Lancer Letter – DALI 2017

Submitted by Richard Scaletta, GM School District

General McLane School District enjoys an excellent reputation in Erie County for delivering quality, progressive education to its students. While I appreciate that reputation and all the work that goes into earning it, I never want to be satisfied with the status quo. That’s why every year I attend a national conference to get a gauge on what is on the cutting edge in education throughout the country.

I recently attended the District Administration Leadership Institute Superintendent Summit where 88 superintendents from 36 states gathered to hear about educational research and to network with each other to share information about our districts. The number of attendees is intentionally kept small so there is plenty of opportunity for interaction.

I never cease to be amazed at the broad diversity of school systems throughout the nation. Superintendents come in all shapes and sizes and run districts that are extremely varied. Matt from Minnesota was running a 900 student district and when the neighboring 600 student district dismissed its superintendent for some nefarious activities, he took it over and runs two districts giving him 540 square miles to cover.

Michael from North Carolina has lived in a cabin in the mountains with his wife and 7 children. He goes fly fishing three times a week near his cabin and drives a fluorescent green Harley, named “Wicked,” to his office and district schools.

Dave runs a 41,000 student school district in Texas. He is dealing with immigrant high school students staging walk-outs to protest the Trump administration. He also has the state’s largest high school football stadium in his district – it seats 20,000!

Michael runs a 9300 student district on Long Island. He has a 230 million dollar budget and teachers at the top end in his district make around $160K.

At this summit, I observed an interesting trend. A number of millennials are running tech companies that provide services to education. These companies are combining brain research, learning theory and in some cases social science to create powerful learning programs and other tools to serve the education community.

The item that intrigued me the most at this conference was the software to teach reading which uses “algorithm based artificial intelligence.” Based on significant research, I believe this product is on the leading edge of learning that will revolutionize education. The software learns how a student learns as the child works through the program. While we humans tend to ask children to follow a linear path in their learning, this software will take a very non-linear approach as it learns how the child understands best. Teachers are alerted via a “dashboard” to intervene with students who are struggling or to commend students who are progressing well.

Software that uses artificial intelligence presently is only available for reading; however, PBS has commissioned the technology to be applied to the teaching of science and I recently read that Carnegie Learning, based out of Pittsburgh, is working on math software that will use artificial intelligence to teach math.

When you mention the use of artificial intelligence in education someone usually asks if that means teachers will become obsolete. In his best-selling book, The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman wrote extensively about automation in industry and the elimination of jobs it would cause. He welcomed it. He advocated that we should not fear it, as he felt it would free Americans to do what they do best: create and innovate.

I would echo Friedman’s sentiment in relation to the use of artificial intelligence in education. I think it will free teachers to provide more targeted interventions to children and give teachers more time to innovate ways to reach struggling students. Additionally, we will always need teachers to provide hands on approaches for students who learn best from that method. Additionally, computers don’t know when children are coming to school hungry or abused or just needing love and attention. It will be a sad, sad world if we eliminate the human touch. To be sure, teachers will become true learning facilitators but should never relinquish the critical role of being a caring adult in children’s lives.

New horizons lie ahead of us. It will be interesting to see where it all leads.

The Lancer Letter is a weekly editorial by Richard Scaletta, Superintendent of Schools, General McLane School District. Opinions expressed are Mr. Scaletta’s views on the issues and subjects of discussion, and not necessarily those of or our sponsors.

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