Does Classroom Use of Computers Cause Gains in Students’ Academic Achievement?

A decade ago when a surge of interest in placing computers in classrooms was joined to available public and private money, U.S. schools went on a rampage of buying and distributing devices to students and teachers. At that time I wrote a post about a puzzling fact that was overlooked  or simply ignored:  With increased access to new technologies, there is little reliable and valid evidence showing that these technology investments have yielded gains in student achievement.

That was then and this is now. Amid a pandemic-induced shift of face-to-face lessons to online instruction, the question is irrelevant. The need is that every single public school child must have a device to use for remote instruction.

While there was certainly a digital divide a decade ago even amidst the splurge spending for devices, school closings due to the pandemic have pushed districts to triple-time distribution of devices and Internet connections to families lacking either or both.  Yet, the lack of solid evidence that student computer use–especially now when lessons are online–is strongly associated with increased test scores and other academic outcomes remains puzzling. So I updated that post and publish it now.

After decades of school and classroom use of new technologies, some facts have emerged that puzzle me.

Here’s one.

Since the early 1980s, the federal government, states, and districts—not to mention philanthropists—have invested billions of dollars in wiring schools, buying and deploying machines, and preparing teachers and students to use high tech devices. Nearly all teachers now have access to one or more computers at school. As for students, the number of students per computer across the U.S. has gone from 125 per computer in 1983 to 4 per computer in 2006. Teacher and student access to computers has increased even more in the past decade with thousands of schools issuing computers to each and every student and teacher.

With increased access to new technologies, there is little reliable and valid evidence showing that these technology investments have yielded gains in student achievement.

Why?

One answer is simply that access to machines does not necessarily lead to teachers regularly using high-tech devices in daily lessons. Consider that after nearly 30 years of access to computers in the U.S., based on national surveys and research studies of schools, over 60 percent of teachers are regular users, that is, using computers for instruction one or more times a week (see here). These teachers use interactive white boards, laptops, and hand-held devices to have students do Internet searches, turn in typed rather than hand-written homework, take notes on lectures, watch videos, and other familiar classroom activities. A small sub-set of these teachers, however, do use electronic devices weekly, even daily in far more creative and imaginative ways inside and outside classrooms with their students.

But the majority of teachers, most of whom–paradoxically–use their home computers a few hours each night, are either occasional or non-users in integrating available machines into their daily lessons.

So one explanation for the first puzzling fact is the flawed assumption that deploying computers to teachers and students will lead to teachers regularly using high-tech devices for instruction. Note that without regular use by teachers, establishing either a correlational or causal link between computers and, say, student test scores, is impossible.

Another explanation for the puzzle of so little linkage between computers and student achievement examines how researchers go about studying the connections between technology and student outcomes.

Many researchers fail to consider that the common designs and methodologies they use to determine linkages between classroom technology use and student achievement cannot capture the inherent complexity and unpredictability of teaching and learning. So researchers use shortcuts to get around that complexity and unpredictability.

I need to unpack the previous sentence. Consider that teaching students involves many factors relating to who the teacher is, what content and skills are taught, and what activities and tasks occur while teaching. Also consider student factors: who they are, what experiences, motivations and interests they bring to the classroom, and what they do during lessons. Then consider the school itself, its organization, culture, and its neighborhood. Finally consider the district, its resources, leadership, and culture of learning or non-learning that it cultivates. All of these interacting factors, sometimes unpredictably, affect classroom teaching and learning.

Yet look at the majority of research designs and methods used to determine the effects of teachers using computers with student. Most common are surveys of teachers and students who report their perceptions of classroom use supplemented by researchers’ descriptions of practices, and interviews with teachers and students. Some researchers set up comparison groups of classes that use computers to study a topic with classes not using computers studying the same topic. Then the classes using and not using computers are pre- and post-tested.

Both research designs have serious defects. Short of establishing an experimental and control design with students and teachers randomly assigned to each group, it is nearly impossible to establish a causal linkage between the use of high-tech devices and student achievement. Such experimental or quasi-experimental designs are uncommon and usually too expensive to mount.

Because surveys, class-comparisons, or studies of small groups of students using computers are less expensive in dollars and labor, thousands of studies have been done since the introduction of desktop computers into schools in the early 1980s. Many show minute gains or “no significant difference” in test scores from student use of computers. The results, however, are correlations—associations between presence of computers and gains in test scores, not evidence that student use of the machines caused a rise in test scores (see here).

Here, then, are two ways to make sense of the puzzling fact over the paltry results in student outcomes of so much investment in high-tech devices and so little return on those dollars.

When one shifts to the evidence of online instruction being associated with academic achievement gains, a similar story unfolds.

A brief look at the many K-12 and higher education studies that have sought an answer to the question of the effectiveness of online instruction in producing student gains in achievement may help readers.

Scores of studies of outcomes for online instruction have been contested because most have had serious design and methodological flaws. Moreover, many of these studies lumped together full-time virtual schools, hybrids, and online courses, And the results have been underwhelming.  That is where heartburn enters the picture (see here).

Even when researchers over the past few decades have performed meta-analyses of a smaller number of studies that have met higher standards of quality they found that virtual instruction in its various modes, at best, is equivalent to regular face-to-face classroom instruction. At worst, some studies showed less achievement gains than traditional teaching. And keep in mind that these meta-analyses were of studies where online instruction occurred in mostly math, reading, and science courses—not other academic subjects. Nor in areas of great concern such as kindergarten and primary grades, the arts, and social and emotional learning. The overall picture is considerably dimmer than promoters of full- and part-time virtual schooling have promised or leaders had expected. *

So with such little evidentiary support for huge expenditures of school budget funds for hardware, software, maintenance, and professional development, why keep buying the stuff?

There was one explanation I omitted when I wrote this post in 2010 because it did not register with me then but over the following years has emerged as a powerful reason for more classroom use.

