Social Class Issues Complicate School Tech Efforts

By Jordan Moeny — September 08, 2014 2 min read
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Gone (for the most part) are the days when assuming that most students had access to a computer was a risk and AlphaSmarts were a sign of a high-tech classroom. But as more schools roll out 1-to-1 programs to bring technology—iPads, laptops, and more—into the classroom, districts often struggle to pay for all their new gadgets. Unfortunately for students and teachers, their solutions may be exacerbating class differences.

Though some schools are able to win grants to cover the purchases, electronics—even refurbished models—are still out of reach for many others. With teachers already paying out-of-pocket for classroom supplies, schools are now turning to parents for help. As the Denver Post reports, Rocky Heights Middle School in Colorado included a Chromebook on its supply list this year, though the laptop was only recommended, not required. Chromebooks start at $200, though the models linked from the school’s website are closer to twice that.

Families who lack the resources to buy a new device are able to check one out from the school, but this tactic hasn’t worked out well for all districts. In August, the Massachusetts ACLU filed a complaint against the Mendon-Upton school district on behalf of a parent who was asked to purchase an iPad for his middle school son to use at home. Under the district’s reported policy, students receiving free and reduced lunches are allowed to take school-owned devices home, but parents whose income falls above that cutoff must buy an iPad or limit their children to using the technology during school hours.

This new digital divide causes a problem for students and parents, certainly, but also for teachers who are trying not only to integrate new tools into their instruction but also to navigate economic issues in their classrooms. Social class is never far removed from students’ academic lives. As a case in point, a recent study from Indiana University showed that differences in social class can impact how students behave in the classroom.

“Middle-class parents are more plugged into the school, so they know what teachers expect in the classroom. Working-class parents don’t think it’s their place to be involved, so they tend to be less aware of what teachers expect today,” says Jessica Calarco, assistant professor of sociology at IU and the author of the study. These ideas are passed on to children: Students with working-class parents are less likely to seek help from their teachers.

Given that nearly a quarter of American children live below the poverty line, equity is something for educators to be concerned about. Children and teens are observant enough to notice class differences based on clothes and school supplies—having parents provide laptops and iPads makes those differences even more conspicuous.

Besides, how can teachers be expected to design an inclusive curriculum when some of their students are missing major resources? Though 80 percent of Rocky Heights students have a laptop of some sort in class, that still leaves one in five students who need to look over a peer’s shoulder. Suddenly a lack of school supplies isn’t just a matter of lending out a few pencils.

New technology has a lot of potential, but getting it into the classroom in a way that is equitable is proving to be a critical challenge.

Photo: An elementary school student works on math using an iPad. (Lexie Flickinger/Flickr Creative Commons)

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.