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Idaho Teachers Fight The Machine

Stories like Scott Walker’s high-profile battle over teacher bargaining rights in Wisconsin tends to get all the headlines, but there are more forces than just budgetary ones buffeting teachers. In Idaho, teachers are divided over a new law that mandates online instruction in classrooms:

This change is part of a broader shift that is creating tension — a tension that is especially visible in Idaho but is playing out across the country. Some teachers, even though they may embrace classroom technology, feel policy makers are thrusting computers into classrooms without their input or proper training. And some say they are opposed to shifting money to online classes and other teaching methods whose benefits remain unproved. […]

Gov. C. L. Otter, known as Butch, and Tom Luna, the schools superintendent, who have championed the plan, said teachers had been misled by their union into believing the changes were a step toward replacing them with computers. Mr. Luna said the teachers’ anger was intensified by other legislation, also passed last spring, that eliminated protections for teachers with seniority and replaced it with a pay-for-performance system.

No doubt there are reasonable points on both sides of this issue, and one can’t help but raise an eyebrow at the lobbying on behalf of the law by the hi-tech companies who stand to profit from computer sales to Idaho public schools. But the law’s backers are undoubtedly right in at least a couple of ways. Developing the ability to work with and learn from new technology is an increasingly important part of educating a truly 21st-century American workforce. And online instruction has the potential to reduce educational costs by allowing bigger (virtual) class sizes and freeing up students to learn at paces of their own choosing. Fewer teachers, teaching more students, and teaching them faster.

You can begin to see why policy like this fills blue public teacher unions with dread. After years of seeming immunity, the same technological gales that have been buffeting their comrades in the manufacturing sectors are now beginning to buffet them too. Forget the budget battles of Wisconsin; technology may be the real battle line in 21st century public education. The blue model is engaged in a fight for survival on multiple fronts.

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  • bob sykes

    The College of Engineering at Ohio State U. experimented with distance learning a number of years ago but dropped it.

    The main reason was cost. In addition to the instructor, you needed a technician at both the broadcast end and at each receiving end. You also needed the transmit/receive equipment and satellite links to each reception end. The messages had to go both ways. This priced out to much more expensive than one teacher in a room full of kids with an overhead.

    Also, the experiences of both the teacher and students were less than satisfactory. Spontaneity, eye contact and quality of communication both ways declined.

    What has changed since then?

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @Bob Sykes: Skype, for one. Two way video communication is much better and cheaper than it used to be and getting more that way all the time. And the software and other materials that support distance learning are also improving. MIT’s program is doing extremely well and more and more universities are using the technology.

  • Kenny

    Two points.

    First, public school teachers, whether unionized or not, have to realized that they are merely the hired help and not the educational experts they like to imagine themselves to be.

    Second, Terry Moe, a professor at Stanford says technology will end the teachers unions in 10 to 20 years in his book, Liberating Learning. (I hope it is sooner than that.)

    Liberating Learning:

  • SC Mike

    While I’m all for increasing the use of technology in the classrooms, why not get some indication that what’s planned really works? Why not have a controlled experiment by introducing the technology in several of the schools throughout the state and trying it out for a year or two. Some care should be exercised in selecting the schools so that a varied mix reflects the socioeconomic, ethnic, and racial mix of the whole state. After two years standardized testing results could be used to assess the relative effectiveness of the technology and lead to a better informed decision.

  • Andrew Allison

    Re: “And some say they are opposed to shifting money to online classes and other teaching methods whose benefits remain unproved.”

    Can we take it as read the the current methods have bee proven — to be ineffective!

  • Ken Smith

    I am a critic of the “blue model” that has eloquently described on this blog in recent years, but I am also a critic of the emerging digitally-based “model” of education that so many reformers are touting.

    An ideal classroom–at least in the liberal arts, where I teach–contains a teacher who is deeply and broadly versed in a discipline, and students who can be engaged and inspired through lively interaction that contains a high level of spontaneity and unpredictability.

    It may be that this ideal is realized relatively rarely, regardless of classroom settings. But it seems to me that there simply is no substitute for face-to-face interaction within a classroom. Digital technology can play an important, even an indispensable role in learning. But I continually come back to the maxim–which I believe to be valid–that well over half (perhaps as high as 90 percent) of communication is nonverbal in nature.

    Professor Mead, I do enjoy reading your digital articles. I would enjoy even more hearing recordings of your discussions. But I would place at least 90% more value on being in the same room with you, accompanied by other interested learners, and able to interact directly.

  • Herb

    I am not blue politically, but I am a teacher, and this seemingly unstoppable surge to surround students with technology from their first day of school to their last is enough to make me blue emotionally and even bluer since it has the support of Mr Mead. The dehumanization of teaching is a pernicious trend. Yes,technology has a place in the classroom, but it’s easy to see that there are those who want it to have way too large a place, and those forces get stronger and stronger by the day. Since most children unfortunately learn to handle computers at home from the time they learn how to walk, why give them more of it in the classroom? Computers aren’t even useful until at least middle school age; they don’t do young children any good at all, to say the least. One of the pioneers of the computer, Joseph Weizenbaum, knew this and wrote about it often. As Walt Whitman wrote:
    There was a child went forth every day,
    And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became,
    And that object became part of him for the day or a certain part of
    the day,
    Or for many years or stretching cycles of years.

    One other point. As long as schools are public, there seems to be no way to keep the politicians out of it, and when politicians get involved in education, nothing good can come of it. The conclusion is radical but unavoidable. Public schools no longer work well and must be made private. Then they are beholden to parents, not politicians.

