Skip to main content

Computers can't replace real teachers

By Wendy Kopp, Special to CNN
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Mon April 8, 2013
Wendy Kopp says research shows kids with an effective elementary school teacher are more likely to achieve later in life.
Wendy Kopp says research shows kids with an effective elementary school teacher are more likely to achieve later in life.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Wendy Kopp: Even Steve Jobs realized computers couldn't solves societal problems
  • She says in education, teachers make the difference when kids excel against the odds
  • A CNN.com article presented idea that kids could learn mainly with computers
  • She says research shows kids with one effective grade school teacher achieve on many levels

Editor's note: Wendy Kopp is CEO of Teach for All, a global network of independent organizations dedicated to expanding educational opportunity, and founder and board chairwoman of Teach for America, a national corps of recent college graduates who commit two years to teach in high-needs schools.

(CNN) -- Tech visionary Steve Jobs understood better than anyone the impulse to believe that technology can solve our most complex societal problems. "Unfortunately it just ain't so," he said. "We need to attack these things at the root, which is people and how much freedom we give people. ... I wish it was as simple as giving it over to the computer."

That's certainly true when it comes to education, particularly in impoverished communities.

As a founder of two organizations that recruit top college graduates to expand educational opportunity, I've spent a lot of time examining what's at work in successful classrooms and schools over the past two decades. In every classroom where students are excelling against the odds, there's a teacher who's empowered her students to work hard to realize their potential. Whenever I ask the leaders of successful schools their secret, the answer is almost always the same: people, people, people. They are obsessed with recruiting and developing the best teams.

Wendy Kopp
Wendy Kopp
Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Research confirms that great teachers change lives. Students with one highly effective elementary school teacher are more likely to go to college, less likely to become pregnant as teens and earn tens of thousands more over their lifetimes. Faced with the choice between giving every child in a school his or her own laptop or putting 30 of them in a classroom with one exceptional teacher, there's no question which is the better investment.

So it's disappointing to see more and more people herald technology as an educational panacea while dismissing the indispensable role of people.

In a recent article on this site, Richard Galant asked whether we'd be better off ditching teachers, giving kids computers and leaving them to their own devices to teach themselves and each other. The idea is based on the work of Sugata Mitra, an education professor who set up an experiment in India where he gave children in the slums access to a "computer in the wall" and found that without guidance, they were soon using it to learn on their own.

Galant's piece could leave the impression that teachers are obsolete and that their main function is to enforce discipline and administer tests. (Instead of spending money on teachers, Mitra recruits cheerleading "grannies," older women from the UK who offer the kids words of praise and encouragement via Skype.)

The idea that computers can ever replace teachers and schools reveals a deep lack of understanding about the role leadership plays in student success.

When Anam Palla started teaching ninth and 10th grades at an all-girls school in Pakistan, her students were performing four years behind grade level and many considered themselves nalaiq (incapable). She set a mission that each of her girls would gain the skills and self-confidence to become contributing members of society.

"My first task was to build a sense of responsibility in the girls towards their own learning and success, which would be achieved by collaborating with other members of the class and the community at large," she says. Today, here students are not only thriving academically, they are empowered and independent young women.

Want to fix education? Ditch teachers
How chess is saving these children

Now, I'm no Luddite. Technology has enormous potential to address educational needs more efficiently, help teachers improve their performance and enrich and individualize student learning. Indeed, in places such as India that face massive underserved populations and a shortage of qualified teachers, it's hard to imagine making a dent without leveraging technology in a big way.

But we must be wary of concluding that we should focus our energy on technology rather than people.

Computers cannot create a culture of excellence and push students to meet high expectations.

Computers cannot visit students' homes to get to know their families and engage them in their progress.

Computers cannot raise money and organize college visits to show students who have never left their communities what they're working toward.

Technology is a tool, not a silver bullet. And like all tools, it can be helpful or harmful depending on how we use them.

Rocketship Education, a high-performing charter network that serves low-income students in California, uses technology to enhance -- not replace -- the work that teachers are doing. Students spend up to two hours a day in a computer learning lab mastering basic math and reading skills through exercises and puzzles, freeing up teachers to spend their time on advanced skills and concepts. The schools invest the money they save through computer learning back into teacher salaries and coaching. At Rocketship, technology strengthens the personal ties between students, parents and teachers that are the key to its success.

Children growing up in poverty need all the support and nurturing from adults that they can get. If we want a real revolution in education, we should make an all-out effort to attract and keep our best people in our schools. Technology can be a powerful force in that effort when guided by leaders who understand what students and teachers need to do their best.

We can't outsource the human connections at the heart of the learning experience. Transforming the lives and learning of our children will take more than machines. It will take the best of our human resources.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Wendy Kopp.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:50 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT