Income-achievement equity and technology: How do we bridge the gap?


The income achievement gap in education has been widening for decades and shows no signs of stopping in the near future.  The gap between the 90th percentile and the 10th percentile is now 1.25 standard deviations.  So, in spite of all our improvements and attempts to equalize education, the gap between the rich and the poor is now 40% wider than it was 40 years ago (Reardon, 2011).  This means, essentially, that one of the most significant indicators of educational performance levels – in standardized test scores, grades, high school completion rates, college enrollment rates and college completion rates – is socioeconomic status.

Questions we have to ask ourselves as educators are as obvious as they are impossible to answer: How can we fix this?  Can we even fix this at all in the classroom?  These are two incredibly difficult questions, and unsurprisingly garner a number of different answers, in all elements of life.  I’ll try to add some conversation points to just a very, very small angle of this massive problem here today, in accordance with the theme of this blog: technology in the classroom.

So – can technology in the classroom help shorten the income achievement gap?  According to studies, the answer is yes…and no.  Of course!

To start with the negative, a study from the National Bureau of Economic Research states that home computers don’t necessarily have an effect on academic achievement among schoolchildren.  Basically, the researchers gave out free computers to a large number of students of low socioeconomic status, kept tabs on the students usage habits and monitored their performance on grades, test scores, credits earned, attendance, and disciplinary actions and found no significant change.  More than one author has used this research to state, essentially, that computers don’t close the achievement gap.

I think that point of view overlooks some pretty serious flaws in the study in order to justify a negative view of technology in the learning process as simply “gadgetry.”  First, the participants – the study gave out computers to 6th through 10th graders.  Digital literacy is built best when it’s built early.  Starting at 6th grade is going to net you a student who’s had 11-12 years to learn to do without, and the level of training required to get a student who’s proficient at utilizing the computer as an educational tool seems like it was ignored in a study that let the students struggle to figure out how to even download a file right out of the gate.  Second, the time frame.  Technology is not going to solve a problem in a single academic school year.  It’s not going to solve the problem by itself.  It should be tried with other approaches, and it should be tried for longer periods of time.

And, now – the affirmative.  According to a survey report of about 2,500 teachers from the Pew Research Center, says that 92% of teachers state that computer and internet access have a major impact on their ability to access content, resources, and materials for lessons, and 56% of teachers who work with low-income students say that their students’ lack of access to digital technology is a major challenge to utilizing quality resources in their lessons (which are nowadays most often found online).  Only 3 percent of low-income students have access to internet at home.  3%!  And yet, despite that, 80% of teachers reported having students access and submit assignments online.  Just under a fifth of teachers stated that most or all of their students have access to all the digital tools that they need at home.  That is a shockingly low number.  Somewhat surprisingly, the lowest home access rates come from rural areas.

An important number to note within that study – 56% of teachers feel that technology is widening the income achievement gap.  I find it no small coincidence that that number matches exactly the 56% of teachers who say that student access to technology is a major challenge.  In addition, 84% state that technology is leading to greater disparity among their student performance.

Where am I personally in all this?  Well, I’m pretty tech-centric.  In a world run by technology, I feel that a student who doesn’t have access is a student that’s getting denied right out of the gate.  If the income achievement gap is a problem, maybe it’s one I can’t solve in the classroom.  But it’s certainly one I can do my best to prevent from being widened further.  I will fully support BYOT and school-provided technology access programs together to ensure as much as possible that every student in my classrooms has in-class and out-of-class access to computers and the internet.  I will continue researching Raspberry Pi and other low-cost solutions to the problem so that my classroom might have a low-cost or no-cost “library” of PCs the students can check out for digital assignments.

After all, if you can’t access tools that make learning easier, more engaging, and more fun – how could you possibly be expected to reach similar achievement rates in all things related to learning?  Especially in an increasingly knowledge-based economy that circulates and thrives utilizing the very tools that you’re being denied by your economic status?  Maybe having a computer access and internet isn’t going to close the income achievement gap.  However, it seems pretty clear in today’s environment that if we let it, it will just be another way that the gap gets wider going forward.


Common Sense Media – Not Just About Movie Ratings!

