Like fingernails on a not-so-smart board

June 27, 2018

Imagine your most pleasant learning experience and your long-lasting memories of teachers and schools. If you were born before 1970, that imagery would include teachers, blackboards made from slate, chalk, and erasers that would occasionally bounce off unruly students’ heads.  


The creative, cool teachers had colored chalk. Depending on your teacher, she had either her pet doing the honor of washing the board with rags, or it was an unfortunate sap being punished for not getting his multiplication tables done on time.  


In your college days, professors’ rooms had blackboards on three, sometimes four walls. The genius math professors would fill up all four blackboards with wonderful Greek letters, X’s, Y’s, and Z’s, proving how (not) to square the circle amid flying chalk.


Who knows who was cleaning the blackboards then, other than the Good Will Hunting crowd?   


Even the most remote, poor, rural schools had blackboards in every room. Those old blackboards would have lasted forever.


Now imagine school if you’re a bit younger. Fake blackboards were becoming more common. Sometimes they were yucky green, didn’t hold chalk, were hard to clean, and only lasted eight years. But they were cheap compared to blackboards that weighed hundreds of pounds and took the entire football team to move them. 


Blackboards were revolutionary to education when they were first introduced in the 19th century. And they were cutting edge technology—not just because they were rock solid, but also because every student could see what the teacher was presenting.


Back in the 1960s, old-timey 8mm film projectors were used occasionally as a treat, but never replaced blackboards as the teachers’ main communication tool.


Now imagine classrooms in the 1980s. Overhead projectors were all the rage. They were lightweight, portable, and used light through a thin Fresnel lens. The teachers could watch the class and know when they were falling asleep.  


Overheads fit right in with the newfangled printers that could make great Mylar transparencies. They only cost $200, and even came with a replacement bulb that would have lasted 20 years—until overheads suddenly became blasé and a modern relic in antique stores.


Whiteboards—lightweight, plastic, and cheap—started replacing blackboards in the 1990s. Some of them were even “intelligent” and could print out what was written on them onto poor quality fax paper. They all had stinky markers that more than one student, I’m sure, tried to get high by sniffing.


The worst part was using the “permanent” marker on the “dry-erase” board, and then spending a day with nasty chemicals, trying to clean up your mistake.


Ok, let’s quit reminiscing and look at the classrooms of today. For the last 15 years, smart boards have been the “must-have,” “up with the times” icon of modern education. Any school worth its snuff had to have one, because “studies showed” (beyond a doubt!) that students were more engaged and had higher achievement.  


For you old fogies, smart boards are white boards with a touch screen, computer, and web connection. You can also use them as computer projectors, overhead projectors, or dumb TVs. They are also frequently used in our schools to show movies, which is apparently how students now “read” The Great Gatsby.


Smart boards are not super-expensive, and if you take inflation into account, their $5,000 price tag isn’t much more than the cost of a slate blackboard in 1950. But smart boards require expensive software, constant updates, lots of electricity, and maintenance.


Probably the biggest cost is teacher training (a.k.a., “professional development”), so teachers don’t spend half their classroom days fiddling with non-working technology. ISD709 administration did not respond to repeated requests for the costs of smart board-related teacher training and maintenance.


Oh, and did I mention that a smart board only lasts about eight years before it’s outdated? And their bulbs only last a couple years and cost $300?


The gullible Duluth Schools bought into the smart board craze hook, line, and sinker. Sort of like a fidget-spinner for administrators.


Unfortunately, smart boards did not improve student achievement. Despite them, Duluth has one of the lowest graduation rates in the state and the country.  


The new and renovated buildings project indicated that the Duluth Schools planned to spend $8 million on smart boards, but this was misleadingly portrayed as part of new construction costs. We were told that writing surfaces in classrooms were an obsolete technology. Most of the smart boards were purchased seven years ago, and all our classrooms now have them.


The current 600 smart boards in ISD709 cost about $3 million total. What happened to the remaining $5 million that was budgeted for them? Who knows? No one on the board or in the administration cares.


But the Duluth Schools now have a new “Interim Technology Plan,” which involves eliminating smart boards because the District is “not able to continue to fund the types of equipment installed during the modernization of our buildings,” according to Information Technology Director Bart Smith.   


The Information Technology budget has not changed since the smart boards were installed, and the District can’t afford the bulbs for them. So, all along, the District knew perfectly well that it had not budgeted to pay for smart board maintenance.
Our classrooms will now be left with a 4'x4' whiteboard, a big-screen TV, and a Chromebook in every pot. All 600 smart boards are headed to the landfill.


Studies show (!!) that the most irritating sound to the human ear is fingernails scratching on a blackboard. So it’s lucky that we no longer have blackboards—the sound would be deafening enough to drive any sane person mad. The real not-so-smart board is, once again, our clueless school board.

Art Johnston served on the Duluth School Board representing the Fourth District from 2010 to 2017.

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