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.


DKnight said...

Although I work in a “depressing, under-resourced situation” I choose to stay there because I want to make a difference. I may feel stressed out at times but I am not unhappy there. The main reason why I enrolled in the Technology in Ed program is because there is a need for my “under-resourced school” to have someone step up to the plate and take a swing at getting the necessary technology resources. The students at my school deserve to have someone care enough to make sure that they have the same opportunities as their peers in other schools and school districts.

Angie D said...

In response to your comment about the "natural selection" of teachers, I must disagree. I think that although there are many CPS teachers in these underserved areas that are "stressed out" and unhappy, I personally know several teachers that have talent, energy and vision, despite the tough conditions they face. Many of these teachers choose to continue to work for CPS because they believe that their students ought to have a high quality educational experience. Some teachers do not feel “doomed” to continue working for low achieving CPS schools. In actuality, they feel committed to these schools, their students and their families. They have made a choice to work for CPS because they personally believe that all students, even those in poor ghettoized communities, deserve the right to have talented teachers. They make the choice to stay.

nmartin said...

I don't agree with the statement that the teachers with the "right stuff" find themselves drawn to high achieving schools because there are plenty of "right stuff" teachers trying to make a difference right now by working in schools that are under performing. Many teachers in the poorer neighborhoods are there solely for the children and they have not left because they choose not too. They stay because they are making a difference and don't need to work at a magnet or gifted school to prove it. Although I am in a school with an administrator that does not have a concern for technology, I know for a fact that I am teaching the students something. I had a child that told me today that she was able to assist her older sister with a power point presentation because I had taught her class to use power point.

Dan said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
bpiepho said...

I've worked in both CPS and suburban schools. A factor that needs to be noted is the importance of leadership. If school leaders do not believe and stand behind the importance of technology integration, integration will not make great strides regardless of technology monies. The reverse is also true. Since leaders aren't required to become technology literate, many take the stance that technology must not be that important. And with federal educational technology funding being cut by Bush, these same leaders have an excuse not to instill technology integration in their school.

rfortier said...

"To accept the things I cannot change and the wisdom to know the difference." The "Veteran Teachers" may be depressed because we remember better days. The times before schools became political footballs, when principals respected teachers and students. The attitudes of suburban principals and the fact that money resources are available, go a long way toward making a happy working environment. I find that the priorities of CPS administrators is always at odds with those of teachers. Administrators are quick to talk teamwork but they never do any of the team work. So unless the administrator has a vision for technology in a school we will always be the poor relations.

Dan said...

For the most part, I agree with your posting. I have a degree in Elementary Education and am working on getting my master's degree in Educational Technology. I am in my 3rd year in CPS and feel I was a strong classroom teacher and think I am currently a strong technology coordinator. I want to be a "talented, energetic, and visionary teacher" and not be one of "the most stressed out and unhappy...work(ing) in the most depressing, under-resourced situation." My school has a vast amount of technology compared to the CPS schools described here but still pales in comparison to the Suburban school this blog describes. There is also very little "optimism, cheerfulness, expectation, readiness, and...professional fulfillment" in my school from the teachers. I feel there is even less from the students and their parents. These things make my job that much less fulfilling. Also, those who are competent at my school receive extra responsibilities without compensation (like being a disciplinarian) and those who are average or below average are just allowed to be average makes my school less attractive. For these reasons, I have been looking strongly at relocating to a school that my abilities and knowledge will really make a difference.

jenn said...

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.
Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
While stress and unhappiness can be addressed otherwise, in the job situation, I don't know that under-resourced equates to depressing.
While technology integration is rampant in my school (and I am grateful for that) it is the attitude of the district employees, from the custodian who was thrown a party by his school last week when he became a US citizen to the superindendent who offered me a ride home from Dominick’s when I had roller-bladed there and it started raining. It’s the attitude! The commitment of the staff, the willingness to partner, team, share and teach each other – and to learn from each other is what is really rampant in this district. Having the resources and the increased spending per pupil budget definitely counts towards people not having to worry as much about bottom lines, but bottom lines are still a constant topic of conversation. The lack of despair and depression about current budget and staffing cuts – epecially for the special education staff/resources who were most recently cut, was, in my opinion, due to the overall attitude that we are in this together, students are a shared resource, technology is a shared resource, staff are a shared resource. I was one of the teachers in CPS who worked at a school that looked good on the outside, a magnet school, that has more technology resources, integrated them more seemlessly into the curriculum areas and provided more basic resources for teachers than most CPS schools. However, the exclusive attitude of administration, towards the staff and the parents, led to an overall feeling of despair, depression and isolation amongst the staff who didn’t happen to inhabit the admin’s inner circle of favorites (which changed on a dime anyway – one was always walking on eggshells).
So is it the spending? The plethora of resources, technological and otherwise? The demanding parents and community? That make a “plum” job fruitful for the holder? No, in my personal experience – the attitude of the district as a whole, from the top position holder to the seasonal gardeners that work only after hours so as not to disturb students’ learning that make the difference between high performing and low performing schools. And, while many may stay in not-quite-there jobs, whether the schools have limited resources, have attitude challenged staff and administrators or whatever – in order to “make a difference” and which I certainly do find a lofty and worthy goal…being in a district where the attitudes, the resources, and all the other factors join together to make the best of learning situations for the students, and the best of working conditions for the staff – I am never at a loss for the feeling that I, too, am definitely making a difference.

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Bob Calder said...

I teach in a magnet program and have a classroom with 25 workstations plus my stuff. I have run Moodle for a bit over four years in the classroom and teach a curriculum that includes Science and Society mixed with information architecture lessons and content creation. The educators still insist on calling it HTML. Yes, I have all the bells and whistles.

That said, I have a terrible time even communicating my vision of one hundred dollar thin clients and web services for all students to administrators. They think computers are huge honking things that cost two thousand dollars just to light up and that a school of twenty-five hundred students can run with a handful of labs.

When you speak of the value of computers, it should be in a real context of efficiency. The discussion about whether children can score perfectly on the SAT and not have a computer is irrelevant. Just engaging in the discussion is like having an argument with a creationist. Remember, computers are just tools. On the other hand, the network is almost alive and keeping children away from it may turn out to be a *very* bad idea.

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