The rationale for giving devices to every student and teacher has shifted from linkage to student outcomes to the simple fact that all standardized testing will be online.  With the Covid-19 pandemic, insuring that every student had access to a device and the Internet took precedence over teacher’s decisions to use or not use devices for their lessons. Until in-person schooling resumes for most U.S. students, all lessons will continue to be online–for better or worse.

____________________

*Cathy Cavanaugh, et. al. “The Effects of Distance Education on K–12 Student Outcomes: A Meta-Analysis.” 2004 Naperville, IL: Learning Point Associates ; Rosina Smith, et. al.  “A Synthesis of New Research on K-12 Online Learning”. 2005, Naperville, IL: Learning Point Associates; Barbara Means, et. al., “Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies,” (U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development, 2010).

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Cartoons on Parenting During the Pandemic

If you are like me, you know family members and close friends who have had to school their children (and grandchildren) since March. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 93 percent of people living in households with school-age children reported some form of distance instruction is occurring. The pandemic has tattooed remote instruction onto the bodies of millions of students and their families. No one asked for the tattoo but there it is.

I have collected cartoons about parenting during the pandemic. Enjoy!

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“We Can Only Hope” (Terence Freeman)

Freeman is an English teacher at Lawton High School in Lawton, Oklahoma. He has taught 14 years at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and 26 years at Lawton High School. This story appeared in the Washington Post’s online article, October 6, 2020. Freeman is one of nine teachers the newspaper asked to report on their experiences in returning to remote and in-person instruction during the pandemic.

Hope was on my mind in the summer months leading up to this academic year. I hoped the school had plans and funding for sanitizer, cleaning liquids, paper towels, masks, teacher testing and more; hoped that I and my students would remain healthy; hoped that I could still have the personal relationship with students that enables learning to happen.

I will remember Hands. During Week 2, I took my classes to the library, where the district fulfilled its promise to provide every student with a Chromebook. I now had the option of having students read from a website or from a paper textbook. Call me old-fashioned, but there’s nothing like the heft and texture and tangibility of the printed text.

Yet I worried about students in successive classes touching the same books. So I went on Amazon and ordered three large boxes of nitrile gloves. I’ve placed a pair for every student in a baggie with her or his name on it, and the baggies are stored in separate boxes in the classroom. The students enter the room, wipe down the desks I have sprayed with liquid cleaner, wash their hands with sanitizer, grab the assigned baggie, put on the gloves, grab the book on the desk, read and at the end of class put the gloves in the baggie and the baggie in the box. A terribly makeshift solution, but one that’s been enthusiastically received and executed by the students. They and I each do what we need to do — that’s the can-do spirit of an American.

I will remember Obstacles. Two-thirds of our students elected in-person education. Some technical adjustments were relatively easy — cold breakfast in the classroom, wiping down desks before each period, sanitizing hands, distancing between desks. Masks were harder — not the wearing, but the communication.

On the first morning of school, gloved and masked, I helped do a security check of students’ backpacks/bags/purses before passing the students on through the metal detector. All of the students were masked, and I quickly realized how important our faces are to communication, to the recognition of emotion. A cheery greeting from me, if I got a response at all, generated a reply whose emotional content was muffled, distant, cold. I have had the same experience in class. Conversations involve both hearing and observing, and the masks impede the observations. I and my students have needed to work harder to emote through our eyes and voices.

I will remember the Probe. In Week 3, I took advantage of a free coronavirus test offered by the state’s health and education departments. I made my appointment the day before, showed up 10 minutes early and was the second school employee at the location. The testing equipment beat me to the scene but, unfortunately, the nurses did not. Teacher after teacher arrived at the room, and we milled around in the hallway, awkwardly chattering and trying to maintain social distance.

Thirty minutes after my arrival, two nurses arrived — one female, one male. In due course, I was seated before the male nurse, who proceeded to make a minute-long speech that I understood nothing of — these masks are truly a pain. The insertion of the probe was uncomfortable, the nurse’s count to five unnecessarily slow and the aftermath a slight burning and a watery eye. I high-tailed it back to the classroom and beat the first of my 18 students by about 30 seconds. I used a Kleenex to dab the watery eye — one must maintain one’s image, after all. A result came the next day: “Not Detected.”

I will remember the Extra. On the third day of school, I learned that my Advanced Placement students would have the option of getting a virtual education. I tried hard to find a magic bullet, but the programs and technology suggested to me over the summer would, I came to believe, only allow me to offer a significantly limited version of the in-person curriculum I have developed over the years. So I have found myself trying to construct that limited version (at the moment, for eight students) while at the same time conducting the in-person version. In essence, I feel as if I am being tasked to be two teachers — me and Extra Mini-Me.

So there it is — my first weeks at school. Hands. Obstacles. Probe. Extra. H-O-P-E. I am reminded of the poet Basho: “Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.” We can only hope.

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Schools and the Pandemic Recession

As a tempered optimist about the power of schools to shape the lives of both adults and children, this post, I confess, will depress readers. Stop reading if you already feel blue during the pandemic.

I have no upbeat news. For schools, as for the rest of the economy, the news is downbeat. Uncertainty continues to surround any prevention and treatment of Covid-19. The lack of any coherent guidelines for opening schools and proper ways of dealing with the stubborn virus from the President and U.S. Secretary of Education is shocking in its negligence of an institution critical to the nation’s future.

Of even greater importance is that the President and Congress have yet to agree on a stimulus package to reduce unemployment and rescue small and medium-sized businesses from permanent closure. And with the election weeks away, chances of another federally funded trillion dollar-plus infusion into the economy, including schools is, well, dim. Already states–the primary funder of public schools across the nation’s 13,000-plus districts–have begun to either maintain (rather than raise) funding or include cuts in school funding for K-12 schools (see here and here).

Recovery from the pandemic recession may take longer than the previous Great Recession in 2008. The bounce back in state funding after the Great Recession has yet to occur (see here ). As the federal government continues to delay action until January when either Donald Trump or Joe Biden is inaugurated President, the situation worsens.

So schools for 2020-2021 and the following year will have to retrench. “Retrench” is a euphemism for laying off school employees, half of whom are teachers.

