements,” eSchool News, July 2002). In this issue, beginning on Page 27, we present an extended look at some of the most promising computer-based math instruction programs. 

Nobody I know thinks such applications are substitutes for high-quality teachers. What I do believe is this: If any school, public or private, is to live up to the spirit of NCLB, students must receive high-quality instruction. The teacher shortage is bad and will get worse before it gets better.

As a result, we need to line up all the resources we can muster to counter the adverse impact this inescapable shortage will have on our schools and our students. Full federal funding for school technology won’t be the panacea, but it’s a good place to start.

Gregg W. Downey Editor & Publisher gdowney@eschoolnews.org (301) 913-0115 x107

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