[LINK] In Classroom of Future, Stagnant Scores
brd at iimetro.com.au
Mon Sep 5 10:53:22 AEST 2011
In Classroom of Future, Stagnant Scores
By MATT RICHTEL
September 3, 2011
CHANDLER, Ariz. — Amy Furman, a seventh-grade English teacher here,
roams among 31 students sitting at their desks or in clumps on the
floor. They’re studying Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” — but not in any
In this technology-centric classroom, students are bent over laptops,
some blogging or building Facebook pages from the perspective of
Shakespeare’s characters. One student compiles a song list from the
Internet, picking a tune by the rapper Kanye West to express the
emotions of Shakespeare’s lovelorn Silvius.
The class, and the Kyrene School District as a whole, offer what some
see as a utopian vision of education’s future. Classrooms are decked out
with laptops, big interactive screens and software that drills students
on every basic subject. Under a ballot initiative approved in 2005, the
district has invested roughly $33 million in such technologies.
The digital push here aims to go far beyond gadgets to transform the
very nature of the classroom, turning the teacher into a guide instead
of a lecturer, wandering among students who learn at their own pace on
“This is such a dynamic class,” Ms. Furman says of her 21st-century
classroom. “I really hope it works.”
Hope and enthusiasm are soaring here. But not test scores.
Since 2005, scores in reading and math have stagnated in Kyrene, even as
statewide scores have risen.
To be sure, test scores can go up or down for many reasons. But to many
education experts, something is not adding up — here and across the
country. In a nutshell: schools are spending billions on technology,
even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that
this approach is improving basic learning.
This conundrum calls into question one of the most significant
contemporary educational movements. Advocates for giving schools a major
technological upgrade — which include powerful educators, Silicon Valley
titans and White House appointees — say digital devices let students
learn at their own pace, teach skills needed in a modern economy and
hold the attention of a generation weaned on gadgets.
Some backers of this idea say standardized tests, the most widely used
measure of student performance, don’t capture the breadth of skills that
computers can help develop. But they also concede that for now there is
no better way to gauge the educational value of expensive technology
“The data is pretty weak. It’s very difficult when we’re pressed to come
up with convincing data,” said Tom Vander Ark, the former executive
director for education at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and an
investor in educational technology companies. When it comes to showing
results, he said, “We better put up or shut up.”
And yet, in virtually the same breath, he said change of a historic
magnitude is inevitably coming to classrooms this decade: “It’s one of
the three or four biggest things happening in the world today.”
Critics counter that, absent clear proof, schools are being motivated by
a blind faith in technology and an overemphasis on digital skills — like
using PowerPoint and multimedia tools — at the expense of math, reading
and writing fundamentals. They say the technology advocates have it
backward when they press to upgrade first and ask questions later.
The spending push comes as schools face tough financial choices. In
Kyrene, for example, even as technology spending has grown, the rest of
the district’s budget has shrunk, leading to bigger classes and fewer
periods of music, art and physical education.
At the same time, the district’s use of technology has earned it
widespread praise. It is upheld as a model of success by the National
School Boards Association, which in 2008 organized a visit by 100
educators from 17 states who came to see how the district was innovating.
And the district has banked its future and reputation on technology.
Kyrene, which serves 18,000 kindergarten to eighth-grade students,
mostly from the cities of Tempe, Phoenix and Chandler, uses its
computer-centric classes as a way to attract children from around the
region, shoring up enrollment as its local student population shrinks.
More students mean more state dollars.
The issue of tech investment will reach a critical point in November.
The district plans to go back to local voters for approval of $46.3
million more in taxes over seven years to allow it to keep investing in
technology. That represents around 3.5 percent of the district’s annual
spending, five times what it spends on textbooks.
The district leaders’ position is that technology has inspired students
and helped them grow, but that there is no good way to quantify those
achievements — putting them in a tough spot with voters deciding whether
to bankroll this approach again.
“My gut is telling me we’ve had growth,” said David K. Schauer, the
superintendent here. “But we have to have some measure that is valid,
and we don’t have that.”
It gives him pause.
