Technology (and How It's Used in Schools) Is Widening the Opportunity Gap

column | Diversity and Equity

Technology (and How It's Used in Schools) Is Widening the Opportunity Gap

By Mary Jo Madda (Columnist)     Feb 10, 2016

Technology (and How It's Used in Schools) Is Widening the Opportunity Gap

When I write articles for EdSurge, the intention is usually to write without opinion. But this piece isn’t going to be like that.

The way we handle technology in schools is widening the opportunity gap. This isn’t just my opinion; many educators echoed this sentiment at the annual EduCon conference in Philadelphia and Teach for America’s (TFA) 25th anniversary summit.

The theme of Educon this year was "empowerment," and the conference kicked off with a diverse panel of local Philadelphia leaders. For the majority of the panel, speakers focused on non-tech issues. But my ears perked up when Helen Gym, Philadelphia councilwoman and the first Asian-American woman to serve on Philadelphia’s City Council, was asked about the use of technology in low-income school districts and responded, “I think there's a weird thing where kids are criminalized when it comes to tech; we ban cell phones, and it goes all the way up the scale on punishment levels.”

I found myself recalling my years in the classroom in the Third Ward in Houston, where my KIPP school held a similar policy. After moving to Los Angeles to teach in a middle-class school, I noticed that the policies were still there, but with less stringent punishments. Kids received mild verbal admonishment instead of detention or getting their phone taken away—and that didn’t make sense to me.

We live in a world where students are seemingly born with a smartphone in their hand, and as such, it’s our responsibility as educators and adults to help them understand how best to use them. In that sense, why remove those technologies that students own? Why not instead use them for student learning—especially in low-income schools where devices aren’t present in the classroom?

And then there’s the question of technologies that schools and districts consciously elect to push into classrooms. Some regard technology as "the great equalizer," but that doesn’t mean that it’s acted upon fruitfully or equally in all school settings. Just ask Tom Torkelson, CEO of IDEA Public Schools, who spoke about rural education at TFA’s 25th anniversary summit. He’s seen administrators implementing technology in lower-income schools, and has been disappointed in the results.

“I’ve just seen too many examples of ‘iPads for All’ that didn’t work out,” he says.

Sure, some of the aforementioned issues may stem from the design or cost of the technologies themselves. But instead of blaming the tools themselves, Gym suggested, we should pay closer attention to how they’re implemented.

In my mind, there are five big implementation issues in my mind that rise to the top—and I bill them as “we” problems, because I know I’ve been guilty of every single one of them in the past.

Issue #1: We punish kids for using technology that feels natural to them.

The punishment issue is a huge concern for me—but I’m far from the only one. Former Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy brought it up on a panel at Teach for America’s recent summit when he shared his frustrations (see below) over lower-income students getting suspended and expelled for matters like tardiness and—yes—bringing cell phones to school.

Now, I’m certainly not a fan of students breaking the rules, but I wonder whether we need remove any student-owned technologies from school altogether. Some districts, like the New York City public school district, are expressing more leniency towards this, but it’s far from the majority.

And it’s not just about student cell phones. Sure, a brief by the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education shows that low-income students are less likely to use the Internet or own a computer. But what if they do? “If you look at neighborhoods where the impoverished live, you see technology like Xboxes. How can these things be leveraged in an educational way?” asked EduCon attendee and founder of Philly Youth Poetry Movement, Greg Corbin. As I see it, bringing more student-owned technologies into classrooms offers a wonderful opportunity to teach digital citizenship and/or STEM content.

Possible Solution: I propose that schools ease up on the student technology bans. Simultaneously, I recommend that schools organize student-led digital citizenship instruction. I see a great opportunity here for students to own their own learning while also researching responsible use of technology. Plus, teachers then don’t have to take time away from their current instruction, which leads me to my next point...

Issue #2: When we give teachers in low-income districts technology, we often fail to train them or give them the space to experiment.

Most low-income schools and districts don’t have the same amount of technology that middle or high-income districts do. But even when they do, is the training really there to support implementation?

