My Big Picture of School Reform Applied to Technology Policy and Classroom Practice

My Big Picture (see October 12, 2010 post) places much weight on external and local contexts influencing policy implementation and classroom practice while leaving room for principals and teachers to leave their fingerprints on the young. It is a context-driven perspective with a narrow zone of discretion available for practitioners to exert influence on students. To put it another way: If society gets a cold, schools sneeze and practitioners sniffle before they break out the aspirin, vitamin C, and herbs to help students avoid scratchy throats and coughing.

My Big Picture sees tax-supported schools as largely conservative institutions historically committed to preserving public values (e.g., socializing children into acceptable community  behaviors, civic participation, moral character, preparation for the labor market, equality and liberty) while also being expected to achieve parents’ private values (e.g., high school and college diplomas, well-paying jobs) for their sons and daughters. The perspective I have, then, helps to explain the numerous contradictions, paradoxes, and chronic dilemmas that afflict U.S. schools. Really? Let’s see.

In an earlier post (September 30, 2010), I made clear that getting student and teachers to use high-tech devices in classrooms is a sub-set of instructional, curricular, and organizational changes that reformers have championed for decades. Technological innovations are kissing cousins to other reforms. With that in mind, does my Big Picture help unravel the following paradox in school reform that has exasperated enthusiasts for getting teachers to integrate high-tech devices into their lessons?

Studies show that nearly all U.S. teachers have computers at home. Moreover, 97 percent of teachers (2009) have access to at least one computer at school. Furthermore, the number of students per computer across the U.S. has gone from 125 per computer in the mid-1980s to about 4 in 2007, with an ever-increasing number of schools in the past decade having one computer for each student.

Yet these studies (including mine of Las Montanas High School) also document that teachers use their computers at home far more than they use the ones at school for daily lessons with students. In 2009, however, 25 percent of elementary teachers reported “never” or “rarely” using computers in lessons; the percentage for secondary teachers “never” or “rarely” using computers was 39. At the other end of the spectrum, 44 percent of elementary teachers and 34 percent of secondary teachers reported they used computers “often.” To the degree, one puts faith in surveys as accurate, most teachers clearly use computers at home far more than at school.

So how does my Big Picture help explain this paradox of computer-savvy teachers using their machines at home far more than at school? To begin, eliminate the explanation of limited access to machines in schools.  Computers in schools across the nation have increased annually. At Las Montanas and thousands of 1:1 schools across the country, for example, each student has access to at least one laptop in school.

Turn to the external and local contexts to help explain patterns of use. Consider the contradictory goals parents, taxpayers, and educators have for schools and the structures within which they work. While parents want schools to socialize their children to play fair, don’t hit people, and share, they also want schools to prepare their sons and daughters to participate in civic activities, exercise moral character, and be creative and independent thinkers. None of these goals, however, can children and youth learn from computers. Moreover, current prevailing beliefs about the nation’s economic growth and future jobs have produced strong top-down pressures upon principals and teachers to meet academic standards.

Thus, principals and teachers are expected to insure that students become proficient in reading and math as measured by state tests, and, if not, they will be shamed publicly through federal and state accountability rules. Entire schools concentrate their attention on daily lessons that meet these expectations. Furthermore, the age-graded school with its structured time schedule and teachers compartmentalized into separate classrooms parceling out bite-sized pieces of the curriculum encourages isolation not collaboration.

If high-tech devices help meet these expectations and fit these structures, a substantial minority of teachers will use the machines, as surveys show. But most teachers do not. Surely, there are exceptions where principals and teachers march to different drummers and succeed in integrating high-tech machines into lessons and meet these competing goals within age-graded school structures. But they are anomalies.  Contexts, then, do matter. They help explain the paradox of teachers using computers at home far more than for instruction at school.

Such puzzling facts and the Big Picture perspective I offer challenge common beliefs held by reformers that most principals and teachers are resistant to new technologies, unskilled or uninterested in high-tech devices. They are not.  Such facts throw doubt upon the common strategies of first shaming-and-blaming teachers for not integrating computers into daily lessons and then turning around and investing in more professional development for computer-savvy teachers.

