iPads and Reforming Classroom Practice: Deja Vu?

Listen to John Fontana, a journalist who blogs on such high-tech issues as digital identity, privacy and security.

iPad rollouts are significant when the school actually does something with them. My first-hand experience hasn’t been that good, I would like to hear what others have experienced. Perhaps I can use a good story or two to shake things loose at my son’s school.

They rolled out iPads last year. They talked about cutting edge, digital natives, blah, blah, blah. But their digital collaboration thinking was so old school (for my son’s in high school). When they mentioned email and phone calls, I knew I was in trouble. My son last sent an email three years ago and last month he burned a whopping 120 seconds in cell time.

Anyway, no text books, no apps, no home work, no digital assignments happened on the iPad all year. The thing that did happen was distracting internet surfing and game playing. The iPad experiment was never a discussion topic when I went to parent teacher conferences. I asked about it and was always answered with a grin and a shoulder shrug….

Funny that you have a bunch of teachers who likely know little or nothing about electronic collaboration, cloud applications and the like trying to teach these kids a digital lifestyle. Received a letter from my son’s school just this week touting the introduction of the iPad last year, but no mention of any academic gains. (Maybe just having one makes you brilliant). I just grinned and shrugged.

I think it will be the next genration [sic] that will drag the digital age into the classroom and make it more than just an add-on or sideshow for school board members to brag about at meetings.

John Fontana’s story of his son’s experience with iPads is, to him, a story of a failed reform. But I have heard other stories that describe teachers who practice all that Fontana wants to occur with tablets. It is a common belief among those who champion school reform that most innovations fail, particularly technological innovations. Failure to such reformers means that schools tame the reform; they suck out the promise of the innovation.

I return to a post that I wrote 18 months ago that compared school reform  to those clocks one sees in hotels showing different times across the planet. The post (slightly revised since last written) may explain John Fontana’s anger at his son’s school domesticating a technological innovation but, more important, give readers another way of seeing how time affects perceptions of reform.

In 1990, Seymour Sarason published The Predictable Failure of Educational Reform. A decade later, Diane Ravitch’s Left Back:A Century of Failed School Reforms hit booksellers. Now, not a week goes by that failures of public school reform are dissected, tallied, and trotted out as exhibits for wannabe reformers. This post and the next one re-frame school reform as looking at different clocks. Clocks?

In some upscale hotels over the registration desk, clocks show times across the globe.  Different time zones alert travelers to what time it is in the city they wish to call.

There are such clocks for school reform also. Different reform clocks record the different speeds of reform talk, policy adoption, what happens in classrooms, and what students learn. Were these clocks in public view, policymakers, administrators, practitioners, and researchers would see that changes in policy talk and action have occurred but at different speeds, some far too slow for impatient reformers to notice. Framing reform as being recorded by different clocks makes the dominant belief in their constant failure a myth.

The myth, of course, has a history. It is anchored in commission reports (e.g., Nation at Risk), books (e.g., Left Back), and studies (e.g., Spinning Wheels) over the last century that document curricular, organizational, and instructional failures. The myth also comes from the feverish rhetoric of entrepreneurial reformers who see failure everywhere in order to market a different product (e.g., Disruptive Class).

Yet the hyped policy talk, books, and documents seldom distinguish between major reforms that have stuck such as kindergartens, comprehensive high schools, coed and desegregated schools and those that have disappeared (e.g., educational radio and television, the Platoon School, Dalton Plan). Historians and thoughtful observers, however, have learned that school reform has a series of clocks that move at different speeds.

*Media time. This is the fastest reform clock of all, ticking every day and week. What is  eye-grabbing and controversial registers on the media clock. Tweets, blogs, social media–and don’t forget newspaper and TV headlines–document immediate events and opinion, shaping and legitimizing what policymakers put on school reform agendas. Policymakers talk incessantly about online technologies that will revolutionize teaching and learning.  In watching only the media clock, however, policymakers may wrongly conclude that what happens in one school happens everywhere and that what is reported actually occurred.

 *Policymaker time. This clock chimes every year campaigns for national, state, and local offices crank up to re-elect incumbents or bring fresh faces to public posts. In some places, policymaker clocks tick more quickly when annual budgets or referendums come up for voter approval.

 To offer a recent example, federal policymakers have defined schools as an arm for the economy. Since the 1990s, higher academic standards, copying corporate business practices, and advocating charters have been converted by top officials into campaign slogans. Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama have pushed for world-class standards, charters,  and business-inspired reforms to raise students’ performance.

 Policymaker time, then, runs on election cycles. But other clocks measure whether the talk and adopted policies have turned into action. Enter the bureaucratic time zone.

