Investing in Sustainability: Technology vs. People

by Tom Julius

Two recent articles provide an interesting juxtaposition.

One in the Sunday 9/4 NYTimes described the Kyrene School District in Chandler, Arizona where the district has invested $33 million in technology such as interactive whiteboards but teachers have not had a pay raise since 2008. Kyrene is among the better performing school districts in Arizona but there is concern because despite the investment in technology test scores have stubbornly remained flat.

The other article in the September Smithsonian Magazine tells the story of Finland’s schools and how they beat out other nations educationally The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) ranked Finnish 15-year-olds at or near the top in reading, math, and science. How do they do it? Many factors are involved including: a set of national goals shared across schools, teachers paid well and drawn from the top performing university graduates. Teachers in Finland spend fewer hours at school each day and spend less time in classrooms than American teachers. Teachers use the extra time to build curriculums and assess their students. Children spend far more time playing outside, even in the depths of winter. Homework is minimal.

So, what does this tell us? The driving force in the Kyrene school district appears to be commerce while Finland focuses on relationships. In the NYTimes article the Kyrene Director of Technology reports getting at least one pitch per hour from technology companies hoping to cash in on the district technology budget. Contrast that with what Smithsonian describes as the Finnish approach: Many schools are small enough so that teachers know every student. If one method fails, teachers consult with colleagues to try something else. Kyrene children overall perform better than the average Arizona student but with such a massive outlay in technology the pressure is on to increase return on investment. The difficulty American students have competing with students from other countries is not an educational crisis; it’s a cultural crisis. America is obsessed with unsustainable growth and too frequently sees schools as an entrepreneurial opportunity rather than a relationship between learners that continually needs to be fostered.

1 comment
  1. In the recent Education Week Quality Counts edition, Pasi Sahlberg, a director general at the Finnish Ministry of Education addresses this topic directly. He says:
    “One of the educational reform recommendations for which we had high hopes and expectations was information and communication technology. Investment in school infrastructure, software development, and training of teachers was huge during the 1980s and the 1990s. Frequent surveys of Finnish teachers’ use of technology in instruction, however, demonstrated that technology can’t be the main driver of change in education. In fact, in many places it has become an overbudgeted and underused element of the education system. It is, at best, an enabler and a tool if used mindfully by teachers and students.”
    What does he say works? 1) Studying successful education systems, 2) Sound education policies, and 3) A focus on equity and well-being of children.
    TomJ

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