Why educational reform and cost-cutting measures never seem to work

by Ken MacDougall

As a teacher of one of the less favourite subjects in the curriculum – Mathematics, I almost always dread the coming of that first time teachers have the “opportunity” to meet parents and discuss their children’s “progress”. Why that is has nothing to do with the students themselves; they’ve already made up their minds about me, whether it’s my propensity to ask them to explain some obscure mathematical theory (to them, anyway) we’d just gone over and they might have missed, what with they’re being “distracted” by the buzz on their phone indicating the arrival of some urgent bulletin from a friend tracking the whereabouts of their current love-life interest, or my asking them to pass in their now long overdue assignment I’d only reminded them about yesterday, which was “embarrassing” because I was so “public” with this pronouncement.

Personally, if that’s all the commotion I’d receive in such audiences, I wouldn’t have a thing to worry about, parental blow-back or otherwise; introduce me to a Vice Principal who “enjoys” calling a teacher down to the office for a “chat” about a “concerned parent”, and I’ll show you someone who’s given up on ever becoming a principal, is close to retiring, or is running for some form of political office in the near future. No, my “problem” is one that I’m sharing with an increasingly larger congregation of teachers, is having to deal with a parent who, no matter how delicately, politely or substantiated by fact you present concerns respecting the child’s academic issues, the only sound I’ll be hearing for the remainder of the interview is that of a Bell helicopter hovering overhead, as the parent launches into their by now standardized refrain of “my child can do no wrong” defensive formation.

In studying the issue of academic competence, particularly in Mathematics, I have come to the conclusion that the “helicopter parent” is nothing more than a byproduct of an educational system being overwhelmed by technological innovation, pressured by consumer and manufacturer alike to provide some reason, feeble or otherwise, to have schools integrate usage of these utensils into the curriculum, if only for their potential to “break down” student resistance to conceptual theories that will define progress for the next century.

Or not…

It isn’t as though the child of a helicopter parent has no exposure to the latest technologies; rather, it’s usually just the opposite, namely, that they have every conceivable new toy, game and peripheral that our electronic manufacturers can find rubes to buy; it’s just that the “educational” component is downgraded by the slick marketing of Internet chat rooms where one’s “status” is not only tied to the toys one owns, but enhanced by the user’s capacity to post super-pixeled memes or glamorous photographs of said child surrounded by hearts and sporting a beagle’s warm and wet nasal overlap of one’s own features.

If one tracks back to the origins of enhanced technologies suddenly seeking placement in a classroom environment, we realize that this wasn’t an educational incentive driven by STEM-educated teacher consultants foreseeing some bright future for this product, but by workplaces wishing to remain competitive with foreign manufacturers, particularly from China, Japan, Korea and Singapore, and realizing that the only way this could happen would be for productivity improvement to grow by the increased usage of technology.

The problem with manufacturers proceeding with such upgrade was that back when this need was first realized, 1980’s, bank interest rates exceeded 20 per cent or more – and that was before finding the necessarily trained work force to make such investment worthwhile.

Therefore, the most “logical” way for industry to proceed was to have schools incorporate new software designs (office productivity tools such as word processing, or CADD being the first products backed by such rationale) into curriculum, so that the on-the-job learning curve costs could be minimized.

Three major problems existed in immediately applying such logic to the implementation of this strategy. First, schools themselves were being forced by government to implement serious cost-cutting measures, but such efforts weren’t deep enough to cover the cost of new networked computers and specialized multi-user teaching software.

Secondly, most school boards may have had “end users” of the software product itself, but their lack of STEM-trained teachers having familiarity with the overall potential of the software’s productivity tools often necessitated school boards to hire corporate-trained staff to be brought in to conduct initial training sessions, further increasing the costs of delivery of this service.

Finally, virtually NO school board in Saskatchewan has yet to present a proposal to government that would address the need for perpetual upgrading of systems and software, moved to change the curriculum requirements for graduation so as to incentivize potential high school graduates to consider teaching careers in STEM-related programs, nor addressed the issue of teaching each and every employee of the school division – office staff, administrators, maintenance staff, teachers and educational assistants – how to use even the most basic of productivity tools to their own advantage, much less train their students on how to best use these new tools in increasing their own academic performance levels.

Since returning to the teaching profession in 2004, I have been able to convince four school boards in western Canada into constructing networked systems where staff and students down to and including Kindergarten level were both able to log into the network AND store documentation and homework assignments on private space found on the network itself, thus making it secure and safe from potential attack by viruses or other forms of malware.

Unfortunately, there are few apostles, other than possibly former PAGC systems engineer Don Dore, who fully understand both the complexity of putting such tools into our schools, while recognizing the potential of such arrangement to transfer itself into substantial academic gain and understanding of subject materials.

As for remediation software, there exists a whole rack of software tools (IXL and SuccessMaker being but two examples) where teachers may simply send students to receive the “drill work” necessary to obtain facility with, say, mathematics, yet fall into questionable repair once the complexities of writing an essay, as an example, are in serious need by the student.

However, it is relatively simple and straightforward for a student to build a template that handles the structural needs of an essay’s format (line spacing, paragraph indent, and font selection as an example), opening up a new document for the student, and then having them press the microphone button to dictate content, then using the spelling checker to clean up language, and then – and only then – having the teacher come over and utilize the cut-and-paste aspects of the processor to put together the introduction / body / conclusion arrangement of these thoughts.

Or perhaps you don’t mind your children not having the faintest idea on how to spell even the simplest words, much less you as a parent getting annoyed to learn that “lol” really means “laughing out loud”, as opposed to “lots of love”.

Yes, that one got me, as well…

Instead of cutting costs, school board “investment” in technology has only added an increased burden to funding education, and reforming its delivery to our students.

In all honesty, most equipment in today’s school labs is paperweight, an unnecessary expenditure solving few issues brought forward by our need to modernize – reform – the way schools deliver knowledge to our students.

Still, with our economies being threatened by mostly the south-east Asian nations attempting to compete with us, we have to “fix” our ways of utilizing the latest developments in technology. with our lives being better lived through the usage of new technologies.
Unfortunately, we also have to start muzzling the small group of literacy consultants and other “experts” that contend when students finally realize the “potential” of their new phones or other toys, “learning the ‘seven-times’ table” will no longer become a problem in understanding mathematics.

Perhaps singling out literacy consultants for their oratorial praise of cellular phones and tablets may sound like a “cheap shot”, but technology still has the IBM “patch” problem in all of its processors – its inability to divide by 5, and kept the original IMB PC off the market for more than six months, as well as the fact that even the latest of spreadsheets from Microsoft still can’t perform calculations to the specifications of BEDMAS, unless we pre-bracket our own “patches” to how number operations are to be calculated.

Are our children “doomed”, thanks to educational system’s failure to effectively use and control technological development?

Probably not, but that’s only because most students are now getting the message that they have to work slightly harder in order to better achieve in life.

Only a continuation of this trend will assure the eventual extinction of the helicopter parent’s role in “dumbing down” our children’s educational experiences.

STILL TO COME: Reforming instruction in the learning of second languages, evaluating student performance, making healthy lifestyle choices, and expanding the role of physical education as required in order to make school reform meaningful, both for the student and the stature of our future economy.