Ivanka Trump, Apple’s Tim Cook Push STEM, Computer Science Education

By Michelle R. Davis — November 29, 2018 6 min read
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The Trump Administration continued its efforts to highlight the value of STEM and computer science skills for students, through a joint visit this week by Ivanka Trump and Apple CEO Tim Cook to an elementary school in a rural Idaho district with a 1-to-1 iPad initiative.

But the visit was not without controversy. A group of parents and students were outside the school protesting the overuse of technology, particularly for high school students.

“The iPads were intended to be used as an additional tool, not a teacher replacement,” said Cindy Denny in an interview with Education Week. Denny has a junior and a senior attending Wilder High School. “That’s what’s happening here.”

Trump and Cook spent some time in a 1st grade classroom at Wilder Elementary School and watched students using iPads and apps to craft videos highlighting the difference between living and non-living things, and observed other students using coding skills to program Sphero robots, said Jeff Dillon, the superintendent of the 550-student Wilder School District, who is also the principal of the middle and high schools.

“We wanted [Cook and Trump] to interact with the students and that really happened a lot,” Dillon said. “We wanted them to see how the kids can be engaged by STEM and a personalized approach to learning.”

Three years ago, the low-income Wilder School District began an educational transformation towards personalized learning with a mastery-based approach, Dillon said. The district received iPads for students donated by Apple through the ConnectED initiative, an Obama-era program designed to bring high-speed broadband and ed tech to schools, in part through corporate partnerships.

The Wilder district received a seat-time waiver through a state pilot project to allow students to focus on demonstrating competency and to learn at their own pace, Dillon said. The technology being used in the school helps teachers support students in the same class who may be on significantly different reading or math levels, he said. The district also has a 3D printing art studio and virtual reality STEM software and hardware.
In addition to the use of technology, the district has blown up its bell schedule, letting high school students control their own time and take more ownership of their learning, with teachers moving into a mentorship role and boosting professional development time for educators.

But Denny said these changes have had negative consequences. Students spend the majority of their time on the iPads and teachers are discouraged from doing traditional-style teaching, which could be helpful to some students, she said. She said students are learning to “cut and paste” to fulfill lesson requirements, but aren’t absorbing deeper learning.

Denny said she is not anti-technology. “It could be a wonderful program if implemented correctly,” she said, “but the way it’s being implemented in our school doesn’t work.”

‘New Pathways For Kids’

Test scores in the district have remained low and have not improved, Dillon conceded. “They’re not good,” he said.

But Dillon is looking to different metrics to determine success. Earlier this year, AASA, The School Superintendents Association, named the Wilder District as one of the 25 most innovative districts in the country, noting increasing enrollment numbers, improved educator morale, and a drop in disciplinary issues. Dillon said student engagement is up, noting that 40 percent of students in the district opted to attend summer school by choice, and overall attendance has improved. Of the seniors graduating this academic year, the average number of college credits they’ve earned is 16, Dillon said.

He noted that because the program is personalized, students who want to work on projects that are not digitally-based can do so, though Denny called this “lip service” and said it doesn’t play out in practice.

“We’re this rural school out here trying to create new pathways for kids,” Dillon said. “Technology is exploding. We can either ignore it or embrace it.”

The Trump Administration as been on the “embrace it” side, with Ivanka Trump at the forefront. She’s touted the importance of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math throughout her tenure, calling attention to the fact that women are underrepresented in STEM careers , and noting that she took a summer coding class with her elementary-age daughter.

Earlier this year, the Trump Administration’s budget request for 2019 sought to prioritize school-based apprenticeships and career and technical education focused on STEM through the Carl T. Perkins Act, and requested $200 millon in STEM funding through several programs, including the Education Innovation and Research Grants.

Last year, Ivanka Trump announced $300 million in private sector pledges from tech companies to fund computer science education in an effort prepare students for the future of work.

Despite calling for more funding for these programs, the Trump administration’s budget proposal for fiscal 2018 came under fire for plans to eliminate programs that districts use to pay for STEM programs, including the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants. Lawmakers did not end up scrapping the program.

Apple too has been touting STEM and computer science for students. The company announced that for the sixth consecutive year all Apple stores will host “hour of code” daily coding sessions from Dec. 1-14. Sessions specifically aimed at children ages six to 12 to include coding with robots, and those 12 and older can use iPads and apps to learn coding concepts.

Dillon said despite some criticism, the use of the iPads in his school district is improving the playing field for students—nearly all low-income and mostly minority. Coding is taking off with students this year and he hopes to develop a strong robotics program as well. “It’s really fun to watch this transformation take place,” he said.

The Idaho Statesman newspaper noted that one frustrating aspect of the visit was that the Trump administration permitted one of their reporters to attend the event, but the writer was not allowed to talk to Ivanka Trump or Cook. Other local media were barred from attending the event.

Photo: Ivanka Trump and Apple CEO Tim Cook meet with students at Wilder Elementary School in Idaho to observe the school’s personalized learning program and the use of iPads. Photo courtesy of Apple.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.