And laying off employees occurs at a time when taxpayers and parents continue their beliefs in schools graduating young men and women ready to enter the workforce, not unemployment lines, and thereby strengthen the economy. Even when remote instruction and limited in-person interaction are happening across 13,000-plus districts and nearly 100,000 schools in the U.S. these beliefs persist.

The existing standards-based testing and accountability regime in place across the 50 states and territories date back to the reform movement triggered by the 1983 report A Nation at Risk connecting the quality of schooling to the strength of the nation’s economy. Although such beliefs have been in the educational bloodstream since the early 20th century when vocational education was introduced into U.S. schools, these current beliefs in how schools can bolster the economy at the same time as decreasing youth unemployment are also part of the ideology that civic officials and policy entrepreneurs continue during the pandemic.

Parsing that ideology may help clear the air about the past and current direction of public schools insofar as being linked to the economy. Politicians and policymakers shuttle back and forth between two theories about how schools can grow the economy and, simultaneously, reduce unemployment among young people.

These theories continue during the pandemic although asking corporate and civic leaders about these underlying beliefs may yield blank stares since few political and business leaders, educational policymakers and practitioners realize how ideologies are at the heart of the standards, testing, and accountability movement in place for nearly four decades.

The first theory goes by the short-hand phrase “math-and-ATMs.” The heart of the theory is that high school graduates lack the right skills for today’s companies who want highly skilled employees. Teachers didn’t teach and students didn’t absorb–think math and science courses–or learn how to use the new generation of hardware and software technologies. Yes, the metaphor of those Automated Teller Machines replacing bank tellers speak to the millions of low- and semi-skilled jobs that have disappeared in the past two decades.

This theory is favored by business leaders, politicians and policymakers because this problem can be fixed: more math and science in elementary and secondary curricula and more technology use in schools. In this way, students get the knowledge and skills to enter the labor market in an ever-changing economy.

But there is another theory that has much less to do with schools that also explains high unemployment and defects in the economy. This is, as Ezra Klein puts it, “nobody-is-buying-anything” theory. Slow economic growth and high unemployment, the theory goes, is due to the huge debt load that U.S. consumers carry from mortgages, foreclosures, student loans, and credit cards. Consumers are not buying, employers are not hiring which then means that Americans have less money to spend–and you can fill in the rest of the cycle. Multiple outcomes of this argument for what is occurring during the pandemic.

Here the policy solution is for the government to step in and cut taxes, create new jobs and fund existing ones (e.g., construction, teachers, police and fire) and help both businesses and consumers get out of debt–what was called the “stimulus” legislation during 2008 and now the first CARES Act in March 2020 (but no subsequent relief since then). Once that happens, government spending eases and federal officials turn to paying down the national debt.

Of the two theories, “math-and-ATMs” wins out every time. Why? Because politicians and policymakers know in their gut and from polls that talking about improving schools, better test scores, and college-and-career ready graduates is much easier to do. Easier than doing what?

Easier than passing a new “stimulus” bill in a polarized political climate where new jobs are created and aid to businesses occur. That no relief bill has passed since March and none appear ready to occur before November 3rd, the nation waits. As nothing occurs at the federal level, more children and families slip into poverty and Covid-19 continues its rampage. And the standards, testing accountability reforms put into place over past decades remains the reform du jour.

Of course, policymakers can pursue both theories–government stimulating the economy and upgrading what students learn but, for now during a crippling pandemic that has cratered the economy, one theory of schools and its linkage to the economy continues to dominate policy talk and action. And that dominant theory distracts Americans’ attention from the oncoming train wreck of laid off teachers and support staff, and reductions in school services . And most important, little attention paid to what needs to be done politically outside schools.

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“I’m Hopeful for a Better Tomorrow” (Justin Lopez-Cardoze)

Lopez-Cardoze is a seventh-grade science teacher at Capital City PublicCharter School in Washinton, D.C. He has taught for nine years.

This story appeared in the Washington Post’s online article, October 6, 2020. Lopez-Cardoze is one of nine teachers the newspaper asked to report on their experiences in returning to remote and in-person instruction during the pandemic.

It was the first day of school with students. After eight years of first days, you would think I would feel calm and confident on my ninth. Honestly, each year it gets harder to manage the nerves. You want to do things right; you want your students to like you and say, “This class will be incredible.” On those first days of the last eight years, the moments felt so magical. I would see new faces, bright smiles, goofy personalities and nerves suddenly disappearing. It felt right.

But my ninth first day? I felt uncomfortable. I’m used to hearing and seeing students interacting with each other when I’m presenting on the first day, but in the world of Zoom, all you hear is yourself against multiple tiles on mute — and that day, most of the tiles were blank backgrounds with names. I didn’t hear a laugh. I couldn’t observe body language. What once felt like joy in my classroom quickly turned into emptiness.

I found myself seeking guidance from my principal that afternoon. I felt defeated, but in a unique way, which made me feel like even more of a failure. Last year, I was named D.C. Teacher of the Year, the first Latinx teacher to win that award. Folks were reaching out, asking me to share my expertise and perspectives from all over the District and country. I felt like I was on top of my teaching career. And now, after my first “Day One” in a distance learning program? I felt like a loser. I felt like I couldn’t be the teacher I had worked so hard to become.

I told my principal, “I feel like a first-year teacher again, only worse.” Her response stuck with me. “It feels worse because you have built years of what has worked well for you,” she said. “You have the background, and you have the experience. You have the expectation. Ignorance was bliss for you on your first day on the job several years ago. Now, you’re trying to live up to that expectation when the world has changed so drastically.”

So do I change my expectations? Do I lower them? Do I overhaul everything for the sake of adjusting to the pandemic? My principal told me to keep my expectations high in magnitude and low in rigidity.

“Create a bigger picture to discover the avenues that strive towards the high expectations your students deserve,” she said. “And select those paths as the decisions you will make as a teacher for your students at this time.”

