Sunday, March 16, 2008

What We Got Here Is a Failure to Communicate

Are you having trouble getting your point across to 34 kids at a time? Do you find that your puny voice pales in comparison to all those teenagers? Well, here's a solution of sorts--why don't you get a microphone and set up a mini-PA system in your classroom?

A handful of school districts, including those in West Orange, N.J., and Ann Arbor, Mich., are putting amplification in every classroom, while scores of others are requiring the systems in elementary schools.

This year, the Seattle district is spending $1.5 million to outfit 1,200 elementary classrooms, and 125 libraries and gyms, with microphones and speakers. The Ohio School Facilities Commission requires all new buildings and renovations financed with state aid to be wired for amplification, and many schools built in Florida and Michigan over the past few years also have the technology.

New York City is also investing in this technology. In West Orange, one school has seen a very significant boost in passing test scores since adopting it--from 59% to over 89%. But there's another school of thought:

“I’m appalled. This is the triumph of marketing over science,” said David Lubman, a fellow of the Acoustical Society who lives in California. “In most cases, they’re putting it in as a substitute for good acoustics. In other words, instead of cutting down the noise, they’re blasting over the noise, so the net result is more noise.”

Michal Linker, a kindergarten teacher here in Millburn, turned off the microphone after finding that with it, she was talking louder and drinking more tea to soothe her throat. Instead, Ms. Linker, 50, whispers to her students to get their attention, and rewards them for lowering their voices, listening more and using hand gestures during quiet times.

“I would rather they stop and pay attention than make it easier for them to hear me so they don’t pay as much attention,” she said.

Now something like this might help me when there are a hundred kids dancing to a boombox set outside my door. But why on earth is there a dance class and a boombox outside my door? Maybe if there were adequate space utilized in a rational fashion I wouldn't need amplification. Perhaps this technology is helpful to some, but I question its value in NYC. If there's already too much noise, do we really help by creating more?

I'm also concerned that people like Mayor Bloomberg, who steadfastly cling to the highest class sizes in the state, would use technology like this as an excuse to rationalize its continuation. After all, while 75% of high schools are overcrowded, he takes no action to alleviate this situation. Instead, the whole city is busily seeking space for new charter schools.

Mr. Bloomberg loves band-aids, as real solutions cost money. This band-aid could allow him to continue to thumb his nose at the CFE lawsuit and also continue to reap its benefits while ignoring its mandates. While this technology may work elsewhere, it's got great potential for abuse here in fun city.

What do you think? Would you be a better teacher if you had a microphone?

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