Poor Students Face Digital Divide in How Teachers Learn to Use Tech
America's most innovative schools constantly help train teachers to use new technologies, but the barriers to creating such a culture in high-poverty schools can seem insurmountable
It's like any other small video-game-development studio, except the coders are 10 and their games have titles like "Evil Donut Unicorn Ping Pong."
The scene unfolded in a classroom at South Fayette Intermediate School, about 20 minutes from downtown. The walls were covered with whiteboards and sticky notes. Students worked in teams, arguing passionately and high-fiving when there was a breakthrough. Teacher Victoria Bishop circled the room, quietly making sure her 5th graders' code included functionals and conditionals, the two computer science concepts embedded in the day's lesson.
Bishop is 23. She's not yet through her first year at South Fayette. Already, she's developed a solid knowledge of Scratch, the kid-friendly programming language her students are using. She's learned to design classroom projects that cultivate in her students everything from computational thinking strategies to narrative storytelling skills.
In addition to her classroom duties, she's helping lead a districtwide "Python incubator." The high-level programming language powers Instagram and is used to test microchips at Intel. Soon, Bishop will be working to integrate it into South Fayette's 8th grade curriculum.
A year ago, she was teaching art and music at a local Catholic school.
What if Bishop had been told then what she'd be doing now?
"I would've said you're crazy," she said.
Above:Students in the South Fayette schools are benefiting from the district’s clear vision for what teaching and learning with technology should look like: “computational thinking,” “human-centered design,” and “innovation mindset.”
—Swikar Patel for Education Week
Over the past decade, the "digital divide" in America's public schools has shifted. Classrooms in nearly every corner of the country have been flooded with devices and software. High-speed internet connectivity has expanded dramatically.
Undoubtedly, there are still big disparities in the technologies available to the haves and the have-nots.
But in places like Pittsburgh's southwestern suburbs, where some local school districts are engaged in a kind of ed-tech arms race, just offering kids the latest-model laptop isn't enough. Instead, what distinguishes the most innovative schools is what students and teachers do with the technology they have. Parents want their children prepared to shape the future, not get steamrolled by it. To make that happen, schools like South Fayette Intermediate try to surround teachers like Bishop with supports and learning opportunities, so they can continually find new and powerful ways to integrate technology into their classrooms.
For most districts, it's a huge challenge.
There's widespread agreement that teachers aren't coming out of college well-prepared to navigate this new digital environment. And for teachers already in the workforce, professional development hasn't kept up with the pace of technological change. The percent of 4th grade students whose teachers say they've received training on how to integrate computers into their classroom instruction has remained flat since 2009, according to a new Education Week Research Center analysis of survey data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
Inequities are also persistent. Teachers in high-poverty schools are consistently less likely than their counterparts to say they've received technology-integration training, the Education Week Research Center analysis found. The gap isn't getting any smaller.
In Pennsylvania, home to a wide digital-training divide between its high- and low-poverty schools, the numbers tell part of the story. But to really understand the disparities in how schools help teachers learn to integrate classroom technology, it helps to compare a district like South Fayette, where 80 percent of students are white and just 13 percent are poor, to a district like nearby Sto-Rox, which is 33 percent white and 77 percent poor.
South Fayette shines as a model of what experts say works best.
District leadership has a clear vision for how teaching and learning with technology should look: "Computational thinking," "human-centered design," "innovation mindset"— the district's intermediate school is literally built to reflect its embrace of such concepts. Each floor is laid out around a large central room that is specifically outfitted for groups of students to work together on projects like producing videos and programming robots.
Formal professional development at South Fayette also goes well beyond in-service days. The intermediate school, for example, has a dedicated STEAM—short for science, technology, engineering, arts, and math—instructor, Shad Wachter. He works alongside other teachers to design lessons, teach classes, and troubleshoot problems. South Fayette staff members also have access to some of the best minds in the region: The district is partnering with Carnegie Mellon University to help develop its new computer science curriculum and train its teachers.
Before her video-game-development lesson started, Bishop, Wachter, and another teacher talked about their careers. Again and again, the conversation touched on themes like trust and collaboration.
Eighth-year Superintendent Billie Rondinelli was listening in. She's a demanding leader, 100 percent serious about making sure her students are "globally competitive." She spent the morning making rounds on an injured ankle that some of her staff feared was broken. She didn't so much as grimace.
But as the South Fayette teachers talked, the superintendent's eyes began to well up.
Rondinelli took off her glasses, wiped her eyes, and apologized for the display of emotion.
"It's just a bit overwhelming to hear," she said. "We've worked so hard to build this."
A day earlier and 10 miles away, a very different conversation unfolded at Sto-Rox High School, nestled in the heart of the once-bustling steel town of McKees Rocks.
Superintendent Frank Dalmas and Principal Tim Beck find the idea of comparing their district to South Fayette almost laughable.
A few days earlier, the Pittsburgh Business Times released its annual rankings of 103 school districts in Allegheny County. South Fayette was No. 1. Sto-Rox was No. 102.
