Can Education Technology Narrow the Achievement Gap? A Panel at the Hunter College/John Hopkins Policy Forums

“In the early days of television, there was no shortage of predictions that the medium would have a major positive impact on student learning. Today, we find the same optimism among some education reformers with regard to such technologies as digital tablets, data crunching, personalized learning, and adaptive testing. Some research suggests that, carefully used, the application of educational technology brings real gains in student learning. Other research summaries are far more pessimistic…

Our country spends more than $10 billion on K-12 education technology. What can we say with any confidence about the promise and possibilities of such investments? Are there clear conclusions to be drawn about what, where and when the use of technology is beneficial, and for which students? What are the key challenges to be met in maximizing the potential contribution of technology to raise students’ achievement overall and to accelerate the learning of our most underprivileged students?”

From time to time the Hunter/John Hopkins Education Policy folks take deep dives into controversial education issues. The format never varies – a brief presentation by the presenter and the presenters grilled by David Steiner. Steiner is a Charlie Rose-like interviewer, pointed, probing questions who controls the interview and allows sufficient time for questions.

Julia Freeland Fisher is the lead researcher at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation. Fisher argues that technology is the innovation that can disrupt the current standard pattern of education through the use of blended learning; the infusion of technology education can be personalized down to the student by student level. Fisher, a lawyer by training, writes a regular blog at the Institute. In New York City the credit recovery scandal has made us highly suspicious of “disruptive” innovations.

Jamie Stewart is the co-Head of School and Lead Educator at AltSchool in Brooklyn Heights. AltSchool is a micro school, a number of very small private schools designed for personalized learning, with tuition of about $30,000 a year.

Kevin Wenzel, Specialist, Blended Learning, District of Columbia Public Schools; the DC public schools, have 49,000 kids and 112 schools, DC leads the nation in increases in NAEP scores in the 4th grade in the TUDA results.

DC Public Schools (DCPS) students grew by eight points in 4th grade reading over the 2013 test, representing the biggest increase of any school district and the largest increase in the history of the 4th-grade reading test. DCPS students also saw a four-point increase in 4th grade math scores, no change in 8th grade reading scores, and a two-point drop in 8th grade math scores.

The growth of blended learning and rotational teams of students has been widely praised, especially by the conservative side of the educational debate.

Steiner began by asking Fisher whether she was aware of any double-blind studies supporting that technology-based instruction has better results than traditional or constructive classrooms. Fisher responded it was the wrong question – Steiner insisted, her answer: no.  Steiner asked Wenzel why the 8th scores were flat in English and declined in Math – Wenzel didn’t know.

The Q & A was fascinating.  Were the panelists aware that the revolution against testing was exploding around the nation, and, the same suspicion of technology replacing traditional instruction was also growing?  Sort of …  a weak yes…

Were the panelists aware that parents and teacher saw the move to technology as a way of replacing teachers and saving money?   Again, sort of….

Were the panelists aware that many educators saw the technology revolution as the private sector ripping off the public sector foe education dollars?  Fisher responded that innovation comes from the private sector and the public sector should be open to new technologies; avoiding the essence of the question.

The use of technology is widespread in schools across the nation; ClassDojo is an easy to use and a popular communications/classroom management tool. The net offers an endless array of lesson plans and classroom materials by grade and subject. Teachers create Facebook pages for classes, kids write blogs, the use of cyber tools are widespread.

Integrating cyber tools into the instructional fabric of a classroom is a challenge and using cyber tools to replace instructional techniques may or may not improve outcomes. The Charlotte Danielson instructional frameworks describe a “highly developed” lesson as a lesson with a deep level of classroom discussion among students, “… research in cognitive psychology has confirmed, namely, that students learn through active intellectual engagement with content.” Is tapping away on a tablet or IPad the equivalent of “active intellectual engagement”?  I think not.

5 responses to “Can Education Technology Narrow the Achievement Gap? A Panel at the Hunter College/John Hopkins Policy Forums

  1. This is a big question in Delaware as well. We are on the cusp of diving into these truly unknown realms full-time. Those who make the most noise (the state DOE, the non-profit company who has been promoting this for years, the Governor, some teachers but not as many as our state would make us believe, far too many district administrators) talks about any of the dangers, just the “promise” of personalized learning. And let’s not even get into the extreme amount of data mining coming from this. This will come back to bite the students of today and generations to come. But teachers will be non-existent as we currently know them. We need more like you getting the word out on this!


  2. ken karcinell

    For the past 10 years, I have held to the notion that technology was going to be the game changer in not only narrowing the gap, but closing it as well. after spending a lifetime working in minority school districts, I knew that it was myth to believe that minority parents given the opportunity to support their children with technological learning tools would do so without reservation, and at all costs. What they couldn’t do was buy or gtet the best teachers assigned to their schools.


  3. This is a great post – thank you! We’re in the midst of exactly this type of initiative, with an incredibly high cost, and anemic evaluation.


  4. So….we’ve been using “new” technologies for about 100 years in schools now….and thousands of years before public education.

    (Hey teach, you mean I don’t have to memorize Homer’s Iliad? They, like, put it in a book, so I can read it?”)

    • Radio; slide shows; films; TV; video; internet;… blended learning is “new”?

    I think not.

    Like any “new” technology – Flash! Paper and stylus replaces sticks in the sand! – Flash! Ball point pens replace putting girls’ braids in the inkwells! –
    good teachers will maximize the productive use of the “new” technologies, and mediocre teachers will mesmerize the students with new technologies, and lousy teachers will not be able to turn the damn thing on!

    I love using technology in my “Smart” college classroom………Internet and Projector are great adjuncts. And, of course, the original intent of Teacher Centers was to introduce the use of computers to teachers. And I wrote some great lessons with my Teacher Center colleagues for interactive use of Smartboards when they were the “new” technology.

    To me they are all welcome “tools,” like books, like pens, etc. And they all can be used strategically and expertly by good teachers.

    And there still ain’t no magic bullets in education.


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