Technology and the Three R's

Can high-tech tools really improve academic performance?

by / June 1, 2006
In 1445, when Johann Gutenberg introduced the printing press to medieval Europe, education and information were enjoyed only by the ruling class. The technological leap the printing press signified, however, was the beginning of a radical transformation. Information would no longer be disseminated only to the elite.

For the first time, the common man could access vast stores of knowledge as books became widely available.

Now, more than half a millennium later, many educational institutions still rely on little more than the printed word to educate the next generation. Technology, many believe, is the next printing press -- capable of opening countless doors for people who would otherwise find them locked.

Therefore, districts such as Linwood Public Schools in New Jersey have created comprehensive technology plans. In Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia School District teamed with Microsoft to build the School of the Future.

Others have taken dramatically different approaches, like a small charter school in Oakland, Calif., whose fiery administrator eliminated PCs and Internet connections, and returned to the basics.

Can technology really change the way we teach our children? Is it the next step for human enlightenment? Or is it an unnecessary distraction?

Technology Integration
According to the federal No Child Left Behind Act, students should be technology literate by the time they complete eighth grade. Not every child, however, has equal access to technology. Often, schools in affluent neighborhoods offer students a richer technology experience than schools in poorer districts. Moreover, a technology gap exists -- and some say continues to grow -- between America's middle and lower classes.

Many observers believe technology can improve learning -- but only if it is correctly deployed and thoroughly understood.

"Technology in classrooms has to be distinguished from technology in schools," said Howie Schaffer, public outreach director at the Public Education Network, an organization working to reform public schools in low-income communities.

"An enormous amount of resources have been poured into wiring schools. There's evidence that something like 96 percent to 98 percent of America's schools are wired to some extent," he said, adding that the manner and extent to which this technology has been deployed in these schools varies.

"Unfortunately, as you can predict, the poorest, urban, under-resourced schools often find themselves with old computers, slow connections, with limited capacity to keep these computers up," Schaffer continued, mentioning that computers are often set up in a separate room.

There is general consensus that to be effective, technology in schools must move beyond having a computer lab that students visit a few times weekly. A successful, technology-rich school must integrate technology into the curricula, and teachers should be trained to use the technology to maximize its potential.

"The average American public school teacher in 2004 had a total of eight hours of professional development on using things that are classified as technology," said Schaffer. "Yes, technology makes a difference in the classroom, but it only works if the technology is in the classroom, if it's good computing equipment, if the teachers are trained, and if it's integrated into the curriculum. You need to use computing technology in math, in science, in art, in physics."

The concept is not lost on federal officials. Tim Magner, deputy director for the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education, understands that a well designed technology plan can improve academic performance.

The impact of technology in the classroom depends heavily on its implementation, he said. "Technology, when thoughtfully applied in the context of an overall instructional program, can have some pretty significant effects."

Magner added that technology can act as a facilitator, improving how parents, teachers and students communicate and connect. Like under-trained teachers, however, many parents are unfamiliar with technology and unable to partake in this aspect of their child's education.

Effective technology programs help bring parents into the fold.

"[Some] laptop programs that have been put in place have expressly included parents, particularly low-income parents who may not have had access to the skills or the education around using technology," Magner said. "There's an interesting dynamic when you look at the role the school can play -- in some circumstances -- in helping to not only empower the student, but empower the family as well."

Why IT Matters
The PC has been around for 25 years; the Internet, even longer. What's behind this renewed push for an education curriculum with deep roots in modern technology?

Wendy Lazarus is co-founder and co-president of the Children's Partnership, a national nonprofit, nonpartisan child advocacy organization that works to extend technology's advantages to families and children.

Lazarus said the current activity reflects the demand on schools to prepare students for the future.

"There's a clear understanding that success in daily life and the job market requires a working knowledge of technology," she said. "If students are going to graduate prepared to succeed in their work and home life, they need basic technology skills and they need information literacy skills."

School administrators and teachers, Lazarus said, are realizing that disadvantaged students have the most to lose if technology is not integrated into schools.

