POST FALLS, Idaho » Ann Rosenbaum, a former military police officer in the Marines, does not shrink from a fight, having even survived a close encounter with a car bomb in Iraq. Her latest conflict is quite different: She is now a high school teacher, and she and many of her peers in Idaho are resisting a statewide plan that dictates how computers should be used in classrooms.
Last year, the state legislature overwhelmingly passed a law that requires all high school students to take some online classes to graduate, and that the students and their teachers be given laptops or tablets. The idea was to establish Idaho’s schools as a high-tech vanguard.
To help pay for these programs, the state may have to shift tens of millions of dollars away from salaries for teachers and administrators. And the plan envisions a fundamental change in the role of teachers, making them less a lecturer at the front of the room and more of a guide helping students through lessons delivered on computers.
This change is part of a broader shift that is creating tension — a tension that is especially visible in Idaho but is playing out across the country. Some teachers, even though they may embrace classroom technology, feel policymakers are thrusting computers into classrooms without their input or proper training. And some say they are opposed to shifting money to online classes and other teaching methods whose benefits remain unproven.
"Teachers don’t object to the use of technology," said Sabrina Laine, vice president of the American Institutes for Research, which has studied the views of the nation’s teachers using grants from organizations like the Gates and Ford foundations. "They object to being given a resource with strings attached and without the needed support to use it effectively to improve student learning."
In Idaho, teachers have been in open revolt. They marched on the capital last spring, when the legislation was under consideration. They complain that lawmakers listened less to them than to heavy lobbying by technology companies, including Intel and Apple. Teacher and parent groups gathered 75,000 verified signatures, more than was needed, to put a referendum on the ballot next November that could overturn the law.
"This technology is being thrown on us. It’s being thrown on parents and thrown on kids," said Rosenbaum, 32, who has written letters to the governor and schools superintendent.
In her letters she tells them she is a Republican and a Marine, because, she says, it has become fashionable around the country to dismiss complaining teachers as union-happy liberals.
"I fought for my country," she said. "Now I’m fighting for my kids."
Gov. C.L. Otter, known as Butch, and Tom Luna, the schools superintendent, who have championed the plan, said teachers had been misled by their union into believing the changes were a step toward replacing them with computers. Luna said the teachers’ anger was intensified by other legislation, also passed last spring, that eliminated protections for teachers with seniority and replaced them with a pay-for-performance system.
Some teachers have also expressed concern that teaching positions could be eliminated and their raises reduced to help offset the cost of the technology.
Luna acknowledged that many teachers in the state were conservative Republicans like him — making Idaho’s politics less black-and-white than in states like Wisconsin and New Jersey, where union-backed teachers have been at odds with politicians.
Luna said he understood that technological change could be scary, particularly because teachers would need to adapt to new ways of working.
"The role of the teacher definitely does change in the 21st century. There’s no doubt," Luna said. "The teacher does become the guide and the coach and the educator in the room helping students to move at their own pace."
Many details about how students would use their laptop or tablet are still being debated. But under the state’s plan, that teacher will not always be in the room. The plan requires high school students to take online courses for two of their 47 graduation credits.
Luna said this would allow students to take subjects that were not otherwise available at their schools and familiarize them with learning online, something he said was increasingly common in college.
The computer, he added, "becomes the textbook for every class, the research device, the advanced math calculator, the word processor and the portal to a world of information."
Idaho is going beyond what other states have done in decreeing what hardware students and teachers should use and how they should use it. But such requirements are increasingly common at the district level, where most decisions about buying technology for schools are made.
Teachers are resisting, saying that they prefer to employ technology as it suits their own teaching methods and styles. Some feel they are judged on how much they make use of technology, regardless of whether it improves learning. Some teachers in the Los Angeles public schools, for example, complain that the form that supervisors use to evaluate teachers has a check box on whether they use technology, suggesting that they must use it for its own sake.
That is a concern shared by Rosenbaum, who teaches at Post Falls High School in this town in northern Idaho, near Coeur d’Alene. Rather than relying on technology, she seeks to engage students with questions — the Socratic method — as she did recently as she was taking her sophomore English class through "The Book Thief," a novel about a family in Germany that hides a Jewish girl during World War II.