I listened. And 18 instructional days later, I have realized this advice has transformed my students and me into agents of optimal learning. My outstanding co-teacher, Danielle Fadare, and I have helped each other broaden our scopes to provide meaningful and fun instruction.

Did we teach our students how to read a procedure with scientific tools and chemicals this year? No. But we did a demo on making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich while students learned how to co-write detailed procedures in groups to control every move I made to create one.

Did students use compound microscopes to view outdated slides in person? No. But they have learned how to use a virtual platform provided by a local university to investigate cellular structures using a 100X objective lens — a level of magnification that most compound microscopes in K-12 schools don’t have.

For the longest time, I viewed distance learning as limiting my quality of instruction. I thought, “Well, I won’t be able to do this because it just won’t be the same through Google Hangouts or Zoom.” It turns out I was right. It won’t be the same. But I had a choice. Should I accept those limits or should I embrace the potential and leverage my creativity to create promising outcomes? I have chosen the latter.

Is everything perfect? Absolutely not. And there’s a long way to go. There will be lots of magical moments and wins, with lots of failure. But I’ll fail with the intention of finding a different path to follow.

And the kids are excited to be back. Many of them are already super tech-savvy. They’re turning their cameras on. They’re laughing. One thing that I noticed today is that when I dismissed kids to their next class, many wanted to stick around and just talk to me. Not for anything academic . . . just to talk. As crazy as this sounds, I feel like I can relate to my students more than I ever have in my entire career. I’m learning with them. I’m growing with them. I hope we can build trust for one another throughout this time. And I’m hopeful for a better tomorrow.

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“Welcome Back, Teach” (Jessyca Mathews)

Mathews is an English Teacher at Carman-Ainsworth High School in Flint, Michigan. Her story appeared in the Washington Post’s online article, October 6, 2020. She is one of nine teachers the newspaper asked to report on their experiences in returning to remote and in-person instruction during the pandemic.

The massive rumbles of thunder surprise me from my sleep. With heart racing, I turn over to look at the time. It’s only 4:30 a.m. I could try to sleep for another hour and a half, but my mind has other plans. As I sit up and look out the window, I gaze at the dark, mysterious sky.

I am exhausted, but I must start my day because it is time for the inevitable. I must report to the Factory today.

I begin a ritual that would soon be my daily routine. I take a hot shower. Brush my teeth. Put on ChapStick. Find clothing with many pockets. Display makeup just on my eyes. The mask will cover the rest of my face.

I investigate my survival bag to make sure I have the required items: hand sanitizer, masks, face wipes and at least two bottles of water.

As I zip my bag, the memory of last year’s school bag comes to my mind, and I smile. Then it was filled with purple pens, gifts for co-workers and first-day prizes for students. I always loved playing games with them on the first day.

But that won’t happen this year. Teaching will be online for the foreseeable future.

I reach inside the medicine cabinet for the thermometer and take my temperature.

It can’t be over 100.4. Lastly, I complete the Factory’s required health assessment form online to “prove” I don’t have the Illness.

My “Good for the Soul” soundtrack plays on my car radio, but I ignore the tunes. There is too much worry about entering the Factory to enjoy the irony of Beyoncé, telling me to “Get in formation.”

After driving through rain-drenched streets, I arrive and park in the front parking lot. Before entering the Factory, I pause to watch other co-workers.

With her head hanging low, one worker walks with a slight limp as she begins her path to the front door. Another co-worker sits in her car. Her eyes are closed, and her body is still. This meditation must be her moment of peace, even if it is just this brief minute. I do not interrupt her.

Others lurch out of the dark shadows of cars and trucks, reaching for their faces to veil their noses and mouths. The coverings also suppress the lips that usually express greetings of “Welcome back” to start the previous years.

After meeting my new intern, Anna, who stands alone in a puddle-filled parking lot, we join the others. We trudge inside the Factory to start this new line of work and existence in education.

Nothing is like it was before.

The workers cannot meet as a whole group due to the Illness. Half of the staff are sent to the cafeteria and half head to the auditorium. We can’t even join as one to start the school year. There is no unity anymore.

Anna and I are sent to the auditorium to receive further instruction. Once we enter, we hear the directions:

Sit five seats apart!

Sit every other row!

Sit facing forward!

There are slight sounds of squeaking seats as each worker follows the directions. There is limited talking. There are no happy conversations about children and escapes that happened this summer. The Illness took many things. It also took away the usual noise and excitement that happens when we start another school year.

Just one year ago, teachers of all grades gathered in this space. There were laughter, hugs and well wishes to have another successful school year. But the tone has changed. Most sit and stare, their eyes filled with nervous tension, confusion and worry. We soon hear a noise from the speakers. The Leader is prepared to begin.

The Leader appears on a large screen and I fight to pay attention to my new directives as the anxiety creeps into my soul. The Leader’s message is quick and direct and we are sent to our working spaces. The Leader’s statements do not comfort me, and nothing in returning here makes me feel like I matter.

There are no lights on in my hallway. Figures of co-workers move like apparitions haunting abandoned buildings, each disappearing into their classroom. I panic at the drab ambiance of my working space. It makes me think of all the things that will not be there with me to start this school year.

No students. No conversations. No light. Will there be joy?

Today, there is only darkness and the soft click of my door closing to start this new year of dystopian teaching.

I shall teach children on screen from the Factory.

I whisper to myself, “Welcome back, teach . . . ”

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Will Pandemic-Driven Remote Instruction* Alter Familiar Teaching Practices in American Schools?

Yes and no. Sounds like a mealy-mouthed answer to the question, but stick with me for a moment.

Background. Only twice in the past century has technology been the primary medium of instruction for each and every teacher and student. One was planned and the other unplanned.

In the mid-1960s, the federal government planned and then established television as the primary means of instruction in American Samoa. Daily lessons would appear on a monitor in the front of the classroom airing what content and skills were to be learned by elementary and secondary school students. A classroom teacher would then follow up the televised lesson. By the mid-1970s, Samoan schools had reverted back to in-person classroom instruction with television as a supplementary device.