“We’ve jumped on bandwagons for different eras without knowing fully
what we’re doing. This might just be the new bandwagon,” he said. “I
A Dearth of Proof
The pressure to push technology into the classroom without proof of its
value has deep roots.
In 1997, a science and technology committee assembled by President
Clinton issued an urgent call about the need to equip schools with
If such spending was not increased by billions of dollars, American
competitiveness could suffer, according to the committee, whose members
included educators like Charles M. Vest, then president of the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and business executives like John
A. Young, the former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard.
To support its conclusion, the committee’s report cited the successes of
individual schools that embraced computers and saw test scores rise or
dropout rates fall. But while acknowledging that the research on
technology’s impact was inadequate, the committee urged schools to adopt
The report’s final sentence read: “The panel does not, however,
recommend that the deployment of technology within America’s schools be
deferred pending the completion of such research.”
Since then, the ambitions of those who champion educational technology
have grown — from merely equipping schools with computers and
instructional software, to putting technology at the center of the
classroom and building the teaching around it.
Kyrene had the same sense of urgency as President Clinton’s committee
when, in November 2005, it asked voters for an initial $46.3 million for
laptops, classroom projectors, networking gear and other technology for
teachers and administrators.
Before that, the district had given 300 elementary school teachers five
laptops each. Students and teachers used them with great enthusiasm,
said Mark Share, the district’s 64-year-old director of technology, a
white-bearded former teacher from the Bronx with an iPhone clipped to
“If we know something works, why wait?” Mr. Share told The Arizona
Republic the month before the vote. The district’s pitch was based not
on the idea that test scores would rise, but that technology represented
The measure, which faced no organized opposition, passed overwhelmingly.
It means that property owners in the dry, sprawling flatlands here, who
live in apartment complexes, cookie-cutter suburban homes and
salmon-hued mini-mansions, pay on average $75 more a year in taxes,
depending on the assessed value of their homes, according to the district.
But the proof sought by President Clinton’s committee remains elusive
even today, though researchers have been seeking answers.
Many studies have found that technology has helped individual
classrooms, schools or districts. For instance, researchers found that
writing scores improved for eighth-graders in Maine after they were all
issued laptops in 2002. The same researchers, from the University of
Southern Maine, found that math performance picked up among seventh- and
eighth-graders after teachers in the state were trained in using the
laptops to teach.
A question plaguing many education researchers is how to draw broader
inferences from such case studies, which can have serious limitations.
For instance, in the Maine math study, it is hard to separate the effect
of the laptops from the effect of the teacher training.
Educators would like to see major trials years in length that clearly
demonstrate technology’s effect. But such trials are extraordinarily
difficult to conduct when classes and schools can be so different, and
technology is changing so quickly.
And often the smaller studies produce conflicting results. Some
classroom studies show that math scores rise among students using
instructional software, while others show that scores actually fall. The
high-level analyses that sum up these various studies, not surprisingly,
give researchers pause about whether big investments in technology make
One broad analysis of laptop programs like the one in Maine, for
example, found that such programs are not a major factor in student
“Rather than being a cure-all or silver bullet, one-to-one laptop
programs may simply amplify what’s already occurring — for better or
worse,” wrote Bryan Goodwin, spokesman for Mid-continent Research for
Education and Learning, a nonpartisan group that did the study, in an
essay. Good teachers, he said, can make good use of computers, while bad
teachers won’t, and they and their students could wind up becoming
distracted by the technology.
A review by the Education Department in 2009 of research on online
courses — which more than one million K-12 students are taking — found
that few rigorous studies had been done and that policy makers “lack
scientific evidence” of their effectiveness.. A division of the
Education Department that rates classroom curriculums has found that
much educational software is not an improvement over textbooks.
Larry Cuban, an education professor emeritus at Stanford University,
said the research did not justify big investments by districts.
“There is insufficient evidence to spend that kind of money. Period,
period, period,” he said. “There is no body of evidence that shows a
Some advocates for technology disagree.
Karen Cator, director of the office of educational technology in the
United States Department of Education, said standardized test scores
were an inadequate measure of the value of technology in schools. Ms.