"My sense is that more and more educators believe [technology] needs to be infused in everything they're doing with students and in the classroom. It probably also argues for paying more attention to make sure the kids who don't have computers at home, or whose parents may not be experienced enough with computers to support them, are getting the support they need at school."

One key to helping low-income kids get on the technology bandwagon is to find ways for parents to become tech-savvy, said Lazarus.

Other experts agree that the single most important goal of classroom technology is to engage everyone with a stake in a child's education. Simply having computers in the classroom isn't enough.

Lance Izumi is the director of Education Studies at the Pacific Research Institute -- a public policy think tank -- and co-author of Free to Learn: Lessons From Model Charter Schools.

While researching charter schools for his book, Izumi found evidence that children -- and parents -- from disadvantaged backgrounds can benefit when a technology strategy is implemented in elementary education. However, Izumi's findings suggest technology is not the panacea many wish it to be. Instead, he believes good teachers and intelligent testing make the difference.

"Computers are tools that can be a help," Izumi said. "But the key factors in improving student achievement are teacher quality, the correct use of test results for diagnostic purposes to spot student weaknesses; good research-based curriculum, good research-based teaching methods and no-nonsense discipline policies and good leadership in the principal's office. If you have these factors present, then the computers are helpful. But it is possible to then still have good student achievement without the technology as well."

The Believers
Countless schools in the United States are actively pursuing a technology-based curriculum. Since there isn't a standard "best strategy," however, many schools are developing their own models for classroom technology.

Philadelphia garnered a reputation for embracing technology with its well publicized move to offer citywide Wi-Fi. In September, the city may again receive acclaim for the School of the Future, a joint project between the Philadelphia School District and Microsoft. A few years ago, district CEO Paul Vallas proposed an idea to Microsoft Partners in Learning program manager Mary Cullinane. Vallas wanted Microsoft's help in building a technologically rich high school using the same budget as traditional school construction.

"Nobody had ever asked us that before," recalled Cullinane. "So we went back and talked about it, and figured this was a great opportunity for two great organizations -- the School District of Philadelphia and a company like Microsoft -- to come together and really try to answer the question of 'what if?' What if Microsoft and the School District of Philadelphia wanted to build a high school? How would you do it?"

The school is under construction in Fairmont Park, West Philadelphia, which faces numerous socioeconomic challenges, and most kids in the area have never experienced technology in a classroom. Students will be chosen by lottery. Seventy-five percent will be residents of West Philadelphia, and 25 percent will come from the rest of the city.

The new facility will be somewhat of a model for future schools, Vallas said.

"I view the School of the Future as a school that uses technology not only to dramatically enhance instruction and student learning, but also to strengthen the connection between the school and the home and to significantly improve the operations of the school," he said. "In creating the School of the Future, we're not only trying to create a high-quality school, but we also view the school as an R&D center. Many of the innovations we bring to that school we're hoping to bring systemwide."

The classrooms are being designed to mirror the Microsoft culture, which -- love it or hate it -- has been a model of success.

"This isn't just about technology," said Vallas. "It's also about human resources. It's also about teacher recruitment and retention. It's also about training. It's also about creating a culture for success. It's not just the Microsoft technology. It's the Microsoft business best practices that we're hoping to bring to the school and that we're hoping to take to scale."

Cullinane said the school's core concepts boil down to three words: continuous, relevant and adaptive.

"The first word, continuous, has significant impact," she said. "We believe the School of the Future is a place where learning is not dependent on time and place. We also believe instruction needs to be more relevant. Not only instruction, but the tools a kid uses in that instruction need to be more relevant to a student in the 21st century. Then the third area is this concept of adaptive. We believe the School of the Future needs to stop the practice of every kid turning the page at the same time. We believe the School of the Future provides the opportunity that if students are ready to go forward, they should be challenged, and if students need remediation, that opportunity should exist as well."

The school will incorporate laptops students can take home, electronic white boards and an online application called Family Net, which is designed to increase communication between schools and families.