A generation earlier, the unplanned example was in Chicago during the polio epidemic of 1937 when nearly 325,000 students were home for three weeks. The radio in the classroom became the primary teaching device. Once school resumed, goodbye radio; it lost its central place in the teaching of Chicago students. Fast forward to 2020.

U.S. schools across 13,000-plus districts responsible for over 50 million students were initially closed in March and slowly reopened over the summer and early fall. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 93 percent of people living in households with school-age children reported some form of distance instruction going on in their homes.Yesterday it was the radio, today it is the laptop.

Will remote instruction go away, repeating what occurred with television in American Samoa and the radio in Chicago?

And here is where I come to my “yes and no.”

YES

After wholesale in-person instruction resumes—assuming a vaccine becomes readily available to all Americans by the end of next year–distance learning will, for the most part, shut down. Home screens will go dark. But not completely.

Nearly all lessons will be in-school, face-to-face for the simple reason that voters and taxpayers (including parents, of course) expect schools to return to their core social, moral and civic functions in housing students. Schools do far more than teach academic content and skills.

Schools are custodial institutions intimately tied to the economy insofar as permitting Moms and Dads to work either at home, the shop, or the office. The Presidential tweets to re-open schools in September was clearly linked to re-opening the economy by freeing Moms and Dads to return to the workplace. Pushback from parents and educators concerned about the health risks to their children and themselves turned reopening of schools into a hop-scotch mix of plans across 13,000-plus school districts (see here and here).

Beyond housing the young, public schools socialize children into the dominant cultural values ranging from social and civic norms–taking one’s turn, cooperating with others, pride in American democracy–to earning the necessary credentials to succeed in a tiered society. In doing so, schools replicate, even reinforce, the socioeconomic and racial inequalities that pervade America in 2020. Reopening schools now and over the next year and a half, then, will again reveal those unattended inequalities but also worry parents (and teachers) about risks to the health of children and school staffs. Nonetheless, nearly all remote instruction will shut down, albeit in slow-motion. That is the “yes” answer.

No

The “no” answer is that remote instruction will become the default option for schools when they close for snow days, torrential rains, and contagious diseases. Also, for those individual students who are ill for stretches of time or unable to attend school because of suspension or expulsion, screen contact with teachers will be the medium of choice.

But other questions about online instruction were ignored during the pandemic and remain unanswered. For example, how should students’ academic performance be assessed? How should they be graded for their online responses to instruction? What about the existing gaps in teacher experience, quality of instruction, and access to devices and the Internet between urban and suburban schools?

The larger issue of assessing student performance through remote instruction has been hardly addressed since March 2020. Screen assessments to determine understanding of the content and application of skills learned remains conflicted and sticky.

Will such remote instruction vary. Of course. In de facto segregated schools in low-income districts where teacher turnover is high and Internet and Wifi access and devices are still spotty for families, the unacknowledged inequalities become stark in both what content and skills are taught and how they are taught.

And what about standards, tests, and accountability–the nearly four-decade long reform movement–in the post-Covid era?

I would expect little conflict or few calls for overturning the Core Curriculum standards adopted by 41 states since 2020 (the remaining states have created their own curriculum standards). While the U.S. Secretary of Education has granted waivers for the 2020 spring administering of state standardized tests, she expects such tests to resume in 2021. While there is certainly much talk about too many standardized tests, the rush to return to normal will include annual state testing. The machinery for taking such tests is already in place since taking computer-based tests began before the pandemic struck.

Accountability for scores, however, will be sharply reduced, I believe. Ending No Child Left Behind in 2015 removed the coercive accountability that had grown dramatically since 2002. Every Student Succeeds Act (2016) returns decisions of what to do with low-performing schools and districts to the state. And across the states, again I speculate, the appetite to punish low academic performance, as measured by standardized tests, has shrunk greatly. That shrinkage began well before Covid-19 struck.

Still, the above point about online standardized testing does not directly deal with the contentious and unresolved issue of assessing student performance during and after remote instruction. Not only assessment but glaring inequalities in U.S. schools will continue to be part of the “normal” that children and youth will face as they enter re-opened schools. Also part of the “normal” that parents and employers yearn for is the taken-for-granted age-graded school and its underlying “grammar of schooling.”

So my guess is that remote instruction in sharply reduced fashion will remain in public schools as the default option for teachers to use when students cannot attend school. Apart from that, I have yet to detect any groundswell of reform talk about altering the familiar school organization, standardized testing, Common Core Curriculum, and existing accountability measures in place. Nor do I hear any coalition of reformers offering concrete policies that can reduce the stark differences in funding and staffing schools in urban and suburban districts that have become, in a word, re-segregated.

____________________

*I use “remote instruction,” “online instruction,” and “distance instruction” rather than the noun “learning” simply because there is no body of evidence that “online learning,” or similar descriptors does, indeed, benefit students.

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A Failure to Disrupt: Why Technology Alone Can’t Transform Education (Justin Reich)

Justin Reich is a Professor at MIT and director of the MIT Teaching Systems Lab. He is the author of the Failure to Disrupt: Why Technology Alone Can’t Transform Education (Harvard University Press, 2020). This article appeared in Teaching Times, August 20, 2020.

Over the last ten years, education technology evangelists have made remarkable claims about how new technologies will transform educational systems. In 2009, Clay Christensen of the Harvard Business School predicted that half of all secondary school courses in the US would be online by 2019, and that they’d cost 1/3 of a traditional course and provide better outcomes. Sal Khan of Khan Academy proposed in a TED talk that he could use short videos to reinvent education.

Sebastian Thrun of Udacity said that in 50 years we’d have only 10 institutions of higher education in the world after massive open online courses colonized the field. As the winner of the TED Prize, Sugata Mitra claimed that students didn’t even need schools or teachers, and that groups of children with access to the internet could teach themselves anything.

