District to teachers: All hands on tech; Northwest to freeze pay if educators don’t meet computer standards

Saturday, September 8, 2001
Page 1A

District to teachers: All hands on tech
Northwest to freeze pay if educators don’t meet computer standards

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Students in the Northwest Independent School District soon won’t be the only ones taking a high-stakes test.

The district’s 400 teachers will be required to master a lengthy list of computer skills, from how to surf the Web to how to build a spreadsheet. And in a move that might be the first of its kind in the country, teachers’ salaries will be frozen if they don’t meet the standards.

“We felt if we had a salary freeze, that would make it clear to everyone how beneficial it would be to comply with the standards,” said Kim Nelson, a sixth-grade teacher at Samuel Beck Intermediate School and chair of the committee that created the policy.

“It definitely caught everybody’s attention.”

Teachers have plenty of time to gain the skills they need; the salary freeze won’t kick in for five more years. But the policy shows how seriously schools are taking the issue of technology.

“We’re all professionals, and professional development is part of any career,” said Sunnye Murdock, executive director for technology for the district, which is in Tarrant, Denton and Wise counties.

The district has defined four levels of computer knowledge, from the most basic – knowing how to send e-mail, for instance – to advanced photo editing and database structuring. Teachers will be required to demonstrate they have mastered all knowledge up to Level 3, including creating Web pages and using scanners.

They will show their abilities by completing a series of tasks, such as creating a lesson plan that uses a certain technology in the classroom or using an online gradebook. Teachers will be trained for whatever skills they lack.

They’ll have five years – starting this fall for current teachers or from the date of hire for future teachers – to master the skills and reach Level 3. If they do, they will become eligible for additional classroom technology tools, like software or a new printer. But if they don’t, their salaries will not increase.

“We feel teachers are going to need these skills for our students to get the best possible education,” Dr. Murdock said.

The district also plans to create similar technology skill requirements for other employees, such as librarians, administrators and school nurses.

The standards-based plan for teachers, approved at last month’s board meeting, replaces a rule that required 12 hours of technology training each year for most teachers and 24 hours for first-year teachers.

As technology spending has become a large part of every school’s budget, studies have shown that many teachers are frustrated by their lack of training and inability to use the tools before them.

District officials said the move was prompted in part by the large role technology use has in the state’s curriculum standards, the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills. The standards, which are still being integrated by many districts, include computer-related tasks for nearly every grade level.

“If students are going to be expected to master these skills, then certainly teachers should be able to master them as well,” Dr. Murdock said.

Most teachers have reacted positively to the district’s plan, Dr. Murdock said. She estimated that about 30 percent of them could be at Level 3 or better right now.

But Mrs. Nelson acknowledged that not all are excited at the threat of a salary freeze. “Some of them have said, ‘If they give us five years, I’ve guess I’ve got five years to retire,’ ” she said. “I don’t think we will lose a lot of teachers, but some might give serious thought to retirement.”

Mrs. Nelson, who is 49, said “computers are a scary thing to me.”

“I’ve had 99 hours of [technology] training, and I’m still uncomfortable using the knowledge I’ve been given in the classroom,” she said. “But the fact that I’m willing to commit to this should say something.”

Jim Hirsch, board chairman of the Washington-based Consortium for School Networking and Plano’s assistant superintendent for technology, said he had not heard of a plan like Northwest’s in any other district in the country.

Ron Cravey, executive director of the Texas Computer Education Association, said he didn’t know of any similar ties between salary and technology skills in Texas. “I’m not endorsing their particular method, but anytime we’re trying to increase the use of technology in education, it’s a good thing,” he said.

But he pointed out that eventually computers will become so integrated into classroom life that programs like Northwest’s will seem like relics of the past.

“We don’t have staff development for using the overhead projector or the VCR anymore,” he said. “It’s just assumed that teachers will be able to use those tools, and someday the same will be true of this technology.”