The Paradox of Teachers and Technology in the U.S.

U.S. Presidents, philanthropists, parents, and researchers all say, no, swear,  that teachers are the most important in-school factor in children and youth learning. Yet those very same teachers, professionals with advanced degrees, have little say in determining access or use of hardware and software in their classrooms. Policymakers decide, not teachers, to buy and deploy new technologies for classroom use.

School boards buy iPads for kindergarten teachers. Superintendents contract with companies to supply every classroom with interactive whiteboards. Sure, maybe a few teachers show up on a district-wide committee that advises the school board and superintendent but decisions to spend and distribute machines are seldom made by teachers, the foot soldiers of reform who are expected to use them in lessons.

Teachers–most of whom already use an array of electronic devices at home–are expected to use new technologies in classroom lessons but have little to no say in determining which devices and software they will use and under what conditions. That is the paradox that champions of technology–including philanthropists, software engineers, programmers, and CEOs–fail to understand or if they do understand choose to ignore.

Yet that is not the case in other professions. Doctors, lawyers, engineers, and accountants working either as solo practitioners or in small groups decide which new technologies they will buy and use. In most public and private organizations that pay salaries to professionals, in hospitals, top decision-makers often meet and confer with doctors. Ditto for engineers and architects in big companies, and senior lawyers in firms. But not in school districts.

Non-involvement does not mean non-use. In school districts, for example, once major investments in high-tech are made, there are many teachers who choose to use the new equipment and software in their lessons. And there are those teachers among them who ingeniously weave learning and machines together in imaginative ways that both entrance and spur students to learn even more than they would from conventional lessons. There are such teachers and they show up in articles in Edutopia, on technology advocacy websites, and in software testimonials. They comprise a small fraction of a district’s teacher corps, however.

So what? What’s the big deal about teachers not being part of the decisions to buy and deploy new technologies?

I offer two answers to the So What question.

1. Such policy and administrative decisions ignoring teachers’ ideas, concerns, and issues of implementations send the message that those who teach are mere technicians who hammer the nail and turn the screw. They are not professionals capable of making judgments about what and how to teach.

2. Without serious teacher involvement in decisions to purchase and use new technologies, avoidable, even foolish, glitches occur time and again in putting the new technologies into practice. Anyone who has been in schools when new technologies were rolled out at the beginning of a school year knows all the “Oops,” “Sorry about that,” and “we had not considered that possibility” that get said in subsequent months. Much, but not all, of that could have avoided had teachers participated fully in trials of the new devices and discussions prior to implementation.

Were teachers to become part of the decision-making process in determining access and use of new technologies would they  eventually integrate these new technologies into classroom lessons? Yes, far more than occurs now.

Why? Because teachers would have thought through and learned connections between curriculum knowledge and skills and software applications, how lessons could be taught that use and not use the new devices and software, and a pool of expertise would have emerged among teachers that could be shared.

Even were that to happen, however, most teachers would continue to use both hardware and software, including apps, in conventional ways that largely reinforce existing ways of teaching and learning, especially since the standards, testing, and accountability reforms have dominated federal, state, and urban district regimes in these years. And that is another paradox that has stumped high-tech advocates for decades.

Treating teachers as undeserving to be at the table when decisions are made about the buying and deploying of hardware and software reflects the low esteem that policymakers have for teachers. Would decisions on access and use to high-tech devices in classrooms be better-informed? You bet. Would teachers use the software differently. Perhaps. It would be worth finding out.


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

27 responses to “The Paradox of Teachers and Technology in the U.S.