Again and again, Dalmas and Beck steer the conversation about classroom technology back to two broader topics: lack of resources and problems in the community they serve.
For a decade, Sto-Rox has been bleeding students. The district now sends more than 20 percent of its annual budget to charter schools to cover the costs of educating students who fled in search of better options.
Dalmas talks up one of the partnerships he's most proud of. He's given the local police keys to the school, and he had the building's stairwells painted in color-coded patterns to make it easier for them to respond to emergencies.
How do the superintendent and principal see their students' futures?
"Our responsibility is to prepare kids for the next phase of their lives," Dalmas said. "Whether that be fast food, retail, or a warehouse."
When the conversation eventually turned back to training teachers to use classroom technology, there was much less to say.
That's not surprising, said Naomi Harm, the CEO of the Innovative Educator Consulting Network, which works with schools around the country on technology integration.
"When a lot of things are broken, how do you prioritize and fix what's most important?" Harm asked.
Professional development for technology rarely rises to the top of the triage list.
That's been the experience of Joe Krajcovic, now in his 13th year of teaching at Sto-Rox.
Krajcovic's life-science classroom feels frozen in time. Students from years past have covered the walls with a random assortment of murals: Woody Woodpecker, a box of Special K cereal, Earth as a melting ice cream cone.
Above: A student walks into a classroom at Sto-Rox high school, where professional development for technology rarely rises to the top of the priority list.
—Swikar Patel for Education Week
On this day, the most evident technology was the smartphones that occupied the attention of several of the teens. One young woman sat off by herself, staring out the window, listening to music.
Krajcovic introduced the day's lab.
"So basically we're going to be blowing up marshmallows in the microwave?" a student asked.
After the lab ended, Krajcovic sat down to talk. When it comes to technology-related professional development, he says the same things as the experts: Vision, resources, support, and relationships make for a school culture that supports continuous learning.
Asked if those things are in place in Sto-Rox, Krajcovic folded his hands.
Obvious problems with the district's technology setup are an immediate first barrier. Depending on whom you ask, Sto-Rox has somewhere between 30 to 60 Chromebooks for its 1,300 students. The devices sat unused for more than a year. Until recently, the district didn't have consistent Wi-Fi.
That problem has since been fixed. But now a dozen or so of the school's interactive whiteboards are out of commission. The adapters that connect them to the school's network have gone bad. Each would cost about $35 to replace. It's late in the school year, and money is tight. Maybe next year.
The school's best hope for new technology now rests with Dontez Ford, a former standout athlete at Sto-Rox who recently signed with the NFL's Detroit Lions. Ford has been leading a campaign to raise money to buy more Chromebooks for his alma mater.
The people at Sto-Rox care, Krajcovic concluded. But the question that will always get the most attention is how to keep the school from running out of money.
It's not as though such challenges are new. Education Week has covered the digital divide in Pittsburgh since at least 2001. Then, we reported on how city school students were still using Tandy 1000s with floppy disks.
A decade ago, the Pennsylvania education department tried to address the inequities. State officials came up with $60 million a year for a program called Classrooms for the Future. They provided new computers to every high school in the state and hired nearly 500 coaches to provide in-class technology support for teachers.
Pennsylvania ended the program in 2011, following budget cuts.
As Krajcovic headed out of his classroom, he was stopped by a woman holding a clipboard. She was from the state education department. She wanted to check whether he had the school's anti-bullying policy posted on his wall. He didn't.
"To survive in this environment, you have to be able to adapt to the challenges," he said.
Few people have thought more about the future of learning, how to support teachers using new technology, and the persistent inequality in western Pennsylvania's schools than Gregg S. Behr.
Behr is the executive director of the Pittsburgh-based Grable Foundation. He's also the heart of the region's Remake Learning initiative. The sprawling network of schools, museums, libraries, after-school programs, and businesses has become a national model for how to support STEM, STEAM, maker education, computer science, and other "modern learning" approaches.
In one form or another, much of Grable's money goes to teacher professional development. Behr's approach is to seed and nurture a community of educators who can inspire each other, share ideas and figure out common problems together.
This year's Grable-funded Remake Learning Days, for example, featured dozens of free meet-ups and workshops for Pittsburgh-area teachers, covering everything from next-generation digital storytelling to Laser Cutting 101. Behr has a 67-page file with example after example of outside-the-box professional-development opportunities in the region.
"There needs to be a network that teachers can plug into," he explained.
Slowly, that network has become accessible to places like Sto-Rox.
Over the past year, for example, Superintendent Dalmas and Principal Beck have latched on to STEAM as a strategy that might help staunch the flow of students to charters.
A $20,000 grant from Grable paid for the school's first 3D printers, some video equipment, and a computer-controlled router to upgrade its shops.
Beck and his staff wrote the grant application with the help of a colleague in the neighboring Montour district, a leader in the Remake Learning community. "He told us the magic words to put in," Beck said.