 *Bureaucratic time. This clock records administrative actions implementing policy decisions. Often the hands of the faster media and policymaker clocks make a complete turn just as the bureaucratic clock passes the first hour. The lag between policymaker time and bureaucratic time occurs because of the complexity in converting policy into feasible, clear procedures for principals and teachers who do the actual work of schooling children. The bureaucratic clock chimes when new rules are announced, revised budgets presented, and increased departmental coordination occurs. An example of how the hands on the bureaucratic clock are reduced to a crawl can be seen in desegregation.

 Brown v. Board of Education (1954) banned legally segregated schools. Studies recorded the tortured progress of judicial policymaking as state governors and local school boards across the South wrestled both peacefully and violently with implementing the decision between the 1950s and 1980s.  States and districts, prodded by federal court orders, slowly embraced open enrollment, busing, and other remedies for desegregating schools. Over time, district attendance boundaries were redrawn; schools were closed; magnet schools were opened. By the mid-1990s, a full four decades after the Brown decision, schools in the South and Southwest had largely desegregated (except in big cities where re-segregation has occurred).

The policymaking and bureaucratic clocks, then, are seldom in sync. Often political, demographic, and other non-school factors create greater lag time between the clocks.

Further lags in time occur when the practitioner and student learning clocks come into view in the next post.


Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies, technology use

20 responses to “iPads and Reforming Classroom Practice: Deja Vu?

  1. Pingback: iPads and Reforming Classroom Practice: Deja Vu? By @Larrycuban | IPAD, un nuevo concepto socio-educativo! | Scoop.it

  2. Jane Remer

    Larry, this post is timely (no pun intended)…Thanks for the breakdown, very useful


  3. John Fontana

    Thanks for picking up the thread. My reform clock is ticking at 12 months now, I’ll continue to keep a hopeful eye on it.
    – John Fontana

  4. Pingback: iPads and Reforming Classroom Practice: Deja Vu? By @Larrycuban | TabletsyTabletes | Scoop.it

  5. Thank you for a wonderful post and suggesting John Fontana. I look forward to following you both now.


  6. I’m curious to know where in this conversation goes in the future. As an educator who’s now out of the classroom after 5 great years teaching secondary science and now working with student teacher candidates, I find myself battling with dilemmas I previously only had to deal with internally. I’m now looked to as a source with strategies and answers to problems teachers in classrooms are being presented with. They’re learning the role of these “clocks” for the fist time. In this new role I can already foresee myself changing as an educator. The questions will undoubtedly revolve for myself and the teacher candidates around where this reform is heading?

    • larrycuban

      Like yourself, I cannot look around the corner and say for sure what is coming along or where “this reform is heading.” As an historian, I know that the past is always in the present moment so I look back to see what occurred when new technologies were introduced into schools and classrooms. Some of my posts take that perspective to peek around the corner and guess what is coming. What do you think is coming?

      • Hi,
        I would like to say that a new generation of teachers are beginning to make their way into classrooms. Teachers with different ideas of what assessment is. Teachers who understand that far too often in schools the content is the last thing a majority of their students take from the classroom. It’s not about the right answer. It’s okay to make mistakes. It’s experiences, skills, and ideas that matter. Whether or not technology can aid in this process, I’m not sure given the state of many new teachers to fall into the norms of how those around them teach and even more detrimentally to teach how they were taught (Lortie, 1975).
        I’ve been continually battling with who should lead this charge and the more I ponder it, the more I feel the students (not the teachers) have a role. At least more or a role than others give them credit for. At some point students will be in a position to make their own judgement call on how they will learn (hopefully). The resources (content) will be there, again here the technologies will play a role, and of course there will be roles available for teachers (or maybe more so motivators/facilitators).
        I guess what I’m asking for is more students to understand better how their brains learn and to be advocates for themselves on a scale not previously known (i.e. I’m in a class in which I will learn very little, how best can I maximize my learning or do I need to consider another option).
        I’d be curious to hear your thoughts or further sources to dig into.

  7. larrycuban

    Seems to me, Justin, that your first paragraph says that the organizational structures and norms in the age-graded school have an enormous influence on recently-minted teachers and they regress to existing forms of teaching.
    Yet your second and third paragraphs look to students–ones who have had long careers in these very same structures and have learned the norms sufficiently to move through the grades–“to be advocates for themselves on a scale not previously known.” Seems doubtful to me, given the strong influence that age-graded school structures and norms have on student (and teacher) behaviors.

  8. Pingback: iPads and Reforming Classroom Practice: Deja Vu? | greggfesta | Scoop.it

  9. Pingback: iPads and Reforming Classroom Practice: Deja Vu? | CGS Literacy and ICT | Scoop.it

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