Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Keeping Up With the Joneses

Last Friday I had the opportunity to attend the second annual 1:1 conference at our local AEA. My goal was to leave that conference with greater clarity about the implementation of a laptop initiative in our school district. I do believe that I have greater clarity, but still have questions. This is a very big decision and one that we absolutely must get right. The investment of resources alone is something that we must continue to examine and ask the question: Is it worth it? We are talking about an investment of over $100,000 a year into perpetuity. More and more schools in Iowa are moving this direction every year, and over lunch I heard a statistic that new teachers entering the field have a 1 in 3 chance of being hired in a school district that is 1:1. There are 348 districts in Iowa and over 100 are 1:1. Approximately 40 more are expected to go next year. Last week I read a newspaper article where a district had just voted to go 1:1 next year. When they interviewed the superintendent about why they made the decision, his answer was "We need to keep up with the Joneses". I cringed when I read this and couldn't believe this was the rationale. I will not accept that as our reason to do this, and no one in our community should either.

Folks, I am not interested in keeping up with the Joneses. I am also not all that interested in whether our neighboring district has shiny new laptops for all their kids. What I am interested in is doing what is best for our youngsters, and making sure they have the knowledge, skills, and tools necessary to be successful in life. Being a 1:1 school may be what we need in order to do that. 

Since beginning this journey I have been on a quest to find hard scientific facts-proof if you will that putting laptop computers in the hands of our students is going to improve student achievement. There is some of that  out there, but most of it is not causal (some is, but it is certainly not overwhelming). I am looking for empirical evidence that this is the silver bullet-the golden ticket! But alas, it is elusive. At most we can find anecdotal tidbits here and there.

So during the first session of the conference I had a chance to listen to a panel discussion with colleagues in this AEA who were present to offer advice on how they went about this. I know all of these superintendents very well and have a great deal of respect for what they are doing in their districts. Finally, I had an opportunity to ask the question that many of us in the audience were dying to ask, "How has this impacted student achievement?" The answer provided an epiphany, and made me realize that when I asked the question about student achievement, I had fallen victim to the very thing that I have revolted against for so long. What I had really so naively asked was, "How has this impacted their results on standardized tests?"

The answer was breathtakingly honest and went something like this: "We don't know what the impact is going to be on student achievement because we haven't done it long enough. Frankly, that isn't even the reason we made this decision. This is no silver bullet-and you shouldn't tell people that it is. There are no promises that kids are going to do better on a standardized test because of a 1:1 computer initiative, and that isn't the reason we did it. We did this to prepare kids for life-for what they are going to do next-be it go to college or go into the work force. We aren't even all that concerned if this improves test scores, because we are not preparing our students to go into the world and fill out standardized test forms with a number two pencil on a scan tron. We aren't interested in teaching our students how to answer factual recall questions that don't require higher order thinking skills and can be Googled in 20 seconds. We are preparing students for the exact opposite. How to problem-solve, think critically, collaborate, and create-all in a digital world where number two pencils don't exist anymore."

The next session I found myself sitting in a room full of students who attended schools that were a 1:1 platform and the same question was posed. "Have your grades and test scores improved?" The young man stated with clarity, "I don't know if I did better on the test, but I know that I am a lot smarter than I was before and enjoy the complexity of the learning that is taking place in my school. When my teacher gives me an assignment it makes me smile". 

I wish my colleague would have answered the reporters query with one of those responses rather than, "We need to keep up with the Joneses". 

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