Dr. Walter Tobin, interim superintendent, Calhoun County, South Carolina, Public Schools, recently participated in a teleconference called Enhancing Education Through Technology, one of a series of teleconferences on the No Child Left Behind Act sponsored by Plato Learning. Included: Strategies for improving and teachers' technology literacy.
Many educators may not realize that Enhancing Education Through Technology, part of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, provides assistance -- in the form of funds and guidance -- for improving technology proficiency among educators and increasing technology use in classrooms. That assistance is available at a time when, according to information from PLATO Learning, only one-third of teachers report that they feel prepared to use computers for classroom instruction, and 77 percent report spending 32 or fewer hours on technology-related professional development activities.
PLATO is holding a series of teleconferences on the NCLB Act, among them one on Enhancing Education Through Technology. The EETT conference included Dr. Walter Tobin, interim superintendent of the Calhoun County, South Carolina, Public Schools, who discussed the professional development opportunities in technology his district provided for its teachers.
Tobin was joined in the teleconference by John P. Bailey, director of educational technology for the U.S. Department of Education, and Don Knezek, chief executive officer of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). Click here to read an e-interview with Bailey. Click here to read Knezek's comments.Education World recently participated in a teleconference with Tobin. During the interview, he shares his thoughts about providing more and better professional development for educators in the area of technology.
Dr. Walter Tobin: Professional development is the key to making the kinds of improvements in student achievement we want. We have built what we do around professional development -- and professional development includes raising the technical skills of our teachers and exposing them to the kind of management system and instructional management system that a system such as Plato Orion provides.
We've got several challenges to overcome in regard to staff technology training. First of all, we have a small technical staff; often, when we get people trained, people steal them away. We also have a small instructional staff and limited resources. So, we have been a part of a project with a local university and Plato Orion, in which we focus on a couple of things, notably professional development and anywhere-anytime learning for students -- which is about having the instructional and curriculum resources we need for students and being able to access the information our teachers need -- the "managed Internet." During the past year, we've been able to expose teachers to the information that is available; they are now using that information on a daily basis.
Harry Wong talks about teachers being critical to the reform effort. At the beginning of the year, we asked our board if we could buy a laptop for each of our teachers. We had begun planning over the summer; we knew that the skill level among our teachers varied; we knew that some were very capable of using the technology and going on with it; we knew if we put the technology in those teachers' hands, they would use it. Some teachers came back to school in the fall with several months of lesson plans done already.
We also upgraded our teachers' skills by providing them with professional development. Several classes are being offered right now, some were offered in the fall, and some will be offered in the spring.
We also dismiss school on some days about 45 minutes early. What we find is that on those days, teachers stay much later than they ordinarily would, because they are working on things together and planning on a grade- and subject-level basis. In just that short 45-minute period, we find that teachers take more of an interest in working together and planning.
What's exciting for me, as I go into schools when teachers are having their unencumbered time, is finding that they are accessing the Web, which is available to them for curriculum content, lesson plans, and that kind of thing.
Question: How difficult was it to get that early release?
Tobin: I asked our board if we could pursue it, the board approved it, and we did a survey of our parents and PTA and asked if they would agree to it. Then we asked our teachers if they would be willing to use the time to make a difference for their students.
GETTING AWAY FROM "HOBBY TEACHING"
Question: We have teacher technology standards, but no incentives
for teachers to achieve them. What ideas do you have?
Tobin: What we're doing is upgrading what our teachers are doing to integrate technology into their curriculum and teaching. That's been a hard sell sometimes, but we think we're making progress.
I sometimes call what some teachers are doing "hobby teaching." That means they have been teaching something for a very long time, they enjoy teaching it, and they are going to keep teaching it...no matter what. Getting away from hobby teaching means doing standards-based teaching. What we're trying to get teachers to do is take those things they have been teaching and go back to the South Carolina standards. We've provided that for our teachers by making that active Web available to them; they have the information, the curriculum content, and the strategies they need to provide for their students. They can meet the individual needs of students in their classrooms.
ALIGNING TO STATE STANDARDS
Question: How do you move your teachers away from hobby teaching? What are the incentives?
Tobin: First of all, we try to convince folks that this is the right thing to do. They ought to be doing what's good for children, which is raising their skill levels. One incentive is to give them the means and the access to do that -- laptop computers and a managed curriculum. We're finding that people are at varying levels of technical ability, so we've created a loose kind of community of leaders -- teachers who have the skills to help the other folks.
We have report cards in South Carolina, as a lot of states do, so we encourage people by saying we don't want to get bad scores on our report cards -- and certainly not on the report of our annual progress.
Giving people time to plan is very important, because often teachers are rushed and don't have common planning time. Now that our teachers have common planning time, they are sharing ideas with one another. By giving them the resources, giving them the technology, giving them the time, and encouraging them to do as much as they can for their children...we're finding that people respond.
Being able to align what we're teaching to state standards is an important part of our efforts. We'd go into classrooms, and sometimes teachers didn't know what the standards were. Now they know what the standards are, and they can access those standards through Orion. There is accountability for teachers.
There also is an assessment piece teachers can use to find out where students are. They can plan lessons around the results, and then go to the Web and create those lessons or find prototype lesson plans. Some of the lessons our teachers create are good enough to be put on the Web, so they are available to other teachers as well.
The other important piece is that we've found that textbooks provide only a small portion of the information that meets the standards for individual states. What we've been able to do is take all our textbooks and make sure that they are aligned to our state's standards. So, our teachers are not just teaching anymore, they are teaching with a focus. By aligning the content of our textbooks to standards, teachers can be sure they are teaching to the standards; they know where in the textbook to go to find specific information; and they can provide that information to their students.
We've been very pleased with that correlation, with the information that's provided for our teachers, and with their ability to access information wherever they are. We have upgraded the technology in our schools -- we have a network in all of our schools right now -- and we have upgraded the computers in our labs and in some classrooms. We've been able to create accountability, align content to standards, correlate our textbooks to standards, and utilize assessment tools to increase student achievement. It's very exciting to go into classrooms, especially on the days we dismiss early, and see third and fourth grade teachers working together; accessing the Web with their laptops, and working on behalf of their students.
We have not yet been able to determine exactly how much difference all this is making, but we think there is a real possibility for improvement for our students, primarily because instruction is now standard-driven and based on the standards of South Carolina.