Technology and the Achievement Gap

38404b540f281c7e8e864f32e4a4d237Technology is not the way to close the achievement gap in education. In fact, it’s entirely possible that when school districts offer computer programs and tasks to do at home they widen the gap even further.

Last year I listened in horror as a friend in a neighboring township described her child’s required math homework. It was to be completed solely on the computer. There were no alternatives, and when parents were unable to access their children’s accounts, they went without. I tsk-tsked about it and felt slightly superior that this was (as far as I knew) unheard of in my school, or even in my district.

Then last Friday came, and with it a slip of paper from my son’s 2nd grade teacher with a log-in and password for Fastt Math. The instructions requested that children log-in to practice once a day or “as often as possible.” Oh dear.

It’s not that I’m against practicing mathematics on the computer. I’m not. But it makes me uncomfortable, not only because our family limits screen time, but also because it forces me to squirm in recognition of privilege. You see, my home boasts reliable internet access, devices with keyboards aplenty, and parents with a decent amount of computer savvy and time to assist with log-ins and programs and oversight. A child lacking any one of these puts him at a great disadvantage to my children. Without equal access, tools, support, how can children benefit equally from the opportunities to practice skills with technology?

That children are being given the opportunity to practice math skills on the computer, and from what I’ve seen, the Fastt Math program is well-designed and fun, would seem to level the playing field. A child can spend as much time as needed to hone skills in privacy and without the abhorrent admission of needing review.  But what happens to the child whose house doesn’t bulge with iPads and desktop computers and laptops that can be moved to a quiet space? And how about those who don’t have reliable internet access? These fast-paced and individualized programs are all dependent on being connected.

I’ve heard the flippant remark, “Bring the kids to the library!” or “Everyone has WiFi!” or “If the parents cared…” These comments show a complete detachment from the reality that those living outside of economic privilege experience. After a day of school, how does a parent bring her children to the library to wait in line for a computer that will hopefully give her child some time in a bustling space filled with other children and their sometimes watchful caretakers to do 20 minutes of homework? Every day. Or, as often as possible? How about when it’s raining? Freezing? Icy? Hot? One of the kids is sick? You’re sick? Work called for overtime? The baby needs changing? And so on. And so on.

In my town, an Achievement Gap Advisory Panel (AGAP) was convened to review and discuss factors contributing to the achievement gap, as well as how to narrow it. To ensure equal access, the AGAP should pressure the Montclair School District to provide computers and internet access to targeted community members at convenient and varied times. And yes, this means staffing the rooms, reaching out, advertising the services, and following up. And then following up again. And this takes commitment of resources (read: $$), time (read: $$), tools (read: $$), and space (read: $$). It’s worth it if it’s administered properly and with thought, and without a focus on lip service and who gets credit.

We must work consciously and aggressively to narrow the educational achievement gap by providing all children the tools to help them succeed. Simply throwing technology at children, hoping they’ll all manage to log-in and use it consistently, is betting on the children already winning. It’s stacking the deck for a full house. Will some children benefit? Absolutely! But education should not and must not be every parent out for her own child alone. It must not be a political device; it must truly be for all children.

About That Unique* Weblog

Adjusting to car culture, dealing with leaving a career I loved, and spouting off along the way. Do The Most Good.
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18 Responses to Technology and the Achievement Gap

  1. I hate the assumptions people make about who has what technology. Thanks for bringing the truth to light.

  2. Amy says:

    You have SAID IT!! Great post!

  3. Eugene says:

    Well put. I’d like to see the advisory panel look at what constitutes best practices here. Can we find suburban towns that did a good job of giving technology access to all the kids in their schools? What worked, and what didn’t? What are the hardest obstacles to overcome, even if you’re thoughtful and diligent about it? I don’t know how much relevant experience there is yet, but there should be some.
    And it goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: the same calculus (differences in technology access lead to differences in opportunity) applies to adults too.

    • The lesson of Hoboken’s trashed laptops and other districts that purchased software and hardware only to let it fester is somewhat applicable. But that gap isn’t going anywhere, and if tech is the chosen method, it needs to be applied properly. And YES to adults!

  4. Stacie says:

    So true Kristin. Shane has iPad homework sometimes and although we are in a well-off school district, that doesn’t mean all the kids have access to an iPad. There must be a better way.

    • I think Marcy’s comment includes part of it. Slathering opportunities equally mainly helps those who already have a foot up. Putting more attention to those who need more help will benefit everyone in the end. Offering off-hour classes and adding personal attention are so important.

  5. Marcy says:

    You raise some good points. In the community where I teach, the achievement gap has only widened in the years since we’ve been trying to address it. It is overwhelmingly an economic issue. The kids who are behind have been behind since preschool. Every time we improve teaching and curriculum we improve it for all the kids, privileged and disadvantaged, so the disadvantaged kids are still behind. In my view, the disadvantaged kids need to be given more if they are to catch up, such as Saturday academies, expanded school hours with support and enrichment, and summer programs. At this point, most communities are not able to pay for that and society as a whole is unwilling to address it.

    • Yes! And those more likely to take advantage of opportunities are the privileged kids…with the parents who see it as FUN rather than NEEDED. No stigma, more time, it’s recreational. Totally agree with weekend academies and after school hours. And yes to summer programs of QUALITY — not just babysitting. It’s about money where the gap is concerned and where the slowness of addressing the gap is concerned.

      Thank you for adding your voice!

  6. larogers84 says:

    I can’t help but think of the inner city children when I read some of the points you are making about technology not being available. It’s not just the technology though, it’s much worse, much more deeply rooted han that. It’s parents who simply are not involved in their child’s education/well-being, period. Even sending home traditional paperwork, if the parents are not actively supporting a child’s education, the child is setup for failure. Sad, but a very very real truth.

    • The root is much deeper, but it’s larger than the nuclear family. There are parents uninvolved or apathetic in their children’s educational well-being at all economic levels. Having taught for many years in an very disadvantaged area, I was frustrated at times, but my empathy was stronger than my frustration. In fact, anytime I forget the advantages I’ve enjoyed, I think back to the hardships my students and their families endured, and I feel quite ridiculous.

      School districts cannot control any parent’s motivation or lack thereof, but they can make informed and smart decisions that actually address shortcomings. Throwing up our hands and placing blame doesn’t solve any problem; it merely makes us feel as though it could never be “us.”

  7. I whole-heartedly agree with you. My views may seem pessimistic, but I have to say that I’ve been hard-pressed to see a school district place the well being of students of all economic backgrounds above their own…very weird…political interests. In fact, based on my experiences, I don’t think I’ve ever seen organizations that compare with the level of political corruption that I’ve witnessed in public education systems.

    It’s good to know that there are parents out there who serve as effective watchdogs against this…borderline fetishistic…behavior.

    I’m sorry that I lack definition, but I’ve always been puzzled and disturbed at the thought that school administrators even HAVE any other interests other than the well-being of their student body.

    • I know of a few financial organizations that compare. 🙂 Education is ripe for poor decisions — between the sensitivities of dealing with people’s children, that districts are paid for with property taxes, that schools (and teachers and administrators) are judged by scores that are affected by economic status more than any other factor — well, you get the idea.

      I actually have sympathy for administrators — I hold two admin licenses myself. But spending tax money must be done smartly, carefully, and thoughtfully. And buying access to on-line programs is, in my opinion, none of the above.

  8. inNateJames says:

    Oof. I guess I knew school curriculums were moving to software and apps, but you’re the first parent I’ve come across who has changed over. I work in an educational publishing company, one without an online media division, and your news makes me a bit nervous.

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