A disaster

And then in 2020, the world was blighted by a terrible pandemic. Schools serving over 1.6 billion learners shut down. It was a moment that technologists had promised for years could be transformative, but for most learners and families, remote online learning has been a disaster.

As educators face the challenge of spooling up new online and hybrid schools to serve vast numbers of students, they can choose from three kinds of technologies that support learning at scale. In classifying education technology, the first question to ask is “who controls the learning experience for students?”

There are three answers to this question: instructor-guided online courses, algorithm-guided adaptive tools, and peer-guided networked learning communities. Each of these genres has strengths and limitations; each is good for some subjects, but not others; for some students, but not others.

Very successful students do well

For older students, there are many different forms of instructor-guided, self-paced online courses available: free offerings from Khan Academy or FutureLearn along with subscription virtual courseware from a variety of companies. These cover many topics in the curriculum, but they only serve a subset of students well. Research shows that the learners who are most successful in self-paced courses are those who are already very successful in school—self-motivated and academically well-prepared.

Virtually none of our youngest learners meet these criteria. For auto-didacts, the options are limitless, but for the vast majority of us who need contact with human teachers to help us learn, these kinds of offerings are not very helpful

There are a variety of algorithm-guided adaptive tools that are engaging and beneficial to student learning. Part of the appeal of these tools is that they use a variety of different kinds of automated assessments to determine student understanding, and then they provide personalized learning pathways to students based on their performance.

Theoretically compelling

Theoretically, it’s a compelling model, where each student gets the instruction, the assessment, the feedback, and the experience that they need. But, the model depends on having good automated assessments, which only exist in three domains: mathematics, computer science, and early language acquisition (such as learning to read a native language in primary school, or learning the introductory parts of a foreign language).

Even within these domains, the assessments are only partially useful—in computer science we can automatically assess whether a student has met a well-defined engineering challenge, but not if they’ve made an aesthetically pleasing home page for a new website. Automated math tutoring software can be a useful part of a school systems’ remote learning plans, but there simply isn’t good automated tutoring software for studying literature, science, social studies, or most of the rest of the school curriculum.

While instructor-guided and algorithm-guided technologies attempt to use computers to directly teach students, some technologists have built learning environments where peers teach each other. The Scratch community, where young people learn computational creativity and share their programs, tutorials, and resources with one another, is probably the best example of a peer learning network that has been adopted in schools.

Outside of formal schooling, virtually everyone in the networked world participates in some way in these learning networks, when they peruse and comment on makeup tutorials, or read up on video game wikis, or participate in networks for hobbies and crafts. The kind of learning that people do in these networks is rich and deep, but it depends tremendously on internal motivation. People learn amazing things in online learning networks that tap into personal interests, but they tend not to be useful for teaching and learning about mandatory school subjects.

To sum up: instructor-guided self-paced online courses are great for autodidacts, but not particularly useful for most students; adaptive tutors work great for many learners, but only in a few subject areas; peer networks work well for learning about personal passions, but not so well for mandatory school curriculum.

Sweet spots for distance learning

For two decades, education technology entrepreneurs have promised a disruptive transformation of the learning landscape, but in reality, the field has produced a limited set of tools that only work for some students, in some subjects, in some contexts. Within those sweet spots, learning technologies can be incredibly powerful. But those sweet spots only cover a fraction of all of the learning that typical school systems try to provide for all of their students.

As a result of these limitations, during the pandemic, the vast majority of school systems—both for primary and secondary students and for higher education, have primarily turned not to emerging tools but towards two of our very oldest learning technologies: learning management systems and video telephony.

Learning management systems, like Google Classroom, Schoology, Canvas, or Moodle are digital spaces for sharing, distributing, and collecting online documents. These systems were theorized in the scholarly literature in the 1960s and 1970s, made commercially available in the 1990s, and available in open source in the 2000s. They let teachers assign and collect digital worksheets.

Video telephony was the 1930s name for what we now call video conferencing, services like Zoom or Microsoft Teams that let people see and hear each other online. These two technologies let systems recreate traditional models of schools—teacher lecture, student recitations, individual student practice on worksheets. This hasn’t worked particularly well, but there really aren’t examples of where new technologies are offering much better outcomes to students.

Four dilemmas

What would it look like to have a more robust set of large-scale learning technologies for the next pandemic? To create and implement technologies that work better at large scales, edtech designers and researchers will have to find new ways to overcome four dilemmas that have consistently hindered efforts to transform education with technology.

The first dilemma is what I call the Curse of the Familiar. When technologists create novel and innovative new tools for teaching and learning, educators and students often find them confusing and hard to adopt. If you make something very different from traditional school practice, it won’t fit into schools very well. But on the other side, if you build a technology that digitizes existing school practices—if you make digital flashcards or digital worksheets—they tend to not be that much better for learning than existing practices. The only solution to this dilemma is to recognize that new technology adoptions require substantial professional development efforts.

Second dilemma

The second dilemmas is the EdTech Matthew Effect. As we have seen in tragic ways throughout the pandemic, learning technologies tend to be most useful for affluent students with the financial, social, and technical resources to take advantage of new innovations. New technologies typically widen educational disparities rather than closing them.

Third dilemma

A third issue is that learning requires feedback, but technology designers are only good at evaluating human performance in domains where correct answers are highly structured. Computers can identify the correct answer to a math problem or even a correctly-pronounced word, but they cannot identify whether an essay shows a student effectively reasoning from evidence. The Trap of Routine Assessment observes that many education technologies rely on automated assessments, but computers can’t assess many of the most important things that our students learning.

Fourth dilemma

The Toxic Power of Data and Experiment highlights how new technologies are powerful platforms for research and A/B testing which can be used to dramatically improve computational systems, but only if communities are willing to tolerate risks to privacy and a growing surveillance over education.

Fundamentally, the dilemmas recognize that technology alone can’t transform schools. At best, technology can play a role in helping educators and communities build better learning systems.

These limits are not, in themselves, cause for despair. Improving teaching and learning is immensely hard. Education technology can’t solve all of the challenges of remote learning, but it can effectively address the needs of some students in some subjects.

