In a clear validation of technology’s place in the classroom, the Connecticut Board of Education has ruled there is nothing illegal about a controversial program for at-risk students in Woodbury, Conn., that relies on computers instead of educators for instruction.

The May 7 decision was handed down in response to complaints from instructors at Nonnewaug High School in Woodbury, who argued the state’s Student Technology Education Program (STEP)—a computerized curriculum designed to guide potential dropouts through such core subjects as math, science, and English—violated state law by compromising the need for certified teachers in the classroom.

The Nonnewaug Teacher’s Association (NTA) took the line that the program’s computer-based instruction, which automatically calculates and assesses student performance, had been used to replace teachers with machines. But the board rejected those allegations in unanimous fashion, voting 7-0 to maintain the program despite educators’ criticisms.

Students who participate in the STEP program complete their lessons at desktop computers and receive automated assessments, which result in grades handed out by teachers and credits toward graduation, officials said.

But teachers opposed to STEP said they got little direction about what to do in the program and were asked to give grades to students with whom they had very little contact.

“Having observed the program in action, I can tell you that the program completely supplants the teacher in the instructional process,” said NTA President Tim Clearly, in an interview with eSchool News last October. (See “Teachers cry foul over instruction by computers,” http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=4043.)

At the time, criticism of the program was so widespread among educators in Nonnewaug that the Connecticut Education Association (CEA)—the state’s largest teacher’s union—agreed to take up the fight on their behalf, requesting that the state hold a hearing to rule on the legality of the program.

CEA officials did not return calls from an eSchool News reporter before press time.

However, STEP’s staunchest supporters maintained the program did not violate any laws and that its methods were, in fact, approved by state education officials before its launch.

Following CEA’s initial complaint, Tom Murphy, a spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Education, told eSchool News that department officials had monitored STEP closely, performing at least two site evaluations during the program’s inaugural run and finding very few problems.

Murphy did acknowledge some discrepancies concerning the presence of certified teachers in STEP classrooms, however. During the original evaluations, he said, teachers were out of the room for extended periods of time and—in some cases—were found in other buildings.

But district officials had agreed to address those problems, he said. Overall, according to Murphy, the program was working.

Bethlehem-Woodbury school district officials said the program was helping about a dozen teenagers for whom traditional classroom education had failed.

“I was especially pleased that the state Board of Education recognized our attempts to service students who were caught in a very difficult situation and needed alternatives now,” Region 14 Superintendent David Pendleton said in support of STEP.

The state board, which stepped into the fray in January after talks between Pendleton and the teachers union reached an impasse, made this statement in its ruling:

“We find that this matter has less to do with teacher certification and more to do with the role of the classroom teacher…It is the responsibility of a person with an educator certificate to be accountable for the delivery of [the] instruction, but this regulation is not intended to limit those people or technology tools that can participate in providing instruction to a student.”

The board continued: “The decision to utilize other resources should not be driven by a shortage or reduction in funding, nor by the employment interests of educators. The primary interest in determining the use of instructional tools must be thoughtful regard for the interests of the student learner.”

So far, both the district and its teachers agree the alternative program has improved, with teachers spending a minimum of 10 hours per week with each student and assigning more work.

Links:

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

Connecticut Teacher’s Association
http://www.cea.org

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