Wednesday, November 15, 2017
Can Tennessee Schools Replace Teachers with Computers? Not If the Constitution and Facts Have Anything to Say About It
The Tennessee Court of Appeals has taken up a fascinating issue regarding students' access to teachers. The problem could only arise in the brave new world of computers. In short, a student at a Tennessee high school had fallen behind in algebra and end-of-grade assessments were looming. The school pulled the student out of the class and placed the student in a computer based credit recovery program. Apparently, this occurred with several other students. The student claims that the school did this to help increase its standardized test scores.
The disputed issue in the case seems to be a narrower one: do students have the right to access a teacher? The plaintiff says yes. The school's attorney says no.
Melissa Roberge, a Metro lawyer, argued Tuesday that a student's right to education does not extend to the education's components, such as how classes are delivered or the specific classes themselves.
"Miss Jones does not have a property interest in the most appropriate education as determined by her," she argued. "Stated differently, there's no property interest in remaining in a specific class or being entitled to any particular test."
Roberge noted that Jones was not excluded from Metro Schools nor removed from all of her classes.
@RachelAnne Levy asked for my thoughts on Twitter. First, the case is fascinating on any number of practical and policy levels. Manipulating who shows up for tests is nothing new, but doing it this way and arguing that it is completely above the board, normal, and legitimate is different. Second, using recovery programs as a supplement to regular instruction or as an option for students who have no others is reasonable. Using it as a first option is really bad policy (unless the program is demonstrated to be of exceptional quality and help to the student) and creates obvious perverse incentives.
As to the law, the case is not nearly as interesting because I think the answer is easy. Unless they have some very specific evidence of which I am unaware, schools cannot just do this simply because no statute exist to specifically prohibit it.
While the district is correct that students typically do not have a property right in any particular class, this line of defense misses much larger and more important legal precedent and rights.
The Supreme Court in Tennessee Small School Systems v. McWherter, 851 SW2d 139 (1993), held that students have a constitutional right to "substantially equal educational opportunities." The underlying facts in the case involved disparities in teacher salaries across the state. Consistent with the overwhelming social science consensus, the court indicated that "teachers, obviously, are the most important component of any education plan or system." Because salary disparities resulted in students having unequal access to teachers, the Court ordered the state on more than one occasion to remedy is system of funding teacher salaries across the state.
So while state statutes may not create any specific property interest in access to a teacher, the state constitution creates a right to equal educational opportunities, which teachers are the most important part of. To be clear, however, underlying the discussion of teachers in McWherter and, now this new case, is educational opportunity itself. The basic right is to educational opportunity. Violations of that right occur when students are deprived of the resources and learning necessary to achieve that opportunity. This leads to the factual question of whether the offerings in one class or one school are substantially equal to others across the state.
Just because one district has higher credentialed teachers than another does not automatically mean the students' rights have been violated. The same is true of minor variations in class size. The same line of reasoning could theoretically extend to computer based learning versus human based teaching. If both were "substantial equal," a student would not necessarily have a claim.
But that is a preposterous theory when one considers the real world. I am not aware of any research (although I allow I may have missed it) that suggests that computers are equal to or can replace human instruction. If any research is on point, it would seem to be the research and practical push back against several technologies that undermine learning--particularly the most valuable types of learning that occur through personal interaction, motivation, and feedback. I don't doubt that artificial intelligence may drastically close this gap at some point, but for now it is hard to argue that computer based learning standing alone is equivalent to teacher based instruction. This is even more so for the struggling student who needs to be engaged.
Where does this leave us? The question of computer based learning is new territory and should not be dismissed out of hand. At some point, it may play an incredibly large and legitimate role. Thus, the law should not cut it off. But that is all speculation and remaining open to future possibilities. But in the here and now, we know how important teachers are and we know that students have a right to substantially equal educational opportunities in Tennessee. Thus, schools should carry a very heavy evidentiary burden with any sort of experimentation that would deprive students of substantially equal access to the key competent of education.