Having taught in both low-income and more affluent neighborhoods, I was more overwhelmed when teaching in the former. I had fewer resources and less push-in support (i.e. specialists and intervention teachers) for classroom instruction. I also never really learned how to leverage the technology (oh, the days of Smartboards and projectors) available to me. More specifically, I was never trained on how it could be used to reach struggling students or those with modifications. (In fact, reaching special education students is a whole other can of worms.)

Possible Solution: This is a huge problem and one that speaks to the larger problem of the uselessness of most professional development. So, I’ll offer a small proposed solution for now. I would have loved it if my school leaders had offered one half-day of professional development each month, where my fellow teachers and I could discuss our technological needs and decide what we wanted to learn. Riverside Unified School District conducted a version of this last August.

Issue #3: When we give low-income students technology, we often fail to give them freedom or creative spaces in which to use them.

When I met Joel Duran, an 18-year-old student from the Obama-lauded P-TECH High School in New York City, at Educon, he brought this issue to light for me. Duran has friends in the New York City Public School system, but when he hears how they use technology, he notices that their practices are different from those of his school. “Technology is available to them to do work—but not create,” he says. “They can’t even bring the computers home.”

If we expect students to be ready for the tidal wave of technology-based jobs over the next fifty years and beyond, we can’t afford to keep students from bringing school-issued devices home—nor should we ignore the importance of teaching “creative computing” and other tech-based skills in schools.

Greg Corbin worries about this particular issue widening the opportunity gap dramatically. “People in poorer climates aren’t in areas where they’ll learn to code,” he says. “There will be many jobs in the future, but there will be many children who aren’t prepared.”

Possible Solution: Taking a tip from P-TECH’s practices, I strongly recommend that administrators look to external organizations for technical internships, and offer more technical classes on campuses. If it’s an issue of physical resources, check out some of the free tools online. If it’s an issue of human capital, look to programs like Google CS First, which provide Gurus to work with students.

Issue #4: We are failing to involve families in the implementation of technology.

Families are a huge part of the equation, but they rarely get brought into the technology and equity discussion, and sometimes lack the technological skills to support any training that their children may be receiving. “A lot of families who don't have access to technology don't understand,” Gym said. “When you don’t work with them, you send the message to families that technology is bad.”

Possible Solution: Doris Casap, another Educon panelist and VP of Programming at HBO, suggests creating “a contractual relationship so that the parents are also being educated.” In some cases, local organizations and tech companies can support schools in providing those opportunities. For example, Mission Graduates, a nonprofit headquartered in San Francisco, runs a “Parent Partner” program. “Since January 2016, we have been offering technology trainings for parents every week at Everett Middle School,” says CEO Eric Cuentos.

Issue #5: There aren’t enough public spaces to talk about this issue and potential solutions.

This is perhaps the biggest problem of all. After looking through the programming for this year’s SXSWedu—which some would argue is the biggest edtech conference in the county—guess how many sessions I found focusing specifically on matters of technology and equity? Only 8 out of a total of 300+ sessions. And the more general “educational equity” track (meaning equity issues that may or may not be related to tech) only makes up 1/15 of the entire conference.

Possible Solution: Make a deliberate effort to create more spaces for dialogue about the topic of technology and inequities in schools. #Educolor, a movement that focuses on issues of inequity and education, has engaged in discussing education technology as evidenced in the Educon presentation “The Privileged Voices in Education 3.0,” led by teacher Jose Vilson and edublogger Audrey Watters.

I am one of many voices, and I hope that this op-ed sparks some much-needed debate and conversation. But to finish, I’ll leave you with this last story. I had a young student named Zavion Johnson* in my Houston science classroom back in 2011 who used to bring his cell phone to school. A few times he got caught—and punished. After the third time, he asked me, “Ms. Madda, I don’t understand why I keep getting in trouble. I’m not hurting anyone.”

What should I have told him—that he was hurting himself because he might get distracted by his device? Or that our school policies were failing him as a young black man in a technology-omnipresent world?

*Name has been changed for privacy purposes.

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