Cator, a former executive at Apple Computer, said that better
measurement tools were needed but, in the meantime, schools knew what
“In places where we’ve had a large implementing of technology and scores
are flat, I see that as great,” she said. “Test scores are the same, but
look at all the other things students are doing: learning to use the
Internet to research, learning to organize their work, learning to use
professional writing tools, learning to collaborate with others.”
For its part, Kyrene has become a model to many by training teachers to
use technology and getting their ideas on what inspires them. As Mr.
Share says in the signature file at the bottom of every e-mail he sends:
“It’s not the stuff that counts — it’s what you do with it that matters.”
So people here are not sure what to make of the stagnant test scores.
Many of the district’s schools, particularly those in more affluent
areas, already had relatively high scores, making it a challenge to push
them significantly higher. A jump in students qualifying for free or
reduced-price lunches was largely a result of the recession, not a shift
in the population the district serves, said Nancy Dundenhoefer, its
community relations manager.
Mr. Share, whose heavy influence on more than $7 million a year in
technology spending has made him a power broker, said he did not think
demographic changes were a good explanation.
“You could argue that test scores would be lower without the technology,
but that’s a copout,” he said, adding that the district should be able
to deliver some measure of what he considers its obvious success with
technology. “It’s a conundrum.”
Results aside, it’s easy to see why technology is such an easy sell
here, given the enthusiasm surrounding it in some classrooms.
Engaging With Paper
“I start with pens and pencils,” says Ms. Furman, 41, who is short and
bubbly and devours young-adult novels to stay in touch with students.
Her husband teaches eighth grade in the district, and their son and
daughter are both students.
At the beginning of the school year, Ms. Furman tries to inspire her
students at Aprende Middle School to write, a task she says becomes
increasingly difficult when students reach the patently insecure
In one class in 2009 she had them draw a heart on a piece of paper.
Inside the heart, she asked them to write the names of things and people
dear to them. One girl started to cry, then another, as the class shared
It was something Ms. Furman doubted would have happened if the students
had been using computers. “There is a connection between the physical
hand on the paper and the words on the page,” she said. “It’s intimate.”
But, she said, computers play an important role in helping students get
their ideas down more easily, edit their work so they can see instant
improvement, and share it with the class. She uses a document camera to
display a student’s paper at the front of the room for others to dissect.
Ms. Furman said the creative and editing tools, by inspiring students to
make quick improvements to their writing, pay dividends in the form of
higher-quality work. Last year, 14 of her students were chosen as
finalists in a statewide essay contest that asked them how literature
had affected their lives. “I was running down the hall, weeping, saying,
‘Get these students together. We need to tell them they’ve won!’ ”
Other teachers say the technology is the only way to make this
“They’re inundated with 24/7 media, so they expect it,” said Sharon
Smith, 44, a gregarious seventh-grade social studies teacher whose
classroom is down the hall from Ms. Furman’s.
Minutes earlier, Ms. Smith had taught a Civil War lesson in a way
unimaginable even 10 years ago. With the lights off, a screen at the
front of the room posed a question: “Jefferson Davis was Commander of
the Union Army: True or False?”
The 30 students in the classroom held wireless clickers into which they
punched their answers. Seconds later, a pie chart appeared on the
screen: 23 percent answered “True,” 70 percent “False,” and 6 percent
The students hooted and hollered, reacting to the instant poll. Ms.
Smith then drew the students into a conversation about the answers.
The enthusiasm underscores a key argument for investing in classroom
technology: student engagement.
That idea is central to the National Education Technology Plan released
by the White House last year, which calls for the “revolutionary
transformation” of schools. The plan endorses bringing “state-of-the art
technology into learning to enable, motivate and inspire all students.”
But the research, what little there is of it, does not establish a clear
link between computer-inspired engagement and learning, said Randy
Yerrick, associate dean of educational technology at the University of
For him, the best educational uses of computers are those that have no
good digital equivalent. As examples, he suggests using digital sensors
in a science class to help students observe chemical or physical
changes, or using multimedia tools to reach disabled children.