That same guy from Montour also called Beck to suggest he send one of his teachers to something called Agency by Design. Beck hadn't heard of the group and didn't have time to check it out. But he trusted the Remake Learning network. So he sent first-year Sto-Rox science teacher Anthony Martini to take part.
The benefits are starting to show.
Inside Martini's Inquiry Science class, students work on a project that entails building bridges out of cardboard. Right now, they're doing preliminary research using Chromebooks that Martini has managed to commandeer. Their assignment is likely to expand; an earlier class project on volcanoes evolved into a massive effort in which students had to construct entire metropolises, assume the roles of various city officials, and draft plans for everything from emergency evacuations to crisis communications.
After class, Martini said, his goal is to get his students excited about asking "how" and "why"' again.
"I was a bad student. I can't sit still, I can't take tests, I can't do any of that," he said. "But I've done a lot of things in my life, and I'm resourceful. I try to bring those experiences into education."
Martini could talk all day about Agency by Design, a small network of local teachers who are experimenting with new ways to assess students that is consistent with hands-on, maker education. He's active in Remake Learning, and he has a growing network of teacher colleagues he swaps ideas with via social media.
The Sto-Rox administration has been "awesome," Martini said, offering nothing but encouragement for his efforts to engage in outside professional learning opportunities.
Does he get that same support inside the school?
"We're in a transitional stage," he said.
When it comes to training teachers to integrate classroom technology, it's not hard to spot what's missing at Sto-Rox.
Resources, for one. The 5th graders at South Fayette have ready access to computers and neatly arranged shelves of iPods and robotics equipment and art supplies. The maker corner of Martini's high school science room is a jumble of salvaged PVC pipe, glass jars, and scrap wood, plus some Lego robotics kits he found sitting unused in the middle school.
But it's more than money. At Sto-Rox, there appears to be no clear vision from the top about what learning should look like and why. There's limited time for teachers to formally collaborate. There's not a schoolwide culture that leads staff to push each other to be constantly finding more powerful uses of classroom technology. And there's little of the stability that low-poverty schools often take for granted.
For all his foundation's focus on equity, Behr said, $13 million a year in grants is nowhere near enough to address the full extent of such gaps or the racism and poverty that lead some students to get far fewer opportunities than others.
At the end of the day in Sto-Rox, Principal Beck was about to offer his final thoughts.
He was quickly interrupted.
A staff member had been alerted to a Facebook threat made against a former student who likes to show up outside the building after school.
Afraid that Sto-Rox students might get caught up in a shooting, the administration decided to dismiss classes 15 minutes early.
The doors were opened. Alarms blared. Beck tugged on his green Sto-Rox baseball cap and grabbed a walkie-talkie. Outside, a police cruiser slowly circled the building.
Fortunately, nothing happened.
But 7th period was cut short again.
"South Fayette doesn't have to deal with this stuff," Beck said.
Why does the technology-training divide matter? At many schools like Sto-Rox, new models of hands-on, tech-infused, project-based learning are not seen as a way to fundamentally transform students' lives and future prospects.
"STEAM is important," Dalmas, the superintendent, said. "But we also have to get our kids prepared to go and work at a 9-to-5 job right out of high school."
In places like South Fayette, meanwhile, everyone seems to recognize that for today's children, fluency with technology and algorithms and computer code will be crucial to unlocking future opportunities. As a result, the entire district is organized to take maximum advantage of every professional learning opportunity it can find. For its students, the benefits compound over time.
A whirlwind tour of South Fayette concluded in a conference room at the high school, where the district's director of technology and innovation assembled a group of standout students.
These kids already know Python, the computer-programming language. They taught themselves.
Last summer, the district tapped them to share what they know with South Fayette staff.
"Really, teachers should act more as facilitators," Parv Shrivastava, 14, said matter-of-factly. "It allows students to be more creative and explore the content, and it helps with knowledge retention."
Shrivastava is in 9th grade. He just took the most rigorous Advanced Placement computer science course available. Next, he wants to teach himself about machine learning and artificial intelligence.
Sitting in the back corner of the conference room, South Fayette teacher Brian Garlick shook his head and laughed.
Garlick started at the district two decades ago, teaching wood shop and metal shop.
In 2002-03, when South Fayette opened its new high school, he took over the new technology education lab. It started with computer-aided design software and computer-controlled machine equipment, then evolved to include 3D printers, circuitry, and robotics.
Now, Garlick said, he's in the midst of another major transition. Next year, South Fayette High will open a new "fab lab" full of the latest prototyping equipment. He's been tapped to run it.
To prepare, Garlick said, he plans on spending the summer learning to write code. In order to help his students build the apps and underwater robots and other technologies they're interested in, he'll need to become more comfortable with programming Arduino microcontrollers and small Raspberry Pi computers.
It's a long way from drill presses and table saws.
But as Garlick pondered the third steep climb of his career-long learning curve with classroom technology, he sounded more energized than exhausted.
"I better get my ass in gear," Garlick said, "or these kids are going to blow right by me."
Vol. 36, Issue 35, Pages 5-6, 8-11Published in Print: June 14, 2017, as Tech-Training Divide