For communities facing school closures, teaching young children math will prove incredibly difficult through video conferencing. By good fortune, some of our best learning technologies are adaptive tutors in elementary math subjects. That doesn’t solve every problem that primary head teachers face, but it helps with one of them.

For those who are hoping that education technology can transform our existing systems, that’s probably a disappointment. But if you see human development as a slow, painstaking process of gradual improvement, than those kinds of incremental steps are as good as it gets.

J

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Parenting during the Pandemic

With the closure of U.S. schools in March of the infamous year of 2020 and the desperation-driven reform of distance learning, Moms have become teacher-in-charge. The cartoon below offers a glimpse of a traditional and familiar style of parenting. Less than a decade ago, a Yale Law professor categorized the Mom in this cartoon as exhibiting one historical patterns in rearing children.

In 2011, Amy Chua wrote an international best seller about her tough-love parenting of daughters in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. She must have laughed all the way to the bank at the fuss she kicked up about her tough-love parenting of daughters.  Time magazine reported that her Wall Street Journal op-ed garnered over a million readers and 5000 comments.

For educated, financially comfortable non-Tiger Moms, however, the thought of giving up “Baby Mozarts,” chants of “well done” to build self- esteem, and, yes, even sleepovers–was too much.  In response to Tiger Moms, Ayelet Waldman says, developing empathy in children, nurturing them, and giving them room to decide things for themselves, while still achieving high grades and gathering awards, are traits that she and other non-Tiger Moms want to develop.

Competing ways of rearing children, of course is nothing new. Since the 17th century, ministers, mothers, and, later, physicians, and psychologists have written manuals to guide parents in raising children. Historians have analyzed these advice manuals. What they have found are basically two child rearing models that are similar to Tiger Moms and Guilty, Nurturing Moms.

I label them Strict Parent vs. Nurturing Parent. Of course, these models span a continuum and are not mutually exclusive. Many parents use hybrids of the two in their families.

Strict parent model teaches children right from wrong by setting clear rules for their behavior and enforcing them through punishments, typically mild to moderate but sufficiently painful to get attention. When rules are followed and children cooperate, parents show love and appreciation. Children are not coddled since a spoiled child seldom learns  proper behavior. Children become responsible, self-disciplined, and self-reliant by following the rules and listening to parents.

Nurturing parent model teaches children right from wrong through respect, empathy, and a positive relationship with parents. Children obey because they love their parents, not out of fear of punishment. Parents explain their decisions to children and encourage questioning and contributing ideas to family decisions. Children become responsible, self-disciplined, and self-reliant through being nurtured and caring for others.

No surprise that these competing models of child rearing have entered schools. Parents want their schools to be extensions of what is taught at home. Nor is it a surprise that the ideological and practical conflicts in schools today are anchored in these rival approaches to child-rearing.

In the early 19th century, for example, taxpayers, parents, and public officials saw public schools as proper places for the tenets of Protestant Christianity, steeped in Biblical views of parental authority, where teachers would teach that disobedience was a sin. Thus, raising children to respect authority, be self-disciplined, and know right from wrong–the Strict Parent model– was expected in one-room schoolhouses and, later, age-graded elementary schools. This dominant Strict Parent model of raising and schooling children was viewed as natural and, best for children and society before and after the Civil War.

In the late 19th century, another view  (history of progressivism schools PDF)  emerged challenging the religious-based popular model of child-rearing. The onslaught of industrialization, rapid urban growth, an emerging middle-class, and massive immigration spurred reformers to advocate a more “progressive” view of how best to raise and school children. Confined initially to manuals for middle-class parents, readers were urged to cultivate the innate goodness of children rather than dwell on their potential sinfulness. Parental love and example, not punishment, would produce respect for authority, self-discipline, and moral rigor in children.

For post-Civil War urban reformers who saw hard-working immigrant parents living in  slums, traditional schools were inadequate. They got schools to expand their usual duties and take on nurturing roles that families had once discharged. Schools offered medical care, meals, lessons to build moral character including respect for authority and job preparation. Teachers were expected to develop children’s intellectual, emotional, and social capacities to produce mature adults who acted responsibly. This rival ideology became the progressive model of schooling.

By World War I, then, these competing progressive and traditional ideologies constituted different faiths in the best way of raising and schooling children. These beliefs had become embedded in educators’ language and school programs thus creating a platform for subsequent struggles over what “good” schools were and should be. The “culture wars” since the 1960s over teaching reading, math, science, and other content in schools are variations of this century-long see-saw struggle of ideas over what ways are best to raise and school children.

The media hullabaloo over Amy Chua’s Tiger Mom a few years ago and angry rebuttals from many parents (and grandparents) are at the root of the traditional vs. progressive cyclical conflicts that have ebbed and flowed over what reforms work best in U.S. schools.

Now, in the midst of the pandemic when most schools have re-opened using remote instruction, more Moms than Dads home school their children.

I would guess that under the pressure of children underfoot all day long, there is a scrambling of Strict Parent and Nurturing Parent styles. And when it comes to remote instruction, the very nature of the medium reinforces from afar traditional rather than progressive teaching practices.

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Reimagining the Public High School, 2015-2020 (Part 2)

The system of public high schools in America really hasn’t undergone any kind of serious transformation in 100 years,” [ Super School Project CEO, Russlyn H.] Ali said. “It was built for an economy and a system that is no more.”

What if you’re the one who helps America rethink high school?”

“This is a challenge to empower all of America to change high school. Together, we can transform communities and build schools that inspire new possibilities.”

From these quotes taken from the website for Super School Project, philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs and chief executive Russlyn Ali are interested in transforming the existing high school.

After the initial announcement in 2015, the Super School Project accepted proposals from 700 teams across the nation in a competition to design and execute a new kind of high school that would make this hardy–seemingly unchanged–institution relevant to their daily lives . A year later, XQ announced that $10 million would be awarded to 10 teams to put their ideas into practice within five years. Since 2016, nearly $140 million has gone to 19 teams to re-imagine the American high school.

