Friday, October 30, 2009

What would you do with $40 million?

Detriot Public Schools thought it would be a good idea to give it to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

As the Boston Globe reports:
Houghton will be providing a computer-based teaching system it developed with Microsoft Corp. that will connect teachers, students, and administrators.

The article goes on to frame this as a watershed moment in terms of the shift occuring in the publishing industry.

I frame it as a bunch of uninformed policy makers in Detroit Public Schools getting hoodwinked by Big Publishing.

The Globe quotes Barbara Byrd-Bennett, chief academic officer for Detroit public schools, as saying:
"Detroit’s teachers will be able to prepare and assign homework through Learning Village and use its tools to measure how well students learn - even how well they understand a lesson taught earlier in the day.

“I wanted one central portal that everybody can tap into."

$40 million to help teachers prepare homework online? $40 million to 'connect' students and teachers?

I have one question for Ms. Byrd-Bennett: Have you heard of Google Apps for Education?

I read a story like this and I think of all of the help Detroit's families need in this recession and it just makes me so angry. When are educational policy makers going to wake up to the reality that there are alternatives to spending millions and millions of dollars on technology -- alternatives that will in fact produce better results?

But there's that fear thing. Fear of the Cloud. It's what folks were talking about today on NPR's coverage of the city of Los Angeles going Gmail.

Well, darn it, I'm alot more afraid for the sanity of a public school system in a shattered city giving $40 million dollars to a textbook manufacturer than I am of putting anything on the Cloud.

$40 million dollars.

Money that could have been spent making 1:1 computing accessible to the children of Detroit. Money that could have been spent training teachers in the integration of social technologies to better equip students with the capacity to work and thrive in a globally connected world. Money that could have been used to empower students to go beyond the confines of their textbooks, schools, and neighborhoods and to tap into learning communities engaging in dialogue and debate in real-time the world over. And -- in many ways most importantly -- through the use of open source and community-driven projects from Scratch's creative programming initiative to the Library of Congress and its 'Teaching With Primary Sources' program the chance to engage with the authentic learning without the filter of Big Publishing.

Instead, what those kids see is $40 million pumped right out of their city and back into the open arms of the textbook industry.

And if you think this is a bit of a tirade against the textbook industry, well you are right. It is. Because right now, I have absolutely no respect for an industry that would accept that kind of money from a place facing as tough a situation as Detroit.

Shift. Yeah, right.

This isn't a 'shift' in anything. It's business as usual.

[Add 2:48PM]

And to add insult to injury, Jon Becker sends over a link to a WSJ article from the start of this school year:
Detroit's public-school system, beset by massive deficits and widespread corruption, is on the brink of following local icons GM and Chrysler into bankruptcy court.


  1. It's worse than just business-as-usual. It's circling the wagons in the face of the enemy — teachers like you and me who have resolved to give up textbooks.

    My school has an operating budget of something like $7 million; and that's for a school with a boarding program. We don't pay for textbooks, exactly; we order them and sell them to our students, sort of. So figure that half of the costs of our program are associated with having to provide housing and daily meals... So let's guess you can run a day school for maybe $3.5 million a year.

    By that logic, the Detroit School System has just given away the money necessary to run eleven schools for a year, and pay all the support staff and infrastructure costs associated with their administrative district staff.

    Once again, the public treasury is robbed for the sake of private profit. Truly we live in the greatest epoch for privatization since the invention of medieval feudalism.

  2. Ms. Byrd-Bennet needs to a bit of research or take one of the many tech. ed. classes that I read about on Twitter.

    For anything that she wants to do online, I'll give her at least 1, and usually 3 or 4 free options. Hell, if she wants, I'll take $1 million, do the research, put into a fancy Google Doc and share it with her...wait, those already exist. Still, I'll take the million.

    It's scary that this type of thing is happening in the higher ups. Dang.

  3. On the other hand, in addition to working as a classroom teacher, I've been a professional programmer who has developed personalized apps for small businesses. I always recommend that my clients look for free or even general purpose software that they can adapt for their needs. Nobody ever does that because they want the software fitted to their businesses; they do not want to be forced to retrain their employees and redo their procedures to adapt to software that may or may not turn out to help them run their businesses when finished. In the end, they get what they want, a product that functions precisely as they want, and their business goes on uninterrupted. I should also say that most of these people have tried the open source, and even general purpose software route, usually with disastrous and expensive consequences.

    Given my experience, I can see what the Detroit school district has made the choice it has.

  4. How can a school board make decisions about what is good for a classroom? Most of the school board members in my district aren't teachers. They don't know what is good in a classroom.

    Also, any major metropolitan district has thousands of teachers. Why not present all kinds of options to classroom teachers and let them run with it. For instance, I love Edmodo. Another teacher in my building swears by Moodle. Another teacher friend is content with Ning. Different strokes for different folks.

    I understand having something created for specifice needs. However, this situation reeks of a publisher not wanting to lose out on mega bucks when the option to go online with free resources is a reality.

  5. This shows an unbelievable lack of vision by the leaders of the Detroit Public Schools. We have one question we ask of ourselves when making decisions in our small little hamlet: can we do it without asking anyone for help? That question includes asking taxpayers for unnecessary contributions.

  6. Excellent article and very good thinking. Google Apps for education and the private sector is smart business. It's the web model and distributed data, kept safe along with tools that foster collaboration and at a great price.

  7. I wouldn't blame a thief if I left my money out on the doorstep.

    Schools are still designed for textbooks and their add-ons. You have to keep 30+ kids of the same age, but with vastly differing ability levels all in the same place. When it comes to the textbook, nobody has invented a better mousetrap.

    Blame the school leaders who advise the Board for not coming up with better ways to deliver a better education for more learners.

  8. With all due respect to Dr. Tom, textbooks don't keep kids on the same page any more than standards do. If a kid can't read or doesn't want to read, then the kid won't. With the incredible variance between kids' levels of performance and passions, it takes teachers to innovate new solutions that meet students where they are, engage them with meaningful work, and move them forward toward living a fulfilled life. We don't need a better mousetrap. We need no mousetrap. We need to completely eschew pejorative metaphors for school and make a new way, classroom by classroom, until the textbook and testing vendors are innovating for us instead of replicating against us. And by us, I mean students, teachers, and America. There are no new ideas in textbooks. The road to reforming education, lowering HS drop-out rates, and fostering the creativity and problem-solving talents of our kids should be paved with disused textbooks.

  9. Looks like they're not so hot on this deal in Detroit, either:$40M-digital-products-contract

  10. Time for the phrase "Robber Barons" to make a comeback.


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