"The Family Net program connects the parent to the classroom," Vallas said. "It uses the technology to better inform parents as to how their children are doing, and to provide parents with not only the information, but with the general assistance they need so they can be more effective in doing the things at home that are needed to help the child do better at school."

Thanks to Philadelphia's Wi-Fi system, even the poorest parents will be able to swing Internet access to take advantage of Family Net, according to Vallas.

"Half of our poorest parents have home computers that have Internet. For those who don't, we'll be providing low-cost computers, and under the city's wireless city program, we'll provide Internet to the poorest families for $2 a month."

Cullinane said Microsoft believes technology can help disadvantaged students discover the same opportunities more fortunate kids have. She also did not shy away from the fact that Microsoft has a vested interest in creating a technologically savvy generation.

"As a company we need individuals we can hire who have these skill sets, who are critical thinkers, who have the intellectual horsepower to help us remain competitive," she said.

Obviously not every school will have the luxury of partnering with a major technology company to design and deploy a technology strategy. Still, many are pressing forward and have created intelligent road maps for integrating technology into the classroom.

Linwood, N.J., Public Schools published a comprehensive three-year technology plan. The 70-page document, created by the district's 25-member technology committee, covers all the details. From technology inventory to goals to funding -- even professional development and evaluation are charted.

Thomas Baruffi, Linwood Public Schools superintendent, said his schools are focusing on developing technology-literate teachers, believing students already grasp many of the concepts.

"We have definitely made a real commitment to making sure technology is a part of everything we do from a curriculum standpoint," he said. "For us, it's about understanding that in this day and age it's a vital tool, that it has to be a part of what we do, the way kids learn and how teachers teach. Our focus has to really be on the teachers. [If] they get it, they grasp it, they use it -- we know the kids are getting it."

Linwood's technology plan includes a program developed by Frank Rudensky, principal at the district's Belhaven Avenue School. The program, called Linwood Integration of Technology Training for Teachers (LIT3), is designed to encourage Linwood teachers to seek professional training.

Baruffi explained that Rudensky was instrumental in the school district's partnership with nearby Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. "We set up what we call the MAIT [master of arts in instructional technology] program. Stockton agreed to offer one course per year at no cost to our teachers if our teachers enrolled and committed to three courses per year."

Baruffi already sees results he attributes to Linwood's technology plan.

"We're totally committed to the idea that technology is just going to make us better," he said. "Has it made a difference? There is no doubt in my mind that it's making a big difference. It's making more of an impact from an instruction standpoint, which in turn, is impacting learning."

In the Midwest, Missouri took a similar approach with eMINTS (enhancing Missouri's Instructional Networked Teaching Strategies), a third-party organization created by educators to promote technological training among teachers.

eMINTS, now available nationally, offers a variety of programs and instructional courses to help educators maximize the rapidly changing technology making its way into the classroom. Currently about 20,000 students across the country have teachers who have undergone eMINTS training.

Teachers who use professional development services offered through eMINTS complete more than 250 hours of training over the course of two years.

Besides helping teachers improve their technological knowledge and their method of preparing students, technology can engage children in the curriculum when they may otherwise be disinterested or apathetic, said Monica Beglau, director of eMINTS National Center.

"Technology is incredibly motivating to almost every kid you talk to," Beglau said. "Children that won't pick up a book and read, you put the exact same material on a screen on a laptop and make the background blue or green -- or whatever -- they'll sit there and read it."

She contended the practices and philosophies of education are outdated and jeopardize U.S. technology leadership.

"You look at a classroom, and most classrooms you could go back in time 50 to 60 years and find the same thing. Everything else in our world has changed radically, but a lot of our educational practices have not," Beglau said. "Why would you say students' work has to be all written down? When was the last time you sat down and wrote something out before you word-processed it? When was the last time you worked on something totally by yourself and you weren't allowed to talk to anyone else? We don't teach kids or give them the skills to work together and collaborate and yet still be accountable for what they're doing."