I first learned about common sense media when I went to look at movie ratings for a movie a cooperating teacher was thinking about showing in her class.  They provided a breakdown of what ages the movie was appropriate for and why they believed that – and I thought that was a great resource!

But that’s not all they do!  They also provide digital literacy and digital citizenship curriculum for students and teachers, as well!  The site provides a wealth of materials to assist the teacher in providing digital literacy education for their students, including videos, interactive lessons, assessments, e-books, and of course, printable lesson plans that include scope and sequence for the teacher.

If you’re interested in introducing some digital literacy education into your classroom, head over to their curriculum training videos and a quick sign-up and hour-long training video will get you well on your way!

My own training certificate.

Library of Congress – Inquiry

The Library of Congress is officially the research library for the United States Congress, but really it serves as the national library for the entire United States.  As such, it houses important documents and information reaching back thousands of years.

The Library of Congress website has an online learning module regarding the act of inquiry which I found to be very interesting.  Only about an hour long, it contains a number of videos about each stage of the process, generally being led by qualified teachers or explained by experts in the various relevant fields.

I think inquiry-based learning is something that is extremely important for any classroom – having students be responsible for the various steps in the learning process, and making it about discovery – these are things that will drive the students to continue that learning beyond what we already know and maybe discover something new!

My certification. Get your own at the link below:

Library of Congress – Primary Source Inquiry Module

Kahoot – Gamification of Assessment Quizzes

Brandon, Betsy and I worked together on a quick presentation about the social gaming site Kahoot. Teachers are able to use the site to create quizzes and games for the students to review and learn new material. It’s very similar to the Plickers app, except that students are using their personal devices to sign into a kahoot game and answer questions about that class’s topic.

Each Kahoot is like a mini-game quiz for a lesson.  There are multiple benefits for both students and teachers.  The teacher gets to track the student’s progress and the students get to compete -students get points for both answering the question correctly and for how quickly they can answer each question. Competition drives performance in many ways.  If you have a classroom with a healthy competitive spirit that doesn’t get ugly, Kahoot might be an excellent tool for you!

Here’s a more in-depth slideshow to see how this awesome site works:


Flipped Lesson – Scratch Programming

For my flipped lesson, I chose to do a lesson on Scratch, a symbolic programming language written by MIT students targeted at elementary school age learners, but really available for everyone as a learning tool.

It is a very basic flipped lesson, as I feel the content will guide the student’s interest.  I talk the students through my own basic programming.  I take the students to the correct address, introduce them to some new vocabulary concerning scratch programming, and then do some very basic programming moving a sprite around the stage.

I used a youtube video input into EduCanon’s website, which is extremely useful.  At several points throughout the lesson, educanon allows me to pause the video and ask questions to assess the students.  I pause the video three times throughout the lesson to ask different questions – about vocabulary, execution, and location.  Easy questions, for sure, but they will ramp up through the week’s flipped lessons as the programming gets progressively more difficult.

In retrospect, for improvements, next time I will probably add a face-in-video screen, and add some accent marks to grab the student’s attention to a certain part of the screen when certain things come up, rather than just waving my cursor around wildly near what I’m trying to get them to focus on.

Optimally, the student would have two monitors, one to watch the video on, and one to have the scratch programming tool in.  They could also just have two tabs open in a browser.

Flipped Lesson on Educanon

Scratch Website

On the Shoulders of Giants

I recently read about an organization called Project Tomorrow. They are a non-profit educational organization out of Irvine, California. They are performing research in support of innovative uses of science, math, and technology resources in schools throughout the nation. One of their research projects is called the “Speak Up Student Survey.” This project annually surveys students in a number of learning environments to help teachers gain new insights into the innovations in student use of technology and digital tools in the classroom environment. In reviewing the Speak Up 2014 Student Survey, I discovered they came to four important conclusions about student use of digital tools in the classroom. I will here share them and then provide my comments.

First: When students have access to technology as part of their learning, especially school-provided or enabled technology, their use of the digital tools and resources is deeper and more sophisticated.

