Luck of the draw

AppleWe all remember our favorite teacher; the one who inspired us, excited us, saw something in us that perhaps we didn't even see in ourselves and helped us nurture that spark into a flame. For me, that teacher was Mrs. Rocco and I was 8 years old. Before I entered Mrs. Rocco's class, I had heard “the stories” about her: she was crazy and stood on desks and stamping feet. In fact, there was some truth to some of these stories; Mrs. Rocco would usually wear a long, flowing, fringed shawl and she did like to sometimes, just for the fun of it, stand on a desk and pretend to be a flamenco dancer. And she was just a little eccentric, let's say, flamboyant. But she was one of the best teachers I have ever had. She made learning fun and exciting as she approached every subject with a contagious enthusiasm. When I was asked recently to draw a picture illustrating the story of my life journey, including people who had inspired and motivated me along the way, a stick figure drawing of Mrs. Rocco was there front and center. Through my life, Mrs. Rocco has been followed by many other inspirational teachers and mentors, in high school, in university and throughout my career. These teachers have guided me, expanded my horizons, awakened my curiosity and dared me to follow my dreams.

Just as I have been lucky enough to have some great teachers, I've had a few pretty terrible ones as well; teachers who were clearly just going through the motions after too many years of teaching the same subject; teachers for whom a teaching career was a consolation prize when they failed to achieve their true career aspirations; and sometimes, teachers who just didn't seem to like children very much at all. Teachers who brought no energy or enthusiasm to teaching, making us squirm in our seats with boredom as we watched the hands of the clock on the wall move forward, time, seemingly, slowed down to a snail's pace.

I was fortunate, bad teachers were the exceptions in my life and my exposure to them was minimal, normally outweighed by the rest of my educators. I realize that teaching is often a poorly paid, demanding, exhausting job, and that intimating that any teachers might be less than stellar is a statement that is probably going to get me get me some unpleasant responses to this piece. But of course, when we all reflect back on our educational experiences, we know this is actually true. My question is: what happens when this kind of teacher is all a child knows?

Recent studies have indicated that, more than any other single factor, the thing that distinguishes a good from a bad education is the quality of teachers. Clearly, it is usually the case that, in an education system that is locally funded such as the US, rich school districts attract the best teachers more often than not. There are people who can afford to take lower pay because of a spouse's income, or people who truly do it for the love of teaching and for whom the size of the pay packet and the resources the school has to offer aren't the be all and end all, and these people deserve nothing more than our unconditional admiration and support. But at the end of the day, between resources, facilities and teaching staff, there can really be no argument that, for most children in this country, if you're the child of poor parents you are unlikely to get the same quality education as the child of wealthier parents. And there's something fundamentally wrong with this situation; it engenders a spiral of poverty that is almost impossible to break out of.

The movie, “Waiting for Superman” packs an emotional sucker punch as it shows children and their parents waiting desperately as lottery numbers are chosen to determine if they will get a coveted charter school place. It is emotionally wrenching to watch the fate of so many children be decided by random number picking. But the truth is, that for all children in this country (and elsewhere), their educational fate is also based on dumb luck; were they lucky enough to be born to parents who can live in Scarsdale or Great Neck, some of the best public schools in the country? Are they lucky enough that their parents can afford to send them to private school? Are they lucky enough to have parents fully engaged in their education who advocate for them and supplement where necessary? It’s all luck, and it really shouldn’t be.

I wrote recently about the utility of involving new technology in the classroom, but what I was really talking about there was utilizing gaming, cell phones and the like as a way to capture children’s imaginations, enthusiasm and curiosity. But there is another, parallel idea swirling out in the ether: using technology to bring the best teachers into every classroom. Digital Study Hall is a program that seeks to improve education for poor children in rural India by digitally recording live classes by the best grassroots teachers, and distributing them on DVDs to poor rural and slum schools. Local teachers then actively “mediate” the video lessons. Recent evaluations of the program have determined that, not only do educational assessments of students show an improvement, but the subject matter expertise of the local teachers improves. If this idea is working so well in rural India, shouldn't we at least consider using it in some of the more resource challenged areas of this country?

The idea of using classroom live streams or video has, so far, gained far more traction in higher education than it has in elementary education, though there are organizations, like that are trying to advocate and promote the idea of online educational resources for K-12 students. The New Youth City Learning Network takes as its premise that most children already exist in a digital world. Its co-founder Diana Rhoten describes it as, “Anytime-anywhere-anyhow learning”. Combining the idea of utilizing mobile devices and other technology tools with video teaching is a powerful concept that might both ensure that all children have access to first-class teachers and ensure a more compelling delivery model.

At the end of the day, nothing replaces having a Mrs. Rocco in a child's life; the personal, one-on-one, human nature of that kind of educational exchange is invaluable, and I wish that every child had access to this kind of teaching throughout their educational career. This should certainly be our goal for education reform. But meanwhile, as so many disadvantaged children continue to fall through the cracks of our education system, why can't we allow them to reap some of the benefits of the best teachers and curriculums that wealthier school districts have to offer? If nothing else, interested students could have access to subjects that are not normally taught in their schools as they struggle to teach everyone to read with minimal competency.

We need to be more creative, more innovative with our solutions as we struggle, as a nation, to ensure that every child has access to a great education. This is my contribution to the dialog.