The Skeptic
Schools around the nation and around the world are scrambling to make sense of the ever-changing technology landscape. A school in Oakland, Calif., however, took a radically different approach.

American Indian Public Charter School (AIPCS) and its outspoken administrator have received national attention for eliminating technology from classrooms.

AIPCS Superintendent Ben Chavis is a former public school principal and a former faculty member at San Francisco State University. When he arrived at AIPCS, it was one of the worst performing schools in one of Oakland's most notoriously troubled neighborhoods.

Hired for his no-nonsense, old-fashioned approach, Chavis literally ripped out all of the school's technology equipment and gave it away.

Chavis said he's not concerned about criticism for getting rid of technology in the school. "First of all, we were so low -- what could they say?" He said when he took over, the school's scores were less than 400 out of a possible 1,000 on California's Academic Performance Index. "When I came in June 2000, the school was so bad, that was the least of their worries: computers."

And it wasn't only computers that met their fate at Chavis' hands. "I got rid of bilingual ed, I got rid of multiculturalism, I got rid of all that damn nonsense," he said.

The strategy shocked some people and made huge fans out of others. Since Chavis' arrival, the worst school in Oakland has become the best. The school scored nearly 900 on the state performance test in 2006, and has been nominated for a No Child Left Behind Blue Ribbon award. Chavis said the reason schools fail -- even technology rich schools -- is because of ineffective leadership.

"Most principals in middle schools and high schools, when they have lousy schools, it's because the principals are lazy or liberal," he said. "Either one of those combinations will destroy you, make you a lousy school."

Chavis is also a disciplinarian who demands students wear uniforms. In addition, students performing poorly are given a minimum of six extra hours per week to focus on their weakest subjects; they do so typically at the cost of physical education and elective classes. In a neighborhood like the AIPCS', technology is at best a distraction for students and at worst a target for robbery, he contended.

But for all his stern ways, Chavis also rewards well. Chavis pays himself only $30,000 a year, making him the lowest-paid employee at the school. The next lowest salary, he said, is $42,000 year. Chavis also has been known to give out his own money as rewards for students who perform well. And perform well they do. Every student in eighth grade is taking algebra, and ninth-graders take geometry. Students take language arts and mathematics for an hour and a half every day, cutting time out of other subjects and focusing on the basics.

Despite his astonishing success at turning around a very troubled school, Chavis bemoans the fact that little attention is paid to his school. He blames built-in bureaucracy of the public education system.

Chavis' story is starting to make waves, however. AIPCS was featured on ABC News' 20/20, and Chavis has been the subject of a growing number of media articles. He may be shocking, even appalling to some, but he has results to back up his claims. And Chavis maintains a healthy dose of optimism that so far has proven successful every year.

"I'm going to be over 900 this year," he predicted, assuring himself he'll continue to outpace other city schools. "I'll whip them."

Who's Passing the Test?
Can technology help disadvantaged students, or is technology, as Chavis believes, just a distraction? It's unlikely we'll find one right answer.

For schools at neither socioeconomic extreme, some standards may emerge about what is good policy on technology in the classroom. Almost everyone will agree that technology has the potential to help students improve academic performance, help teachers improve instruction methods, and help parents better grasp their child's curriculum.

Jeff Wayman, assistant professor for the Department of Educational Administration at the University of Texas, Austin, sums it up perhaps better than most.

"We're hearing that parent conferences and conversations are richer when data-informed. We're hearing that conversations between teachers, administrators, and across these levels are much better and more 'academic.' We're also hearing -- less, but still there -- instances of educators using this data technology to have conversations with students about performance. All of these conversations have the potential to be threatening or uncomfortable, but when used right, data gives a common, nonbiased starting point, or conversation center. We don't have to talk about how you or I are bad. We can talk about what these data tell us, how we can learn from them and how we can improve -- whatever your role is."

As we enter this new age of radically and rapidly changing technology, a nonbiased starting point is, indeed, a good place to begin.
Chad Vander Veen

Chad Vander Veen is the former editor of FutureStructure.


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