  1. I hate to sound cynical here, Larry, but in just what areas of education DO classroom teachers have a major decision-making role? Doug

    • larrycuban

      Come on, Doug, that is a fair, not cynical, question. Historically, teachers have been treated as non-professionals and their advice, ideas, and common sense have been largely ignored. Some historical instances come to mind that interrupted that pattern. Superintendent Ella Flagg Young in Chicago before World War I started “teacher councils” that made decisions on curriculum and instruction in the system. In Denver a decade later, the superintendent organized teachers into groups that revised the entire curriculum for the district–the groups lasted for a decade. School site councils that decide on allocating school funds have appeared (and disappeared) over the past half-century. These school-site decision-making bodies had mostly teachers but included administrators and parents. In your state, there are teacher cooperatives who run their schools. Finally, there is collective bargaining where districts and teachers negotiate contracts governing what occurs inside schools, and other aspects of daily work. Overall, these instances I cite–and there are others–are exceptions to the pattern that we both know of which is that teachers are missing in action when it comes to major decisions that affect their classrooms. The instance of buying and deploying technology simply fits the pattern.

      Thanks for asking the question, Doug.

    • larrycuban

      For Doug and others who commented on this post, particularly teachers who asked about what teachers can do, I think what David B. Cohen, a high school teacher in Palo Alto public schools, had to say about teachers’ voices in policy discussions is relevant and worthwhile to read. His post is at:

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  3. Agreed with Doug’s comments above. Absolutely agree that teachers have to be at the table in order to build in investment. However, the logistics behind that is difficult. In a large district, you could get some teachers to help in the decision making, but that is just a small percentage of all teachers. How do you include teachers in a meaningful way that’s not just lip service? Also, how do you make sure that this is going to be used in a way that’s more valuable than lesson planning, grading, contacting parents, etc.

    So teachers need to be included, but how do you make sure that all voices are involved (not just those who like technology) and do it in an expedient way?

    • larrycuban

      You are talking about representation among teachers and there are various ways of getting such representatives that cover different factions. It occurs all the time in large democracies. Some are better than others in participation and effectiveness. That is not the issue, in my judgment. The issue is who makes the decisions, what decisions are to be decided, when, and under what conditions. Control is what I am talking about. My response to Doug indicates that there have been and will continue to be policymakers and administrators who see the wisdom of getting teachers involved in making key decisions that affect their classrooms.

  4. dlaufenberg

    So, how does that happen? As a classroom teacher, I have been beyond vocal about valuing the voice of the teachers and students in larger policy decisions. When I ask the hard questions of ‘the powers that be’, national leaders on ed reform, mind you… I get one of two responses… 1. We know and 2. (and I kid you not) essentially, my aren’t you cute, you couldn’t possibly be a mid-career teacher… and then avoid the question.

    Teachers have serious concerns and aspirations that are trampled on consistently. I keep asking the uncomfortable questions, pushing a narrative of powerful student learning, collaboratively working with peers to elevate methods and strategies… Other than finding a pile of money to start seriously lobbying… thoughts on what we can be doing?

    • I think we just have to start doing it ourselves. If administrators and policymakers won’t listen to us, then I’m afraid our only recourse is to find our common ground and use the power of our numbers to do what needs to be done. Obviously, it’s difficult because not all teachers have the time, and it’s not in many teachers’ nature to be something that might be misconstrued for oppositional. And obviously it doesn’t mean we can stop being vocal. But I feel that if we’re going to get things done right now, we’re going to have to do it ourselves.

      So what does that mean in relation to Larry’s post? I think it means meeting with colleagues grassroots to discuss what works best for the staff and individual teachers, going to places like, sharing results with colleagues and the community, and finding ways to get community press to help show that we’re the professionals we want everyone to understand that we are.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks, James, for your suggestions about what can be done.

      • dlaufenberg

        I guess what I am saying, is… is that is not going to be enough to push up against the powerful monied interests directing policy right now. What causes a true shift to occur, that maybe for the first time… teachers are taken seriously as professionals in the process of visioning the future of schools and formal education.

        I frequently say… no one is coming for us and have been acting accordingly for 15 years… but although I will not stop pushing, I think there needs to be something else.

    • larrycuban

      James Boutin just commented on the same post. He offers some suggestions. Thanks for your comments.

