Rhee calls technology ‘equalizer’ for students

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Shortly after taking the helm of D.C. Public Schools, Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, as part of her efforts to modernize classrooms and incorporate digital learning, enacted a plan to put thousands of computers into schools across the District.

Only to be bedeviled by the simplest of problems.

When workers tried to hook up the machines in June 2007, they discovered that many schools had only two-pronged electrical outlets, incompatible with the three prongs on computer cords. Using adapters would have short-circuited electrical systems.

“For a lot of districts, you’re not just talking about things like bringing in a computer, which is a good thing, but you’re also talking about fundamental infrastructure,” Ms. Rhee said Tuesday, speaking at the Lenovo Think Tank conference at Georgetown University, a gathering of technology leaders and educators.

Ms. Rhee, a controversial figure who garnered national attention before resigning in October 2010, has founded the education advocacy group Students First. It is headquartered in Sacramento, Calif., where she now resides.

In her 45-minute speech, she focused heavily on the need for technology in the classroom, one of the causes for which Students First advocates. Ms. Rhee said the simple wiring problems she encountered in D.C. also plague schools across the country, and bringing them up to 21st-century standards will require “a sea change” in the minds of parents, teachers, school administrators and departments of education nationwide.

She called technology an “equalizer” for children in poorer school districts who haven’t had the financial and other resources to compete with students from more affluent systems.

But many children, Ms. Rhee said, are beginning to demand instruction that relies heavily on computers and other alternatives to the pencils and paper of the past.

“We have to know that kids are going to be driving the innovations and the reforms moving forward,” she said.

Ms. Rhee also took shots at the teacher tenure system, which she argued stifles classroom innovation and often rewards ineffective teachers simply because they have been there the longest.

At a time when many states are cutting education funding, teacher layoffs are inevitable, she said. Usually, the layoff protocol is based on the “last in, first out” philosophy, which calls for the newest teachers to be the first ones given pink slips, despite the performance of their students.

“This policy is absolutely awful for kids … it drives parents crazy,” she said, adding the system celebrates “mediocrity.”

Ms. Rhee, a vocal supporter of private-school vouchers, also called for changes in student assessments. She argued that too often, educators focus heavily on math, reading and other subjects which are easily measured by standardized tests. She said students also be should gauged on their music proficiency, art skill and other areas often ignored by schools.

Ms. Rhee said little of her own future other than promoting Students First, but it appears she’s positioning herself as a powerful player in California’s education arena.

The Sacramento Bee reported last month that she has set up her own political action committee and hired a prominent lobbying firm.

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