Sunday, September 11, 2011

technology in schools faces questions on value?

NYTimes | Amy Furman, a seventh-grade English teacher here, roams among 31 students sitting at their desks or in clumps on the floor. They’re studying Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” — but not in any traditional way.

In this technology-centric classroom, students are bent over laptops, some blogging or building Facebook pages from the perspective of Shakespeare’s characters. One student compiles a song list from the Internet, picking a tune by the rapper Kanye West to express the emotions of Shakespeare’s lovelorn Silvius.

The class, and the Kyrene School District as a whole, offer what some see as a utopian vision of education’s future. Classrooms are decked out with laptops, big interactive screens and software that drills students on every basic subject. Under a ballot initiative approved in 2005, the district has invested roughly $33 million in such technologies.

The digital push here aims to go far beyond gadgets to transform the very nature of the classroom, turning the teacher into a guide instead of a lecturer, wandering among students who learn at their own pace on Internet-connected devices.

“This is such a dynamic class,” Ms. Furman says of her 21st-century classroom. “I really hope it works.”

Hope and enthusiasm are soaring here. But not test scores.

Since 2005, scores in reading and math have stagnated in Kyrene, even as statewide scores have risen.

To be sure, test scores can go up or down for many reasons. But to many education experts, something is not adding up — here and across the country. In a nutshell: schools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning.

This conundrum calls into question one of the most significant contemporary educational movements. Advocates for giving schools a major technological upgrade — which include powerful educators, Silicon Valley titans and White House appointees — say digital devices let students learn at their own pace, teach skills needed in a modern economy and hold the attention of a generation weaned on gadgets.

Some backers of this idea say standardized tests, the most widely used measure of student performance, don’t capture the breadth of skills that computers can help develop. But they also concede that for now there is no better way to gauge the educational value of expensive technology investments.

“The data is pretty weak. It’s very difficult when we’re pressed to come up with convincing data,” said Tom Vander Ark, the former executive director for education at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and an investor in educational technology companies. When it comes to showing results, he said, “We better put up or shut up.”

And yet, in virtually the same breath, he said change of a historic magnitude is inevitably coming to classrooms this decade: “It’s one of the three or four biggest things happening in the world today.”

Critics counter that, absent clear proof, schools are being motivated by a blind faith in technology and an overemphasis on digital skills — like using PowerPoint and multimedia tools — at the expense of math, reading and writing fundamentals. They say the technology advocates have it backward when they press to upgrade first and ask questions later.

The spending push comes as schools face tough financial choices. In Kyrene, for example, even as technology spending has grown, the rest of the district’s budget has shrunk, leading to bigger classes and fewer periods of music, art and physical education.

At the same time, the district’s use of technology has earned it widespread praise. It is upheld as a model of success by the National School Boards Association, which in 2008 organized a visit by 100 educators from 17 states who came to see how the district was innovating.

And the district has banked its future and reputation on technology. Kyrene, which serves 18,000 kindergarten to eighth-grade students, mostly from the cities of Tempe, Phoenix and Chandler, uses its computer-centric classes as a way to attract children from around the region, shoring up enrollment as its local student population shrinks. More students mean more state dollars.

The issue of tech investment will reach a critical point in November. The district plans to go back to local voters for approval of $46.3 million more in taxes over seven years to allow it to keep investing in technology. That represents around 3.5 percent of the district’s annual spending, five times what it spends on textbooks.

The district leaders’ position is that technology has inspired students and helped them grow, but that there is no good way to quantify those achievements — putting them in a tough spot with voters deciding whether to bankroll this approach again.

“My gut is telling me we’ve had growth,” said David K. Schauer, the superintendent here. “But we have to have some measure that is valid, and we don’t have that.”

It gives him pause.

“We’ve jumped on bandwagons for different eras without knowing fully what we’re doing. This might just be the new bandwagon,” he said. “I hope not.”


brotherbrown said...

Another pet peeve of mine is standardized test scores as a manner of evaluating student, teacher, school and district performance.  I am a great test taker, always have been (Just learned I got a 96% on the state notary exam.)  Does that mean I've had great teachers, attended great schools?  Does it mean I'll be successful at whatever I do?  No.

What it means is that a cottage industry of test prep has turned into a major revenue stream for text book and test proctoring companies.  But it doesn't, per se, mean better students.

CNu said...

brotherbrown, the worst thing I've observed thus far, is when the technological baby-sitter is harnessed nearly exclusively toward drilling for the tests, up to as long as 6 hours a day. children are not unintelligent, and they can and do rebel against that type of kill-drilling - most notably by plucking the keys off the keyboards and effectively sabotaging the computers in a way that's not covered by warranty.

Uglyblackjohn said...

My local district has so much surplus from a recent bond issue that they have no idea of how to spend it.
They have just been handing out bonuses to every employee from the school board to janitors.
They even created a school district police force.
Now many are calling for the purchase of the type of technology written about  in this post.
But without a culture of learning nothing will be learned.

Tom said...

Similar situation just getting going here.  An enormous bond issue we're told is desperately needed for facilities ...  because of declining enrollment.   (Apparently 60% of local voters buy that idea, that declining enrollment and too many facilities is a major and astronomically expensive problem.  The solution?  Massive new construction projects.  I kid you not.)  Now we're starting to hear big talk about "smart boards" and other tech toys.

Meanwhile the school day is spent on foolishly repetitive drills and teachers are almost forced to become test-prep crammers.  They bootleg in some education, but they're taking a risk doing it.