But he says engagement is a “fluffy term” that can slide past critical
analysis. And Professor Cuban at Stanford argues that keeping children
engaged requires an environment of constant novelty, which cannot be
“There is very little valid and reliable research that shows the
engagement causes or leads to higher academic achievement,” he said.
Instruct or Distract?
There are times in Kyrene when the technology seems to allow students to
disengage from learning: They are left at computers to perform a task
but wind up playing around, suggesting, as some researchers have found,
that computers can distract and not instruct.
The 23 kindergartners in Christy Asta’s class at Kyrene de las Brisas
are broken into small groups, a common approach in Kyrene. A handful
stand at desks, others sit at computers, typing up reports.
Xavier Diaz, 6, sits quietly, chair pulled close to his Dell laptop,
playing “Alien Addition.” In this math arcade game, Xavier controls a
pod at the bottom of the screen that shoots at spaceships falling from
the sky. Inside each ship is a pair of numbers. Xavier’s goal is to
shoot only the spaceship with numbers that are the sum of the number
inside his pod.
But Xavier is just shooting every target in sight. Over and over.
Periodically, the game gives him a message: “Try again.” He tries again.
“Even if he doesn’t get it right, it’s getting him to think quicker,”
says the teacher, Ms. Asta. She leans down next to him: “Six plus one is
seven. Click here.” She helps him shoot the right target. “See, you shot
Perhaps surprisingly given the way young people tend to gravitate toward
gadgets, students here seem divided about whether they prefer learning
on computers or through more traditional methods.
In a different class, Konray Yuan and Marisa Guisto, both 7, take turns
touching letters on the interactive board on the wall. They are playing
a spelling game, working together to spell the word “cool.” Each finds
one of the letters in a jumbled grid, touching them in the proper order.
Marisa says there isn’t a difference between learning this way and
learning on paper. Konray prefers paper, he says, because you get extra
credit for good penmanship.
But others, particularly older students, say they enjoy using the
technology tools. One of Ms. Furman’s students, Julia Schroder, loved
building a blog to write about Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.”
In another class, she and several classmates used a video camera to film
a skit about Woodrow Wilson’s 14-point speech during World War I — an
approach she preferred to speaking directly to the class.
“I’d be pretty bummed if I had to do a live thing,” she said. “It’s
Teachers vs. Tech
Even as students are getting more access to computers here, they are
getting less access to teachers.
Reflecting budget cuts, class sizes have crept up in Kyrene, as they
have in many places. For example, seventh-grade classes like Ms.
Furman’s that had 29 to 31 students grew to more like 31 to 33.
“You can’t continue to be effective if you keep adding one student, then
one student, then one student,” Ms. Furman said. “I’m surprised parents
aren’t going into the classrooms saying ‘Whoa.’ ”
Advocates of high-tech classrooms say computers are not intended to
replace teachers. But they do see a fundamental change in the teacher’s
role. Their often-cited mantra is that teachers should go from being “a
sage on the stage to a guide on the side.”
And they say that, technology issues aside, class sizes can in fact
afford to grow without hurting student performance.
Professor Cuban at Stanford said research showed that student
performance did not improve significantly until classes fell under
roughly 15 students, and did not get much worse unless they rose above 30.
At the same time, he says bigger classes can frustrate teachers, making
it hard to attract and retain talented ones.
In Kyrene, growing class sizes reflect spending cuts; the district’s
maintenance and operation budget fell to $95 million this year from $106
million in 2008. The district cannot use the money designated for
technology to pay for other things. And the teachers, who make roughly
$33,000 to $57,000 a year, have not had a raise since 2008.
Many teachers have second jobs, some in restaurants and retail, said
Erin Kirchoff, president of the Kyrene Education Association, the
teacher’s association. Teachers talk of being exhausted from teaching
all day, then selling shoes at the mall.
Ms. Furman works during the summer at the Kyrene district offices. But
that job is being eliminated in 2014, and she is worried about the
“Without it, we don’t go on vacation,” she said.
Money for other things in the district is short as well. Many teachers
say they regularly bring in their own supplies, like construction paper.