  • Daniel Kennelly

    I’ve been working my way through several of MIT’s OCW (Open Course Ware) offerings in an attempt to learn a little bit about programming and as a math refresher. I expect to come out of the experience with as least as much know-how as the MIT students who sat through the filming of the original lectures. True, when I have questions, I can’t really raise my hand and ask the professors, but I can ask a friend, or peruse other resources online.

    Before things like the Khan Academy, MIT OCW, and others, I might have counted myself among those who piously intone about the indispensability of face-to-face communication. There’s still something to be said for it in certain subject areas and at certain levels, but there’s nothing inherently magical about face time. History is filled with auto-didacts who bestowed a liberal education on themselves without setting foot in a classroom, and only minimal guidance from a tutor.

  • Tom Smith

    There is a great deception going on in the world of education: Costs keep going up, the teacher ranks swell and the level of student competence falls. Much of the blame can be laid at the foot of dramatically escalated “inclusion” requirements thrust on the school system by special interest groups, courts and legislation. The fact is that the average school district has fewer “mainstream” focused teachers and assistants and more teachers focused on learning disabilities, reading specialties, esol students, social work, gifted programs, etc. Net: The average student is being shortchanged. Know what “online” instruction will do? It will reduce the focus on mainstream students even further and allow the districts to bulk up even more on the ancillary positions– which the courts and special interests will love. This isn’t a perspective you hear much because it isn’t in any of the players’ interest to address.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    In my recent license renewal for my real estate license, I got 13 of the credit hours I needed with three on line classes, which were cheaper, I completed them in half the time it would have taken in a classroom not counting transportation time, I did the classes when it was convenient starting and stopping whenever I needed, and with all the quizzes, tests, and finals, feel I learned the material at least as well as I would have in a classroom. There were videos of classroom instruction with multimedia presentations for those who wanted them or failed a test and needed more help than just the written material. All in all, I will be taking on line courses from now on if they are available, as they save time and money, and are personalized to my own learning speed and schedule.
    So, Professor Mead, whenever you start offering a class globally, I would be interested in taking it, if the price is right. If you had 50,000 students rather than 500 students, you could charge a fraction of what those 500 are paying, and still make a several times money due to the economies of scale. Imagine learning from the most renowned Professors and instructors, without having to gain acceptance to a University, deal with any red tape, or pay the outrageous tuition.

  • Mrs. Davis

    Why not let the market decide? We now let the 1% buy its education from the vendor academic institution they prefer. Why not the 99%? Overall I expect on line education to be the McDonald’s of erudition. Good value, nutritional if you make the effort, and satisfying; if not a gastronomic delight. For the 1% there will always be chez Arvard.

    I don’t know what the “right” answer is. But I do know no one else does either. Let the people decide.

  • Toni

    To second Tom Smith: I have an acquaintance, a 46-year-old, who upon entering school was deemed retarded and put into Special Ed. In truth, she probably has ADHD. Today, she told me, a kids is analyzed and diagnosed right off the bat (a good thing?) and then given an individual tutor, a horrendously expensive thing.

    Isn’t this another manifestation of the entitlement mentality? “My child is precious and indeed special and no amount of money the school district spends on him is too much. My lawyer says so.”

  • Toni

    Moore’s Law ensures that the cost of online teaching will continue to fall. It also ensures that any computers put in classrooms after the decision, funding and procurement process is complete will already be obsolete.

    For those of you who would like to take a Walter Russell Mead class: I’d bet his church, family, jobs (Bard, CFR) and Via Meadia activities take up most of his available hours, if not more. Second best but still excellent is The Teaching Co. ( You can buy courses taught by university profs on a plethora of topics.

  • Hubbub

    And who or what agencies will ‘police’ this new on-line wonderland of education. Will students meet in a local facility and take computer classes as a group or will they sit at a desk in their living room or bed room? Who will keep attendance or make sure that these ‘home bound’ students are actually attending class? Who will motivate the unmotivated? Who will make sure that the actual student is taking a competency test rather than a ‘sit-in’? The questions abound, the bureaucracy increases.

    This outpouring of glee at the prospect of technological education for the masses is no more realistic than Guizot’s belief that if you gave him twenty children for their educable years and in the same setting, he would produce twenty well-educated, and equally intelligent, graduates.

    I do admit, however, that like all ‘get rich quick’ schemes, it sure ‘sounds’ good.

  • Kris

    Well of course some teachers are opposed! What will it look like when many of the schoolchildren display a greater mastery of the technology than their own?

  • Bruno Behrend


    We don’t need anyone much of anyone to “police” much of anything.

    1. Abolish the school district. (send 90% of administration and support home)

    2. Use existing education funds to individually fund each child.

    3. Create a rigorous set of standards, and develop a basket of tests to measure them.

    4. Allow any learning provider (private, charter, on-line, home, etc.) to develop ways to meet those standards.

    5. Winnow out those providers that can’t meet standards, and allow money to follow the child to any provider who can meet them.

    6. Allow all children to learn at their own pace.

    7. Allow for education saving accounts, so that parents have incentive to a) find the best value, and b) save overages for college and other learning providers.


    Developing such a system dramatically reduces property taxes, depopulates the entire army of worthless administrators, sheds the worst teachers while turning the best into professionals they say they are.

    It also dismantles the entire failed, and needless district system that has bankrupted entire states while failing to educate our nation adequately.

    The time for “policing” our education has ended. We can police ourselves. Your question indicates how existing bureaucratic structure have infantilized a nation as unions have infantilized teachers.

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