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 12:26 PM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT