Technology 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.