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North Opinion/Letters to the Editor: Teachers need tools

Wednesday, October 10, 2001

I hope it's not too late to respond to Ruth Ann Baker's opinions about the Quaker Valley School District's digital district technology project ("How many teachers would $2 million hire?" Sept. 12). I just can't stop thinking about the image she painted for your readers, and I'd like the opportunity to replace that image with a very different picture, based on a far more extensive experience with technologies in schools and an understanding of the purpose of the project.

I agree with Ms. Baker's proposition that the teachers are of primary importance. Great teachers are my heroes. They make a huge difference in students' lives on a daily basis, often despite conditions that work against them. However, saying that we should hire a few more teachers instead of equipping them with the tools that they need is like saying that we'd be better off sending a few more doctors into a disaster area without giving them the tools, medicines, supplies and access to knowledge they need to help their patients. We need as many great teachers as we can afford, and we need to support them by giving them and their students the resources they need.

Today's computers, especially when connected to international networks, are not the "digital doodads" Ms. Baker believes them to be. Ms. Baker's computer may do little more for her than she could have done with paper and pencil (it is obvious that she didn't use the power of computers to do online research before writing or develop a spreadsheet to do any realistic calculations, for example), but networked computers can be much more. They are very versatile tools, which can be many different things to different people and at different times, depending on what their users know.

In the hands of a trained and inspired teacher, today's technologies are powerful tools that magnify a student's interest and mental power and, in the large quantities that this project will make them available to students, they will change how the students spend their time outside of school as well. These changes will create a stream of activities that replace passive options (like watching TV) with activities that make students stronger and better able to live and support families in the world that is rapidly evolving around them. Under the guidance of teachers who "get it," these tools will help students move beyond knowledge to develop creativity, problem solving, teamwork and other crucial attributes.

Ms. Baker either didn't know or failed to report that the primary purpose of the project is research. The Pennsylvania Department of Education, in the call for proposals, required the districts to submit a plan describing the research that would be done. Researchers from Harvard and Carnegie Mellon universities are working with the Quaker Valley School District to learn lessons that will improve the quality of technology use at Quaker Valley and in other districts as the technologies continue their inevitable expansion into learning environments. While Ms. Baker calls the project "not a very wise idea" and says that it's "the state's fault" that the district can't spend the money on more teachers instead, I find it to be a very wise investigation that will help educators across the nation put technologies to work better and sooner. Students, teachers and the rest of us, too, will benefit.

Remember, Ms. Baker, technologies will not replace teachers, but teachers who use technologies effectively will replace those who don't.

In closing, I'd just like to say that I've visited Quaker Valley, talked with its very capable leaders and teachers, and I believe it's a perfect place to do this pioneering work. They have far more than their share of dedicated teachers, like those Ms. Baker describes, who make crucial, personal connections with students. And, believe it or not, these new technologies will actually enhance those personal relationships. I'll stake my reputation on it.

State College

Editor's note: The writer is a professor of education at Penn State University.

Community responded to help those in need

Shaler and the Shaler Area School District had its own tragedy on Sept. 16. There was a house fire in which the entire house burned down and one child was killed. Shaler Area residents came together to help the Piekarski family as much as the entire nation came together to help the victims in New York.

A special "thank you" goes out to the entire administration and staff of the Shaler Area School District and all the residents who bonded together to help the Piekarski family.

The family lost their son, Zachary, and everything they owned. Zak was a student at Shaler Area High School. I know we cannot bring Zak back, but we hope that with the generous outpouring, we made it a little easier for the family.

I feel great pride living in Shaler.


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