Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Buying Expensive Band-Aids

One of the latest optimistic, hopeful attempts on our high school campus of raising standardized test scores is to purchase very expensive technology, specifically a calculator system that allows teachers to monitor each student's progress in terms of key strokes from a convenient hand-held. This is in sharp contrast to the plight of the current situation which requires a teacher to walk around the room and actual look at what a student is doing.

Personally, I am very skeptical whether it's worth spending the exorbitant amount of money to get these devices, when we currently have high-powered hand-held calculators in each of our math classes. Merely purchasing and acquiring something new does not mean that it will be the panacea for all the ills, namely poor test scores, that are drawing so much attention from the non-initiate administrators and public. It surely feels good, though, to spend money on the latest and greatest, because it is an easy thing to do which you would EXPECT to be fruitful and beneficial, creating a record of an earnest attempt to fix a problem, thereby creating an alibi against apathy and ambivalence.

But what SHOULD be done is a thorough analysis of WHY standardized math scores are low. Only then and a real, long-term, meaningful solution be sought out. Rather than merely treating symptoms, the underlying cause of the illness should be conducted if the goal is to eradicate the disease. Treating the symptoms only makes the Band-Aid company rich, as the demand will always be there. How many Band-Aids does it take to cover a sucking gut wound? Wouldn't surgery and stitches be a better option? Sure, it takes more know-how and more time to heal, but healing DOES eventually take place.

Take for instance a brand new piece of exercise equipment that an eager individual purchases for a grand amount with the hopes of losing weight and living a healthier lifestyle. Does the mere possession of the expensive equipment guarantee that he we lose weight or will even use it once the novelty and the guilt of spending too much on it wears out? Absolutely NOT. This is why so many people have the same New Year's resolutions year after year--intentions and fancy equipment or gym memberships do not guarantee any results. They are Band-Aids to a deeper problem, usually a dearth of will-power and a surplus of excuses.

Or imagine another case that fails for a different reason. Perhaps an individual is excited about jumping on the technological bandwagon and buys a brand-new, high-dollar computer with all the bells and whistles. Assuming this person has high motivation to learn how to use the computer, including turning it on, opening programs, loading software, troubleshooting problems, etc. There is a GIANT learning curve in being able to go from no computer to being computer literate. I've seen this reality first-hand in the last 10 years as school districts have become increasingly dependent on computers: many of the "old school" teachers were very reluctant, hesitant, and afraid to adopt and learn the new methods.

Such dramatic transitions require a great deal of training and encouragement along the way. Would it be prudent if, after failed attempts to master everything about the modern-day computer, one simply abandoned the device and purchased a brand-new one? Should we expect different results? It would be foolish, irrational, and wasteful to think so. The problem is not the computer (or the exercise equipment), it is in USING them!

My point is that our school and math department are currently equipped with the appropriate "calculator" technology. Each student has daily access to a hand-held device that can do almost as much as a high-powered computer. We even have the technology to effectively display screen commands and to teach its appropriate use. The problem is NOT with what we have, it is in HOW we use them and HOW we teach our students to use them. Spending more money on newer, more powerful, more complicated calculators will not "magically" solve any problems. What we need is proper training for teachers about all the amazing things these calculators can do, and how they can be used as TOOLS, rather than CRUTCHES--how to use them for exploration, but not as a substitute for original thought or calculations such as 5+7 (which I've seen kids reflexively reach for their calculator when confronted with.)

I feel fortunate to know quite a bit about the true utility of these computational devices, but I also make a deliberate effort to learn about them, and then pass this on to my students. In fact, many of my college-bound students know their calculators extensively and occasionally teach ME something I didn't know about them. Unfortunately, students are handed a calculator at a very early age, too early in my opinion, and are never give real instruction on HOW and WHEN to use them. It's the equivalent of handing a ripe teenager the keys to a car for the first time with the instructions of "Don't crash."

Empowered with nothing more than a vague intention, given as an inflexible command, the only thing that is likely is that the car will crash. I'm afraid that's where our curriculum is heading. Which means, after that happens, we'll likely keep replacing the old with "shiny new" ones, with no better training, guidance, or instruction than we did previously.

I'm going to go online to E-trade now and buy stock in Band-Aids. It looks like the demand will be there for a while.


Tatertot said...

I Like Sponge-Bob Band-Aids! They make the hurt go away! tayyyahhhaaaa!

Bob S said...

So whats another $40,000 to a school district? Few more of these orders and than we will be talking about REAL money!