Rosenbaum, tall with an easy smile but also a commanding presence, stood in the center of the room with rows of desks on each side, pacing, peppering the students with questions and using each answer to prompt the next. What is an example of foreshadowing in this chapter? Why did the character say that? How would you feel in that situation?
Her room mostly lacks high-tech amenities. Homework assignments are handwritten on whiteboards. Students write journal entries in spiral notebooks. On the walls are two American flags and posters paying tribute to the Marines, and on the ceiling a panel painted by a student thanks Rosenbaum for her service. Rosenbaum did use a computer and projector to show a YouTube video of the devastation caused by bombing in World War II. She said that while technology had a role to play, her method of teaching was timeless. "I’m teaching them to think deeply, to think. A computer can’t do that."
She said she was mystified by the requirement that students take online courses. She is taking some classes online as she works toward her master’s degree and said they left her uninspired and less informed than in-person classes. Rosenbaum said she could not fathom how students would have the discipline to sit in front of their computers and follow along when she had to work each minute to keep them engaged in person.
Some of her views are echoed by other teachers, like Doug StanWiens, 44, a popular teacher of advanced history and economics at Boise High School. He is a heavy technology user, relying on an interactive whiteboard and working with his students to build a website that documents local architecture, a project he says will create a resource for the community.
"I firmly believe that technology is a tool for teachers to use," he said. "It’s time for teachers to get moving on it."
But he also spoke last year on the capital steps in opposition to the state’s program, which he said he saw as a poorly thought-out, one-size-fits-all approach.
Half of teachers, he suspects, will not use the new computers. And the online learning requirement seems to him to be a step toward cutting back on in-person teaching and, perhaps eventually, not having students congregate in schools at all.
"We can just get rid of sports and band and just give everyone a laptop and call it good," he said.
Stefani Cook, who teaches accounting and business at Rigby High School in southeast Idaho and was the state’s 2011 Teacher of the Year, also teaches a modernized typing course to 32 online students after-hours. A contractor for the state pays her to teach the course and also to help other teachers shape and present their online lessons.
Cook is a believer in classroom technology and generally supports the state’s plan. She is on a 38-person task force that is working out the logistics of deploying computers to teachers next fall and, eventually, to 80,000 high schoolers. The group will also organize training for teachers. Cook said she did worry about how teachers would be trained when some already work long hours and take second jobs to make ends meet.
"I’m excited about it," she said. But some teachers, she said, "think it’s just another thing that they’ve got to do."
Luna, the superintendent, said training was the most essential part of the plan. He said that millions of dollars would be set aside for this but that the details were still being worked out. Teachers will need to learn how to use the new devices and how to incorporate them into their lesson plans, which could involve rethinking longstanding routines.
For his part, Otter said that putting technology into students’ hands was the only way to prepare them for the workforce. Giving them easy access to a wealth of facts and resources online allows them to develop critical thinking skills, he said, which is what employers want the most.
When asked about the quantity of unreliable information on the Internet, he said this also worked in favor of better learning.
"There may be a lot of misinformation," he said, "but that information, whether right or wrong, will generate critical thinking for them as they find the truth."
Otter said of a teacher like Rosenbaum, "If she only has an abacus in her classroom, she’s missing the boat."
Some of the state’s politicians disagree with that message. State Sen. Dean L. Cameron, a Republican who is a co-chairman of the Senate budget committee, said there was no proof that the technology improved learning. He said he felt the legislature was "dazzled" by presentations given by lobbyists for high-tech companies — who also gave generously to Luna’s re-election campaign.
(Luna said that $44,000 of his $300,000 in donations to his last campaign came directly or indirectly from technology companies, but he said that was because they supported his agenda, not because they shaped it.)
Cameron said of the law: "It’s almost as if it was written by the top technology providers in the nation." He added: "And you’d think students would be excited about getting a mobile device, but they’re saying: not at the expense of teachers."
Last year at Post Falls High School, 600 students — about half of the school — staged a lunchtime walkout to protest the new rules. Some carried signs that read: "We need teachers, not computers."
Having a new laptop "is not my favorite idea," said Sam Hunts, a sophomore in Rosenbaum’s English class who has a blond mohawk. "I’d rather learn from a teacher."