Teacher's little helper

Can technology turn well-meaning but ill-prepared teachers into effective instructors? A new breed of education business is betting on it. While none claim that they are "teacher proofing" the classroom, several are building tools that aim to turn mere mortals into excellent teachers.

One class of products seeks to make teachers more efficient and productive. Wireless Generation, for example, offers software that turns handheld computers into diagnostic tools that quickly identify gaps in students' reading and mathematics skills. Data are instantaneously uploaded to a program that helps instructors analyze student performance over time and personalize their instructional strategies for each child.

Other products aim to enhance classroom instruction directly. For decades this has been the Holy Grail of the education technology industry. And for years the market has offered products like lesson-plan banks, tools to align lessons to state standards, and more recently, subscriptions to digital content providers (such as Discovery Education) that allow instructors to embed high-quality video, music, or graphics into their teaching. But early applications of this technology forced the teacher to play writer, director, and producer for each set of digitally enhanced lessons. That's a lot to expect from the average teacher and reinforces the inefficient practice of asking every teacher to reinvent the wheel.

Enter companies such as Agile Mind, which produces fully developed lessons in math and science that are rich with visualizations and simulations. This new generation of content providers shows potential, says Adam Newman, a vice president at the consulting firm Eduventures, because their products are "crafted with an understanding of the challenges and constraints of the classroom."

Some of the most important parts of the education process happen after the school bell rings, when teachers grade student homework, papers, and tests. Why can't English essays, for example, be zipped off electronically to be marked up and graded overnight by English majors or graduate students around the country (or even around the world), then handed back to the student the next day? A company called EduMetry is pursuing exactly this business for large-scale courses at the higher education level. EduMetry works with professors to create common grading rubrics; tests are graded online and feedback is provided electronically, creating a digital record of student work along the way. K-12 teachers might like similar homework-grading help, and students would receive feedback faster than they can from their teacher alone.

All of these products and services cost money--money that has to be squeezed out of an education system that plows almost all of its resources into personnel. Of course, there is another way. As our own Chester E. Finn Jr. first explained, in the past half-century our K-12 public education student population has grown 50 percent while our teacher corps has grown nearly 300 percent, largely in pursuit of smaller classes. If the size of our teacher force had merely kept pace with student growth and we spent the extra money attracting more-accomplished individuals to the field, today's average teacher salary would be close to $100,000 per year.

If teachers unions find the new technologies demeaning or threatening, perhaps they will finally get serious about working to raise teacher pay, compensate high performers accordingly, and give up their small classes in return. Should education technology push our system to finally choose teacher quality over teacher quantity, it will have a transformative effect indeed. But as long as it costs less money and political will to enhance legions of mediocre teachers than it would to compensate fewer highly talented ones, these technologies should find a market.

This essay first appeared in the Summer 2007 issue of Education Next.

More By Author