5 Comments

Filed under school reform policies, technology use

5 responses to “My Big Picture of School Reform Applied to Technology Policy and Classroom Practice

  1. Bob Calder

    The institutional tendency toward isolation pretty much crushes the use of collaborative tools on computers. Computers become irrelevant.

    Professional development teaches the use of expensive vertical applications, not collaborative tools. Walls are erected. Computers become marginal tools, not central to processes. I’m sure you see process as important, but not that computers must be moved into a role within process that facilitates collaboration.

    The way to make technology useful is to use it the way we do socially. Schools are no more than an extension of our social networks and it is becoming apparent to schools that the barriers they have are becoming transparent to instant communication modalities. But a more useful way to look at it is the way Larry Lessig does. Creativity should hold a central role in teaching and it could be stimulated by opening access to knowledge. Computers are currently used socially to make use of multiple concurrent streams of information. Except in school.

  2. Steve Davis

    Sometimes low-tech simply facilitates goals more effectively. Take a lesson on thesis statements for example. Each student has a thesis statement prepared (in theory) and is ready to share it with their group. I would love to use my blog for students to share and critique each other’s work, but it’s not the most logistically effective strategy. Marisol left her computer at home, Jordan can’t remember his password, and Justin can login but can’t seem to figure out how to post a comment. Sure, schools should be teaching these skills, but they’re not tested on the CA Subject Tests. Technology integration has left technology instruction up to content teachers, while I learned the basics of computing in my sixth grade computer class. What’s my main goal? Teaching thesis. In this scenario, technology actually impedes my main goal instead of facilitating it. It’s much easier and more effective to get out the black markers and the butcher paper and have students make group posters and present them to the class. It’s not whiz-bang, but it gets the job done.

  3. Steve Davis

    Attendance and technology

    Using technology to take attendance is another instance of tools not being suited for the task and of making more work for classroom instructors.

    I have an online gradebook that I can access via my school provided laptop or my iPod touch. I am supposed to take attendance electronically online at the beginning of each period so that parents, attendance clerks and administrators know in real-time if a student is absent, present or tardy. The problem with this is that in the real world students come wandering into class anywhere from 1 minute to 50 min late, either with or without a valid excuse. If I take attendance electronically at the start of the period I am forced to go back into the E-gradebook on the fly, write down the attendance correction and input it later or rely on my faulty memory to update my E-gradebook at the end of the day. In reality (which is where I teach) it is easier to take attendance on my paper seating chart at the start of class and update it throughout the period. I then enter attendance electronically after every two or three periods throughout the day (during my prep/after school). Furthermore, even though my attendance is submitted electronically, I am obliged to physically sign weekly attendance verification rosters that I have no way of verifying if I am only taking electronic attendance without a hardcopy record. So, you see that adding technology into the mix makes me keep two sets of records and actually complicates things to give the impression that technology is making things better and easier. Students aren’t packages that you can track like UPS shipments (although there’s a funny commercial that plays off that idea). And I also use my physical seating chart to note infractions, spot grade checks, etc. Sometimes a clipboard and a template are better than a $1,000 hunk of silicon (for certain tasks).

  4. Steve Davis

    The classroom blog in action

    I use it when it can make tasks easier or instruction more effective. I recently had students use the blog to post the book (yes, paperbacks) numbers of their recently received copies of Hamlet. On the surface it may look like I just used technology as an accounting tool devoid of any educational value. However, what I did was save a lot of class time (students had to post on their own time) and essentially filter or “test;” if you will, students’ ability to use the technology. Not surprisingly to me, some students didn’t complete this simple task for a myriad of reasons. Some couldn’t figure out how to post, others, I am sure, just “spaced-it.” Anyhow, to me, this was an effective use of “technology.” Naturally, I will follow-up and use the blog to facilitate our conversations about Hamlet. But I will have students post outside of class because, believe it or not, access to technology is still an issue and there is a real digital-divide between and within secondary school campuses that makes technology-integration challenging for classroom teachers.

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