Ananth Pai: Let the kids help. Don’t waste money on whiteboards. Get better results in our schools

St. Paul Pioneer Press
Sunday, October 2, 2011
Section: Editorial

By Ananth Pai

Eight hundred thousand children in our state began school last month. When the school year ends after nearly 170 attendance days, about 25 percent of third-graders will not be proficient in reading. In another core subject, math, nearly 70 percent of 11th-graders will not be proficient. Furthermore, nearly 20 percent of our youth drop out of schools.

For decades, administrators, educators, academics, policy makers, think tanks, parents and media organizations have expressed concern, made and fought over laws and tried to change course. In fact, there’s a thriving market in the mere debate and discussion of this problem.

In my classroom, acting on the ideas of the third graders has made a difference in their academic results. My experience tells me that if given a chance to help in solving the problems that afflict their educational outcomes, students will do better than their elders.

I made a mid-career change from the private sector to a public school classroom. In the four years since, I have seen sizable allocations of both time and dollars that have no results attached.

Significantly better outcomes in the academic growth of our students have been and continue to be attainable. Northwest Evaluation Assessment’s Measures of Academic Progress test results show us that typical classrooms have some students who are a year or two behind, others who are on grade level and yet others who are ahead of grade level. The later this student need is addressed, the wider the gap gets.

These data, coupled with Des Cartes, an academic skills continuum that is available for each child, is a needs-analysis report that should be used to make sure that each child’s time is well spent on learning while in the classroom.

The irony is that for nearly a decade or more, while administering these individualized tests to the students on computers, and repeatedly confirming that no two students in a classroom are at the same level of learning, the schools have and continue to spend millions of dollars to put up large electronic white boards to teach the whole class as if the students are at the same level.

No matter how jazzed up, this industrial-era, whole-class communication tool perpetuates a method that has costs beyond the price of the device. Among them: disengaged students for whom the material being covered day after day is either too easy or too hard. In addition, as children will when faced with boredom, some “create problems.” This costs us through disruption to the learning of all students in the room, referrals to the behavior management personnel, office, or calls to parents. In effect, the electronic display is no different from the whiteboard or the blackboard that preceded it.

At a cost lesser than that of the electronic white boards, I have personally funded and practiced a different method in my classroom. Technology tools have been implemented to continually match with the changing needs of each student. Students have responded by showing that they crave to learn. Tests that measure yearly growth in reading and math show that students move ahead on average by two years.

Students who have experienced this method of classroom operation have been the biggest advocates for it. They have written a petition in the hope of helping other students and teachers. Their petition seeks to extend test data to the use of technology in classrooms that individualize students’ academic activities.

Many teachers, community members, legislators and others have visited our classroom to learn more about the students’ petition and to learn from them. On hearing about the civic action by the students, Sandra Day O’Connor, retired Supreme Court justice voiced her support and offered to help with their cause. Minnesota state Reps. Carol McFarlane and Carlos Mariani and Sens. Chuck Wiger and Roger Chamberlain have visited. Most recently, Brenda Cassellius, commissioner of education visited our class and tweeted, “Very cool gamified classroom with Mr. Pai. Students love to self direct their learning” to her Twitter followers. This after she remarked to me soon after entering the room about how engaged the students were.

Lot of positions by many adults are being taken on education policy and funding. Students I know have one view: They want their learning environment to be at their individual level. When it is, they have shown that they love school, work hard, and advance themselves well beyond conventional expectations.

Ananth Pai became a teacher after two decades of experience in using technology to improve business operations. He has worked in India, Sinagapore and United States and is now in his fifth year as a teacher at Matoska International public school in White Bear Lake. His email address is His classroom website is