This seems like a no-brainer on the face of it, but it’s actually really important in the sense that education is the pathway to creating a citizen of the human race with positive value. That positive value is increased when a citizen has a richer understanding of technology, which has become a cornerstone of our society for the foreseeable future. Deeper understandings of that technology lead to the ability to improve the technology itself or use the technology to better improve some other facet of the human existence. Why teach purely old things in old ways when you can use the razor’s edge of advanced technology and tool to teach the old important things alongside the new important things at the same time? We don’t have to treat education anachronistically if the anachronisms serve our students no purpose!

Second: Consequently, students who are effectively using digital tools to transform their learning experience place a higher value on the importance of technology as part of their personalized education process.

Here we see that students who use tools, see the use of those tools and how vividly they can transform the experience. Having seen that, they are prone to utilize it going forward and to search out new ways to use it throughout their education (and careers). Technology improves performance, thus improving the student’s education and career and contributions to society.

Third: Students connect the use of technology tools within learning to the development of college, career, and citizenship skills that will empower their future capabilities.

They come to a similar conclusion that I did above, here, drawing out conclusion one to its natural end state. Use of technology in learning more richly develops education, work, and citizenship abilities. Improvement of those abilities leads to greater impact of the student on their life and the lives of those around them.

Finally: The ability to use technology within school or class environments engages students in active learning and establishes a foundation for the development of a personal ethos of self-directed, independent learning.

Independence is the cornerstone of a productive citizen. Anything that contributes to the independence of a citizen from other citizens is a net positive to productivity and the impact of that citizen. While it may not seem that increasing a student’s dependence on technology is making them independent (to those with negative views of technology dependence), it’s simply a logical progression of our civilization.

We have always stood on the shoulders of the intellectual giants that have come before us in order to progress as far as we have, all the way back to the basic understandings of self and environment. We are standing on those shoulders now, and even as we do so, our children depend on us to go as high as we can so that they can stand on our shoulders.  No citizen has stood by themselves in their pursuit of knowledge – nor could they, the expanse of knowledge is far too vast. The use of technology helps to capitalize on the knowledge provided to us by our ancestors by assisting us with grasping it – the use of it is simply another step forward in improving our education, and using that better education to improve our society.

Assembly Line Education – and Why it’s Wrong

For this week’s review and reflection, I watched another TEDx talk, this one at the TEDxPhilly in February 2011.  The title of the talk is “Education is Broken,” by Chris Lehmann, a principal of Science Leadership Academy, a high school in the Philadelphia School District.  (edit: I had originally written that the SLA was a charter school, but Mr. Lehmann commented and corrected me – SLA is a school district in Philadelphia – a partnership high school between the School District of Philadelphia and The Franklin Institute.  Thanks and sorry!)  I found the talk very enlightening, seeing a principal in a roomful of teachers enthusiastically speaking to the failure of our current education system.

Mr. Lehmann opened his speech up with a pretty bold statement for a principal: “High School stinks.”  He gave various reasoning for this – we have to do what we’re told, over and over and over again, in 42 minute blocks of pre-programmed classes followed by another and another.  By the end of the day, Mr. Lehmann states, you probably can’t even remember what subjects you were in that day, much less what you learned.  Another reason is the massive number of things that are taught in high school that most students probably don’t need – box and whisker plots, etc.  Mr. Lehmann asks, “Why are we still doing this to our students?”  I am one hundred percent behind this question.  Why would we teach something that no student will ever realistically need in their lifetime?  Why are we not reviewing our curriculum and our testing for things that no longer matter in the wake of always-on technology and internet access that can provide instant explanations or answers in the increasingly unlikely chance of something like a box-and-whisker plot affecting your life.  You can make the excuse, “well, what if technology fails?”  If technology fails, our kids are going to have bigger problems than box-and-whisker plots can solve.

Another problem Mr. Lehmann mentioned was programming – the “how” of our school design.  We give our students pre-tests, find out what they’re worst at, and then give them more of THAT!  Because we don’t teach to joy, we don’t teach to passion, we don’t teach to love – we teach to make students suck slightly less at the things they’re bad at.  Again, it’s hard to disagree with Mr. Lehmann here.  While I understand that our current design requires students to make good progress in a number of educational standards – should we not be encouraging their strengths?  By trying to make all of our students fit a mold that we’ve predetermined, are we not preventing them (even if only a little) from fully embracing their strengths and becoming the best possible “them” they can be?  A society isn’t made of identical robots, and neither should our education have that goal as the ideal.

