Tuesday, May 02, 2006

The Digital Division; or, do you really know how wide is the divide?

I've just been reading some of my students' papers and I'm thoroughly disgusted and depressed.

The assignment (as part of a graduate class on "Integrating Technology Acrosss the Curriculum") was to write a reflective analysis of the current condition of technology availability and integration in the students' current school. (To avoid confusion, I'm going to call them my "teachers" from now on even though they are my students....but they are all teachers.) Eight teachers completed the assignment. Three of the teachers pretty much just gave the facts without much analysis. But those who provided analysis present a stark image of the educational landscape in Chicagoland today.

Most of the teachers in this particular cohort teach in the Chicago Public Schools. One left CPS last year for a "plum" job in suburban Glenview. The contrast between the technology available in Glenview and that available in CPS is profound. In Glenview (where they use exclusively Macs, mostly less than 3 years old), there are two mobile labs that can be signed out by any teacher at any time; there is a full-time technology support STAFF (that means more than one person) available on call; problems with any equipment are usually solved THE SAME DAY they are reported; there is a wealth of software; students have access to a variety of assistive technology devices (my teacher works especially with special needs children); students can log into their person accounts to access their files and setting from anywhere in the school district (including the library); the availability of digital cameras, scanners, printers, copiers, lamination machines, as well as materials for this equipment is nearly unlimited.

In the Chicago Public Schools--you won't be surprised to hear--there is much less technology: fewer machines, less availability of mobile labs or even computer labs to sign out; fewer peripherals; more older machines; less software; shakier technology support; limited money for ink and paper. This much, I imagine most of the public knows, because it is widely reported that while CPS spends about $5800 per elementary school pupil, some of the suburbs spend as much as $14,000. (Glenview spends about $7,000$10,780 per elementary school pupil, showing that it isn't only expenditures that makes the difference.) The general public recognizes that many suburban districts have great schools--that's why many families with kids move there, if they can afford to.

What is not so well understood is what comes through from comparing the analyses written by the CPS teachers. While none of these teachers are in a "charter" or "magnet" school, the differences between the schools in terms of equipment, software, support, and administrative concern about technology is HUGE!

In one of the schools described by one of my teachers, the "computer teacher" (who also serves as technology coordinator, but who gets no time to perform that role) almost never gets any requests from the teachers to tie her computer instruction into the regular curriculum. The computers in her school are (for the most part) running Windows 98 (and of course they crash regularly). In another school, 7 of the 34 computers in the lab "do not function"; another regular classroom teachers has 3 computers in her classroom (there is no computer lab in her school); of those, only 1 currently functions while the other two "await repairs."

In the Glenview school described by my teacher, one gets the impression that technology is valued, and that it is used regularly as seamlessly as a regular accompaniment of instruction. In at least one CPS school, with 175 functioning computers in the building, and 6 or 7 in each classroom, the computers are also used regularly by the teachers as part of the daily instructional routine. But in some of the CPS schools, one gets the impression that the kids get "computer class" once a week for 40 minutes (in which they learn, perhaps, MS Excel apart from any curriculum context) and never during the regular classroom; or students are allowed to "play games" on the classroom computer as a reward for finishing other work early.

What perhaps bothers me more than anything about reading these papers is the difference in outlook, or attitude of those who work in the better-endowed versus barely-endowed schools. An air of optimism, cheerfulness, expectation, readiness, and (indeed) professional fulfillment attends the papers of the suburban teacher and the one who works at a fairly well-endowed CPS school, while the overall impression from the poorly-endowed CPS school teachers is one of depression, despair, resignation, helplessness, and approaching apathy. My students (the teachers) KNOW what's fair to kids; what works for teachers; what is "up-to-date" and what is not. They know that "the system" (of which they feel as cogs in the machine rather than empowered participants) is failing the kids.

Many studies have shown that when you "correct" for other variables, technology makes little difference in student achievement. You can have a "high performing" school with little technology as well as with a lot; and you can have a "low performing" school with a lot of technology (or so they say). And it's true that if you just count the number of computers or internet access points the schools do not differ all that much. But the "impression" (perhaps the "gestalt" is a better word) that one FEELS in response to the different situations described by my students is extremely telling. It's not "about" the technology; rather, it's "about" the attitudes that are engendered by the overall level of physical, emotional, technical, and administrative support in these buildings, and about the personal energy that teachers have (either left over, or generated) for the students.

The other thing that comes through clearly to me is that even within CPS, there is a pernicious and absolutely "effective" system of "natural selection" among the schools for the talented, energetic, and visionary teachers. The most stressed out and unhappy of these students work in the most depressing, under-resourced situation. The more forward-looking and optimistic of them work in the better schools. My sense is that the causal influence goes both ways. The schools with visionary and excited principals are able to attract the brighter and more optimistic staff memhers, which in turn reinforces their already-happy atmosphere. The teachers who feel trapped in stiuations where their talents are neither tapped nor inspired are the ones who are the most pessimistic and down-cast to begin with. And these unhappy teachers, I hate to say, are doomed to stay in those situations, unless they manage to raise themselves above the muck that surrounds them.

The image of "natural selection" that I just referred to is, in fact, fairly descriptive of what is happening in the American educational "system" (or, more accurately systems). Survival of the fittest operates not so much on the basis of what people deserve, but on what they already have. The poorer do, indeed, get drawn further down, and behind. The richer get richer, and feel generally entitled to their, um...., entitlements. Teachers, increasingly, are competed for the same way that cities and towns compete for industries with tax breaks and special dispensations. The teachers with "the right stuff" find themselves drawn to the magnet schools (in the city) or the suburban schools; the ones who increasingly fall into despair or who cannot remain optimistic, competitive, and cheerful become the "veterans teachers" in the poorer neighborhood schools, struggling against many odds to maintain their own sense of purpose and to transmit that sense to the children. With dilapidated equipment, uncaring administrators, non-existent support, and no real future to look forward to, it is no wonder that the children themselves fall increasingly behind, subjected, in turn, to their own natural selection forces once they leave school:

"Technology has eliminated many U.S. jobs, as has global competition, particularly from low-wage countries such as China. Highly skilled, educated workers in America will thrive as demand rises... while low-skilled jobs remain vulnerable to outsourcing." Source.