In the modern world of automated bank tellers and self-checkout grocery stores, technology already has infringed upon jobs traditionally reserved for human hands. Now a group of educators at one Connecticut school is worried that teachers, too, are in danger of being replaced.

The fuss began when instructors at Nonnewaug High School in Woodbury, Conn., complained that an alternative instructional program for potential dropouts violated state law by allowing students to be taught not by certified teachers—but by machines.

The initiative, called the Student Technology Education Program (STEP), is rooted in a computerized curriculum designed to guide students through lessons in such core subjects as math, science, and English, said Carol Rector, director of curriculum and instruction in Regional District 14, which includes schools in Woodbury and Bethlehem, Conn.

Students who participate in STEP complete their lessons at desktop computers and then receive automated assessments of their performances, which result in grades and credits toward graduation, Rector said.

Originally, Rector expected the program to be touted as a monumental success. “We really thought we would get the support that we needed and be able to run with it,” she said. But opponents were quick to criticize the technology initiative, contending it relied too heavily on computers and compromised the need for certified teachers in the classroom.

“Having observed the program in action, I can tell you that the program completely supplants the teacher in the instructional process,” said Tim Cleary, president of the Nonnewaug Teachers Association.

Criticism of STEP within the teaching ranks was so widespread that on Oct. 4 the Connecticut Education Association (CEA)—the state’s largest teacher’s union—asked the state board of education to hold a hearing considering the legality of the program. State officials will examine whether STEP violated state law by allowing students to receive credit for classes taught outside the presence of certified teachers.

“This is technology education gone haywire,” said CEA President Rosemary Coyle. “State education officials talk of high standards for all students, but what has been going on in District 14 is totally at odds with those statements.”

Cliff Silvers, CEA’s director of affiliate services, said the program was poorly executed and ineffective. According to him, STEP allowed students to accumulate credits toward graduation in far less time and with far less effort than if they had been forced to attend a traditional classroom setting.

Silvers said the computers were doing the instruction, providing coaching, and supplying grades for almost every student involved in the program. “As long as students completed the software program, they received grades,” Silvers said.

But district officials have denied all allegations of wrongdoing. According to Rector, the CEA is mistaken if it believes computers are the sole source of education in a STEP classroom.

While Rector acknowledged that lessons taught through STEP are grounded in computer-based instruction, teachers, too, play a vital role, she said. “We certainly do have certified teachers in the program,” she added. “No, teachers are not in the classroom every minute, but that is almost always the case when you’re dealing with classes that also have teacher aides.”

According to her, students who participate in STEP are encouraged to ask questions, read texts, write paper-based essays, and do research on specific course-related topics. “We are not running a program that is in any way, shape, or form illegal,” Rector said.

In fact, Rector said the district reviewed every detail and intricacy of STEP with state education officials before initiating the overall implementation, which took place last January.

Silvers acknowledged this, but he said neither the state nor any district official made attempts to include the teacher’s union in its decision. “It was our feeling that the school district was taking a closed-eyes approach to the issue,” he said.

During an Oct. 4 news conference, CEA President Coyle repeated Silvers’ concerns, saying tight budgets and a lack of resources have forced many schools to consider technology shortcuts that are detrimental to students as well as teachers.

But according to Tom Murphy, a spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Education, department officials made a conscious effort to monitor the program and make sure it complied with state law. In fact, Murphy said, inspectors completed at least two on-site evaluations during the program’s inaugural run and found very few problems. “We did find some problems with the initial program,” Murphy said, but these were mostly start-up issues, such as misunderstandings about staffing requirements and software concerns.

Murphy said that although the district had secured contracts with certified teachers to take responsibility for the program, the teachers often were not in the room with the students. In some cases, they were located in different buildings, he said.

Following the evaluation, Murphy said the district did agree to make adjustments so the program would not violate state law. “At that time, the district did ensure us that the changes would be made, and we have no reason to believe those changes have not been made,” he said.

This fall, Murphy said only four students are participating in the program. Each student is a member of the school’s special-education program, and each is under the direct supervision of a certified special-education teacher.

Although Murphy said he is confident the district has eliminated most of the concerns that existed after the department’s original evaluation of STEP, he said the department is taking teachers’ complaints very seriously. “We will continue to look at the program … to make sure that quality and lawfulness [are] upheld,” he said.

“We do not subscribe to the notion that technology should be a surrogate for teachers,” Murphy added, though he cautioned the union not to overlook the value of technology in the classroom.

“This is as much a failure of the teachers to relate to the software as it is of the software to relate to the students. There needs to be more integration between students, teachers, and technology,” he said.

Before implementing STEP, the district had paid certified teachers to act as tutors for these at-risk students, but “success was not found in that model,” Murphy said.

Murphy said he expects a report on STEP to be presented to the state’s education commissioner in mid-November, with a ruling on the legality of the program in early 2003.

“There is an appropriate role in education for technology,” Coyle said. “The state wisely—and to its credit—through law and regulations has concluded that the teacher is key in the teaching and learning process.”

Links:

Connecticut Education Association
http://www.cea.org

Nonnewaug High School
http://216.47.165.41/NHS/nhs.htm

Connecticut State Department of Education
http://www.state.ct.us/sde

Regional District 14
http://www.ctreg14.org