  5. Be careful about your generalizations to other industries and organizations. I’m a software developer turned teacher and it’s been my experience that decisions about technology are made at the upper levels in most organizations. Usually there is input from involved parties in the organization. Technology is expensive and there are many considerations, including an overall strategy, and infrastructure support. Some organizations and industries are better at both predicting the future and developing long term strategies than others. Sometimes political infighting occurs. I’ve seen the best roll out plans changed at the last minute, because some high level manager felt he was not getting his
    “fair share”, and escalated the plan.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Mary, for the cautionary note on generalizing. I do wonder what your experiences have been as a teacher in seeing new technologies adopted in your district and how similar or dissimilar it has been with your previous experiences in private industry.

  6. To add something I hope of value to Mary’s comment. While working for one of the UK’s leading ICT companies, I was preparing an important presentation with my bid team. A senior manager asked to sit in and observe. We were using an application still in development and at one point, (since I was the one going to be pressing the Beta buttons and having to do the live event) I pointed out that no teacher would ever do something the application was forcing me to do.

    The senior manager exploded in a way I have never seen before or since and hurled abuse at me as though I had no right whatsoever to question what the developers had produced. My bid manager and others in my team complimented me afterwards on how I kept my cool, and one of them said, “I don’t know how you didn’t hit him.” I do, I used to be a teacher which had given me some self control skills he clearly lacked… besides the remotest interest in anything an ex teacher might have to say.

  7. Gary Ravani

    Recall several years ago, CA Assem. Jackie Goldberg ( a former teacher) introduced legislation to make text book selection a subject of collective bargaining. The hue and cry stopped (just) short of getting out the pitchforks and tiki torches to burn down the local teachers’ union office.
    The “reformers” of the time (conservatives and many newspapers) said it was “selling out to the unions” and the legislation died.

    So, that would be one mechanism to putting wheels onto the concept of having teachers be in charge of their professions in the way other professionals are. And, recall, unions by law are very democratic organizations. Each school site elects a representative who serves on an executive board with elected officers who jointly direct bargaining teams on what to do at “the table.”

    There are also “Educational Policy Trust Agreements” where districts and unions develop collaborative documents, legally enforceable by arbitration, on issues typically outside collective bargaining that spell out how text book, curriculum, professional development, etc., policies will be implemented. It is even possible to develop a Trust Agreement on “shared decision-making” that explicitly spells out how decisions on all kinds of classroom issues will be made; at what level in the organization, by what group, and how the groups will be assembled.

    There are more “informal” agreements on joint district/administrative–union/teacher on how collaborations will occur. One notable example is the ABC District and Federation in southern CA that, after a particularly ugly strike some decades ago, worked out an agreement on joint problem solving that has received national recognition. Duke University has a study indicating not only has this process saved the district in terms of strife, efficiency, and resources, but also actually seems to be contributing to improved student achievement.

    Putting teachers appropriately in charge of their profession, and to the betterment of education and students, is not the impossible dream.

  8. Pingback: The Paradox of Teachers and Technology in the U.S. | greggfesta |

  9. In a sense this is a democratic fallacy, because even if we involve teachers, they will never be representative of ‘all teachers’. So I’m afraid that then the discourse shifts from ‘managers deciding’ to ‘front-running teachers deciding’.

    • larrycuban

      there is a big difference between direct democracy and representative democracy. It depends greatly upon how teacher representatives are chosen and who does the choosing.

    • dlaufenberg

      I absolutely understand the sentiment of your comment. Frequently, I felt as a union member that the leadership was not representing my viewpoint, I would also offer that I feel many of the decisions affecting classrooms should stay much closer to the local entities that govern the schools. After teaching in AZ, KS, WI and PA – rural, urban, bordering the Reservation – I observed that ‘school’ and ‘education’ in America is not one thing. We need community relevant, nuanced conversations with those that are serving those communities. This is a massive and diverse country that needs a more locally relevant conversation about schools and classrooms. When decisions are closer to the people that implement them… it works much better.

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