‘The Cloud’ Can’t Solve Our Country’s Educational Inequities, We’re Gonna Need Actual People to Do That

I’m All About EdTech, But Not When the Goal Is Erasing Teachers

If I hear one more tech savvy millennial, who is not an educator, tell me that they can educate Black children better than those who do this work and are committed to our communities, I’m gonna scream. 

I’m not suggesting young tech savvy people who don’t teach can’t offer their skills in this work, but some of these edtech folks spout more arrogance than helpful solutions. And that’s unfortunate.

I recently had the honor of being invited to attend the annual ASU+ GSV Summit in Salt Lake City, Utah. There were several great presentations and breakout sessions that I had the good fortune of participating in. Overall the theme was educational innovation, something that I can surely get behind. As a school leader of color, it represented a wonderful opportunity for me to share community-based experiences with the many people that I met who were creating “software to serve.”

I gave one person feedback that his tech startup should consider and reflect on the work that Class Dojo does and the humility that they appear to have embedded in their work and partnerships with school communities. 

I told another ed-treprenuer that his product could never replace my teachers. I’d put my teachers against the best of their edtech products. 

I’m not some old fogy who is anti-edtech. Despite my own limited abilities navigating the educational technology permeating the education space these days, I’m not against it. Teachers in our school community have used clickers, Class Dojo, flipped classrooms, etc. to help to accelerate student achievement levels. Supplementing our team’s work through technology is far different than the call to supplant that I heard again and again throughout the conference.

It was extremely upsetting to hear several iterations of “My edtech product can reduce the number of teachers our country needs.” Or, worse, “This can replace teachers.” 

We should not be pursuing efficiency to the point of determining how to rid ourselves of our teachers. Teaching will always be about relationships and using human connections to motivate the vast majority of our students. Students will always learn most from highly competent individuals who lead through content expertise and deep relationships. Software doesn’t do that alone.

Bryan Stevenson from the Equal Justice Initiative speaks about only being able to serve people well when you are in proximity to them. While he is generally speaking about his work as legal defense for oppressed people, we can make the same argument for education. You can’t solve our country’s educational inequities in a cloud. You can help, but it doesn’t surpass the Herculean efforts

If everything could be solved from afar, policy makers and cyber schools would have the market sewn up on accelerating achievement levels en masse. I look forward to attending next year’s conference and I hope more of the invitees are even more classroom teachers so that the edtech startups can also get a strong sense of why replacing teachers should not be their end goal.

Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.


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