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.