Next, Mr. Lehmann showed a slide with the various reasonings typically given by teachers to students about the why of teaching a specific content – “it will be on the test,” “you’ll need it someday,” “it looks good on a college resume,” “it’s a required class,” but the real reason behind all of it was “because someone told me I had to teach it.”  I think every teacher can get behind this complaint.  Granted, some of the time, we need to look for a better explanation, a more true explanation, because clearly some of the things we’re teaching are important in spite of being seemingly useless – but sometimes, we’re teaching something because it’s the way we were taught to teach, and the way we’re required to teach according to some sub-line in a contractually binding document somewhere.

But, Mr. Lehmann notes, it doesn’t have to be like that – we can do better.  He says that school should teach us how to learn, open our minds to ideas and critical thinking, to understand that, for instance, a calculus derivative is a way to look at the world, a way to examine the logic of the world around us and better increase our productivity or creativity in examination of that world.

Mr. Lehmann then talked about his school a little, stating that they’ve been given the freedom to not require bookmark tests each year, but rather, bookmark projects each quarter.  The students at his school have to make something real and important every quarter, combining elements from multiple subjects.  I love this idea, and it steps in nicely with a lot of the Project Based Learning ideas that we’ve been exposed to across our curriculum.  His school is even more open than that, allowing the students to creatively decide upon their own output, their own projects, and it’s up to the teacher to examine that output against a creative rubric.

Mr. Lehmann made the analogy that school now is designed like an assembly line factory – “I teach this, he teaches that, you are getting knowledge added to you like parts on a car down the line.”  He states that a better way is to ask questions we didn’t know the answer to – and use each class to try and answer various elements of those questions – teaching students to seek out the answers for themselves is a more powerful method than giving them information.  Mr. Lehmann states that education of the past was built on a model of information scarcity – you had to go to school to get the information.  Now, we live in a world of information overload.  Our job now should be helping the students making sense of all the information – not simply giving it to them.  I feel like this lines up directly behind the idea that technology is stepping in to fill a gap in our education.  Children have always-on access to information – all the information they could ever need.  While it will be our job to show them some of it, it seems silly to be telling them what out of all of it is the most important to their lives and then spoon-feeding it to them in their early lives.  As technology backfills that requirement to have a working knowledge of everything before doing anything, our education should be more and more focused on the creative sides of our lives.  And the best way to do that is give students access to information, and then tell them make stuff, build stuff, projects.  The best way to learn is to teach – we should be making the student take what they learn and teach the teacher and the other students as constantly as is reasonable.  We need to give the students open-ended resources and responsibilities, stand back and see what they come up with.

Mr. Lehmann finishes big, saying that High School shouldn’t be preparation for life.  High School students should be a part of life.  He believes that students should be told “what you do matters NOW, not later.”  What could students build, what could they do, if they knew they had just as much (and in some cases, more) capability as an adult to change the world?  He states that a big part of making stuff is sharing it – you “have to take it out to the world and see what you can change with it.”  Again, I feel like this dovetails nicely into PBL styles.  A big part of the current PBL push is connecting the student projects to the community around them.  The students shouldn’t feel like what they are doing is a waste, something that will never be seen by anyone but themselves.  Their projects should be able to go out and change the world – and we should give them every chance for their projects to do so.

Mr. Lehmann’s closing statement is thus: “When we encourage children to see themselves as authentic agents of change, High School won’t suck anymore, education won’t be broken anymore, and our kids can change the world.”  I know that a number of TED talks close with this optimism (as have a number of my own blog posts), but it does make me hopeful to see the current generation of teachers rebelling against the current methodology as a dated framework and looking for ways to update that framework in a way that improves education to the point where our students have the ability to change the world at earlier and earlier ages.  When so much of our world’s best things come from creativity and passion, why shouldn’t we focus more on those things than the memorization of information that may or may not ever be useful to the individual?