“We have Smart Boards in every classroom but not enough money to buy
copy paper, pencils and hand sanitizer,” said Nicole Cates, a
co-president of the Parent Teacher Organization at Kyrene de la Colina,
an elementary school. “You don’t go buy a new outfit when you don’t have
enough dinner to eat.”
But she loves the fact that her two children, a fourth-grader and
first-grader, are learning technology, including PowerPoint and
To some who favor high-tech classrooms, the resource squeeze presents an
opportunity. Their thinking is that struggling schools will look for
more efficient ways to get the job done, creating an impetus to rethink
“Let’s hope the fiscal crisis doesn’t get better too soon. It’ll slow
down reform,” said Tom Watkins, the former superintendent for the
Michigan schools, and now a consultant to businesses in the education
Clearly, the push for technology is to the benefit of one group:
It is 4:30 a.m. on a Tuesday. Mr. Share, the director of technology at
Kyrene and often an early riser, awakens to the hard sell. Awaiting him
at his home computer are six pitches from technology companies.
It’s just another day for the man with the checkbook.
“I get one pitch an hour,” he said. He finds most of them useless and
sometimes galling: “They’re mostly car salesmen. I think they believe in
the product they’re selling, but they don’t have a leg to stand on as to
why the product is good or bad.”
Mr. Share bases his buying decisions on two main factors: what his
teachers tell him they need, and his experience. For instance, he said
he resisted getting the interactive whiteboards sold as Smart Boards
until, one day in 2008, he saw a teacher trying to mimic the product
with a jury-rigged projector setup.
“It was an ‘Aha!’ moment,” he said, leading him to buy Smart Boards,
made by a company called Smart Technologies.
He can make that kind of decision because he has money — and the vendors
know it. Technology companies track which districts get federal funding
and which have passed tax assessments for technology, like Kyrene.
This is big business. Sales of computer software to schools for
classroom use were $1.89 billion in 2010. Spending on hardware is more
difficult to measure, researchers say, but some put the figure at five
times that amount.
The vendors relish their relationship with Kyrene.
“I joke I should have an office here, I’m here so often,” said Will
Dunham, a salesman for CCS Presentation Systems, a leading reseller of
Smart Boards in Arizona.
Last summer, the district paid $500,000 to CCS to replace ceiling-hung
projectors in 400 classrooms. The alternative was to spend $100,000 to
replace their aging bulbs, which Mr. Share said were growing dimmer,
causing teachers to sometimes have to turn down the lights to see a
Mr. Dunham said the purchase made sense because new was better. “I could
take a used car down to the mechanic and get it all fixed up and still
have a used car.”
But Ms. Kirchoff, the president of the teachers’ association, is
furious. “My projector works just fine,” she said. “Give me Kleenex,
Last November, Kyrene went back to voters to ask them to pay for another
seven years of technology spending in the district. The previous measure
from 2005 will not expire for two years. But the district wanted to get
ahead of the issue, and leave wiggle room just in case the new measure
It didn’t. It lost by 96 votes out of nearly 50,000 cast. Mr. Share and
others here said they attributed the failure to poor wording on the
ballot that made it look like a new tax increase, rather than the
continuation of one.
They say they will not make the same wording mistake this time. And they
say the burden on taxpayers is modest.
“It’s so much bang for the buck,” said Jeremy Calles, Kyrene’s interim
chief financial officer. For a small investment, he said, “we get
Regardless, some taxpayers have already decided that they will not vote
“When you look at the big picture, it’s hard to say ‘yes, spend more on
technology’ when class sizes increase,” said Kameron Bybee, 34, who has
two children in district schools. “The district has made up its mind to
go forward with the technologically advanced path. Come hell or high
Other parents feel conflicted. Eduarda Schroder, 48, whose daughter
Julia was in Ms. Furman’s English class, worked on the political action
committee last November to push through an extension of the technology
tax. Computers, she says, can make learning more appealing. But she’s
also concerned that test scores haven’t gone up.
She says she is starting to ask a basic question. “Do we really need
technology to learn?” she said. “It’s a very valid time to ask the
question, right before this goes on the ballot.”
email: brd at iimetro.com.au
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