Wednesday, September 22, 2010

My Thoughts: No Pen Needed


My husband came home the other night and told me about a story he'd heard on  local talk radio channel about my school district spending more than  a half of million dollars on new talking pens. I listened to him detail the exciting new technology and tried to keep my face expressionless. Why hadn't I heard this story?

In case you missed it, find the story at WFTV. The district has spent 200K on Smart Pens to pilot them. According to the story, much of the money comes from grants.

I've seen a Smart Pen in person. A friend, and district technologist rang it's bells and blew it's whistles for me one day. Interesting gadget, but I have to wonder. Would the pen mitigate a child's processing issues? Would the pen support students in our special education programs? Who would actually get and use the pen? How many administrators are "piloting" the pen? How many students are the pens serving? How many pens are we talking about for 200K? I want the numbers because you know what?

In my classroom, I often buy my own pens.  I buy my own a lot of things. What disturbs me about the Smart Pen is not just the cost.  It's the money. True or false: Two hundred thousand dollars is not a lot of money in a school system. True. The operating budget of just 1 of our large high schools exceeds 14 million dollars, so compared to that figure (which is a few years old) 200 K may not be statistically significant. The practical significance of the money is huge. When does the money make it's way to actual classrooms? When does the money actually go to students.

If the 98% pens are being tested by students in schools, then I will stand corrected. My guess is that they are not. I make that guess based on the blackberries, the iPhones, the MacBooks, the iPads, the multiple flat screen monitors at workstations. District folk and their offices are laden with technology while many schools and students suffer a dearth of access to today's tools. Certainly adults need to jump on the techno-learning curve. Certainly administrators and teachers and other support adults will need access to tools and time to learn them. But what about the children? When is it their turn?

If this initiative is grant funded, the money did not come from stretch district budgets. True. But someone spend district time writing that grant, right?

Did you know that teachers at my school have a limit on how many papers they can run through my printer At the beginning of the year teachers were told they would be able to print 1,000 copies school wide meaning each printer will record your requests and  deduct from your $30  printing account. My limit hasn't taken effect yet. Is it coming?  Our school can not afford to spend 22K and more on printer ink and toner each year, so printing and copying are limited.  We can submit copies to a clerical person who does her best to have copies run within 48 hours. But both of her smallest-I've-seen industrial copiers have been broken. The machines limp along between repair visits and copies often take 5 or 6 days. What kind of instruction can I plan if copying response time is 5-6 days?

When the machines come up, the copying priority is progress monitoring tests--benchmark exams required by the district and state. We run thousands of answer sheets in order to scan students bubble tests into the data management system. The answer sheets didn't copy dark enough this time. There is a code, much like a bar code, across the bottom of the test. Many teachers have had to hand color in the code in order for the answer sheet scanner to read the test. Incredible, isn't it.

This is but one example. I could talk about portable classrooms (though I love my double-wide) or the amount of out-of-pocket money teachers spend for their students or the number of students enrolled in free and reduced lunch programs or the lack of access to technology (still) or any number of woe-are-we topics. There is a lot of money in education, but where is it going?

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