Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Technology Alone is not a Silver Bullet for School Improvement...

On Monday, February 13th, the New York Times published a story which profiled Mooresville Graded School District in North Carolina. They have implemented a 1:1 laptop program for students which due to its success in improving student achievement has become a model that is being looked at by schools across the nation.

The article was intriguing to me in at least two aspects. First, because it reported that in order to afford the cost of the 1:1 program the district actually downsized its staff and increased class sizes. Second, because graduation rates, attendance, and test scores have increased in the three years since the 1:1 initiative was begun.

My immediate thoughts: "Yikes! They increased class sizes and let go of teachers to do this!" and "This district has figured out how to do a technology implementation. I wonder if their model can be duplicated?"

Which is why I'm really glad I also came across this post on MacRumors which referenced the NYT story. In particular, I was glad to read a response to the post written by mgsdteacher, a teacher in the Mooresville District.

In addition to better explaining how the staff downsizing was accomplished, Mgsdteacher brought my feet back to earth and reminded me that an investment in technology alone will not bring about school improvement. In spite of the NYT article title, my brain went there! It is tempting to wish it were so. So tempting that schools all over our country regularly gamble on technology implementations with gusto.

I don't usually copy another person's words at this length and repost them, but in this case, I wanted to give Mgsdteacher a wider audience to the extent that I can. This teacher's words have me thinking in a way the NYT article alone did not and will probably result in a follow-up blog post. But for now, I give you the words of Mgsdteacher and ask you to process them on your own. (Whoever you are, Mgsdteacher, I hope you don't mind my re-posting of your words here and that you'll let me know if you find them and you do mind.)

Based on this teacher's perspective, what do you think are the keys to school improvement in Mooresville Graded School District?

I am a teacher in MGSD. I have been here since 2003 and I am "digital native" but I have taught here both before and after the laptops.

I wanted to address a few things.

First, North Carolina does not have teacher unions. There are teacher unions, however we are a right to work state and so they have little power and/or influence. Fewer than half of our teachers I would guess are members of the NCAE (I am not).

Yes, we have had layoffs. No, they were not directly correlated to the purchase of the laptops. Like every school district in the country, the recession led to a drop in sales tax, therefore our state funding decreased, there our budgets were cut by huge amounts. We have cut back on office supplies, textbooks by not purchasing them, etc. Salaries are the largest part of our budget and I would encourage everyone to view our annual report which details our budget. Many of the positions lost were retirements or people leaving the district of their own volition and whose positions were simply eliminated as opposed to being filled. In addition to our own technology budget, we have a substantial grant from a large national employer who has headquarters in our town.

Yes class sizes have grown. However our administrators have done an outstanding job at raising the class sizes of electives and honor level classes where students are better able to absorb the changes. Our lowest performing students have the smallest class sizes.

Our test scores are based on the accountability tests written and administered by the state of North Carolina. We use our own internal data as formative assessments at regular intervals to prepare for those state tests. The data reflected in the article comes solely from the state and is easily accessible on (click on School Report Cards). It is not a test we made up to make ourselves look good.

In terms of the interaction - one thing not mentioned in the article is that at the same time we did the 1:1 conversion we also adopted a program called Capturing Kids Hearts. It involves making a personal connection with a student because until you capture their heart, you can't capture their mind. We all develop social contracts with our students, we greet them at the door every day, we share Good News on a regular basis, and truly get to know our students and let them know we care about them. Many of our students have found this to be a safe, comforting environment because the interaction is so much greater. Technology has freed up some of our back-end time so we can take more time to get to know kids, work with them more closely, target their weak areas sooner and get them the help they need. I feel I know my students better and interact with them FAR more than I did previously. My kids email me all the time with questions, when they are at home working on homework, they know they can email or instant message me on Angel, and they get the help sooner and faster.

Additionally, the things I ask my students to do in class allow me to truly see their creativity shine, and demonstrate their true gifts, and their actual learning, so I learn to see the student behind the textbook so to speak. Again, the things they can do with the technology allow me to see a richer, more complex person that answers on a worksheet. It allows me to have a personal insight into my students' lives. I absolutely can confirm that I have touched more lives as a result of this technology being available. Not just the bright, smart kids that everyone loves to work with - also those who feel they are worthless, have no parent support, have no one to give them kind or supporting words, or show no interest in their school lives or work.

In terms of what we teach - it varies from subject to subject however in my department we are focused on proficiency-based learning where students demonstrate through their blogs, digital portfolios and performance assessments what they have learned. They all perform at different levels, and they have different assignments based on their abilities. We use a lot of project-based learning where students are involved in collaborative problem solving of real-world problems. We are nurturing higher level thinking skills and empowering kids to reflect, push themselves, and think creatively. I would encourage to watch some video of our teachers in action as we were recently profiled at Digital Learning Day. You can find those videos here: We are profiled in the leadership and instructional strategies section.

I am honored and blessed to work in such a district where we have made a priority of reaching every child, every day and I appreciate the opportunity to share my insights with all of you.

Let me add to that I left a highly lucrative career to take a 50%+ pay cut to become a teacher. (I am still not yet to the salary I was making in 2002 when I became a teacher). There are no bonuses, no merit raises, no title upgrades or promotions. But my students who tell me I have made a difference in their lives (and one class made a surprise website featuring video tutorials of the impact I had made on them - purely unsolicited and unexpected) - that is why I do what I do.
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