Matt Barnum wrote about the project a year ago and said:

Most of the XQ winners are now up and running. There’s a Washington, D.C. school that prioritizes computer science and getting real-world internships for all of its students. Another is a racially integrated school in Memphis focused on project-based learning, whose founder applied after driving by an XQ billboard; a third is a school-within-a-school meant to mirror a high-tech office in Florida. A school in Los Angeles focuses on helping homeless students, while another in Grand Rapids is based in an old museum.

None of these grants went to schools that proposed tinkering with the century-old comprehensive high school. They proposed many changes. Yet change is an ambiguous word that needs to be parsed. The Super School Project is not in the market for “incremental changes” to the high school of 2015. They want “transformational,” “revolutionary,” or fundamental change. What’s the difference?

Incremental changes aim to end the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of existing structures and cultures of schooling including classroom teaching. By structures, I mean the goals, funding, facilities, and the age-graded school that are (and have been) basic building blocks of the system of tax-supported schooling in the U.S. By cultures, I mean the norms, expectations, and beliefs in the classroom, school, and district that color daily activities.

Promoters of incremental change view the basic structures and cultures of schooling as largely sound but in need of improvements. There are inefficiencies and ineffective practices that undermine the productivity of the system. The old car, to use a familiar metaphor, is sputtering and rusting but solid. It needs a paint job, tires, brakes, a new battery, and a tune-up—incremental changes. Once improved, the system will work as intended.

Examples of incremental changes in schools would include adding new courses to high school curriculum; introducing new tests; adopting pay-for-performance for teachers and principals; decreasing class size from 30 to 25; Each of these changes, of course, seeks increased efficiency and effectiveness of the system.

In the classroom, incremental changes would include the teacher introducing a new unit in her math course that she had never taught before. Perhaps a teacher who designs a behavioral modification plan with rewards and penalties for good and bad classroom behavior. Or a teacher who decides to use the mobile cart with 30 laptops for one of her classes.

None of this for the Super School Project. The founder and CEO reject any change smelling of incrementalism. The project seeks “fundamental changes,” designs that will go far beyond tinkering.

Fundamental changes aim to transform—alter permanently—those very same structures and cultures. The idea behind fundamental change is that the basic school structures and cultures are irretrievably flawed at their core and need a complete overhaul or replacement, not incremental improvements. That old car is a jalopy far beyond repair. We need to get a new car or consider other forms of transportation.

If new courses, more staff, extended day and school year, and higher salaries for teachers are examples of incremental changes in the structures and cultures of schooling, then the late-19th century innovation of the kindergarten is an instance of fundamental change. Other examples would be broadening the school’s social role in the early 20th century to intervene in the lives of children and their families by offering school-based social and medical services and for advocates of public schooling to see the institution as an agent of social reform in the larger society (e.g., ending alcohol and drug abuse, desegregation). Advocates of charter schools want more parental choice and competition through altering the fundamental structure of funding. Other reformers wish to replace the age-graded school with ungraded schools that eliminate promotion and retention, the sliced-up curriculum, and self-contained classrooms. Again, designs for fundamental changes are proposed solutions to deep-seated problems or intractable dilemmas. That is what the Super School Project seeks for tax-supported public schools now anchored in an information-driven economy.

Applied to the classroom, advocates of fundamental change would transform the teacher’s role from transmitter of information to one who guides students to their own decisions, who helps children find meaning in their experiences, and urges them to learn from one another. These reformers seek to upend traditional teaching where the teacher talks, students mostly listen, use a textbook for the main source of knowledge, and pass tests that determine how much has been remembered. They want classrooms where teachers organize activities that help students learn from subject matter, one another, and the community. Assessment is less taking multiple-choice tests and more working on real world tasks.

Efforts to transform high schools have a long, tortured history (see here and here). Even when fundamental changes do occur at a moment in time such as the creation of tax-supported academic high schools in the late 19th century, the innovative comprehensive high school of the 1920s or the “open classroom,” those deep and powerful changes seldom last as past efforts have shown for the following reasons:

Many changes intended to be fundamental become incrementalized. Often the rhetoric of a planned change clearly intend to make profound shifts in the current school. Recall the words surrounding charter schools, 1:1 laptops, and small high schools in past decades. Promoted by corporate leaders and public officials these innovations sought fundamental changes. Yet once they left the designers’ hands and entered schools and classrooms theses changes were either piecemeal ones where certain portions of the design were implemented and other parts were not.

Because so much work is involved in mobilizing support and resources for fundamental changes there is far more success in talking about major reforms than in adopting the planned changes. And there is even more of a gap between officials’ actions and what principals and teachers actually put into practice. Because of these gaps between talk, action, and implementation, intended fundamental changes get incrementalized and become just another spoke in the organizational wheel.

Far more incremental than fundamental changes get institutionalized in schools. It is simply easier organizationally and psychologically to add to a system than go in a different direction. Increasing requirements for high school graduation is easier than dropping the Carnegie unit which is the very basis for counting credits toward graduation and school accreditation. Shipping computers to schools and buying software is far easier than altering dominant teaching practices. Creating charter schools is actually easier than charters seeking non-graded organizations and introducing project-based learning.

Given these reform-driven efforts over the past century to re-think the American high school, one inescapable question is: why the comprehensive high school has been a tough nut to crack for fundamental reforms? The answer to the question will draw attention to the age-graded and departmental organization, the prior training of specialized teachers and college admission requirements. All of these features for decades have constituted the “grammar of schooling” in secondary education. Few of the innovations that I have seen or read about question any of these rock-hard features in rethinking high school. Why is that?

Perhaps one answer (but surely not the only one) is that there are strengths of the comprehensive high school that parents, taxpayers, policymakers, and practitioners think is worthwhile and want to keep.

The Super School Project should mind seriously the strong popular support for the existing organization and practice of high schools as their staff and consultants watch these 19 schools become high schools of the future.

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