Teaching Opinion

Equity and Technology, In That Order

By David B. Cohen — April 29, 2016 5 min read
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Earlier this week I was invited to give a five-minute “lightning talk” to open a seminar titled, “Technology in Schools: Now What? Changes in Policy and Links to Outcomes in California.” This seminar was one in a series offered to Stanford students for academic credit, but also free to the general public. The seminars are sponsored by a combination of partners in the community and in the Stanford Graduate School of Education. The main presenters for this event were Dr. Michael Kirst, President of the California State Board of Education, and Dr. Darryl Adams, Superintendent of Coachella Valley Unified School District.

In my kickoff for the seminar, I tried to ask some provocative questions about technology, equity, and accountability, to question the frame of the discussion before it really started. The title of my talk was “Flipped Instruction, or Flipped Accountability? Seeking Equity in Public Education” (video embedded). The gist of it was that we have to hold policy makers and the general public accountable to educators for providing not only technological equity, but also for maintaining conditions in which quality teachers thrive and great teaching proliferates. The inequities faced by so many students and schools are real and substantial, but we can’t imagine that lack of technology is the cause or the cure. Devices and wi-fi are kind of the low-hanging fruit of equity. What matters more is that teachers and schools are equipped and empowered to provide a rich, well-rounded learning experience for students, unafraid of crushing consequences for inadequate test scores, and unrestricted by mandates that rob teachers of autonomy and initiative.

For the core of my talk, I contrasted two fifth-grade classrooms that I visited last year as part of extensive school observations for a book I’m writing. One has tons of apparent advantages over the other in regards to class size, technological resources, first language match among teacher and students, and additional school staffing for the library, science instruction, and P.E. instruction. So how do we approach the issue of equity for these classrooms? In discussions of equity and accountability, we are so accustomed to comparing schools now that we don’t even stop to think about why we do that. Can’t we determine whether or not students’ needs are being met without rankings? The main mechanism for comparisons has been standardized test scores, but what do we gain from that?

If we do find a gap in scores between these schools, we probably wouldn’t be surprised, given the significant differences between the schools. (You can look up the scores if you want; I don’t think it’s necessary for reasons laid out below). Well-intentioned policy makers might start trying to fix the gaps by focusing on the text scores, and overlook the most important way in which these classrooms already had equity: they both had creative, driven, highly skilled and dedicated teachers. If we don’t acknowledge, protect, and cultivate great teaching, then great technology won’t make a dent.

And if, someday, the gaps in these schools’ test scores were to disappear, would that satisfy anyone that equity has been achieved? Not in any meaningful way. When we talk about giving students the education they deserve, we should be talking about measures and qualities that have very little to do with test scores. Libraries, counseling services, arts, sciences, maker spaces, playing fields... as long as these and other elements of schools are considered basics for children in affluent schools, but out of reach, unreasonable expectations for children in economically deprived schools, we have a long way to go to make equity meaningful.

In the next portion of the seminar, Dr. Kirst offered some historical perspective on educational technology, going all the way back to the revolutionary promise of the radio. When that didn’t turn out to be a game-changer, hopes turned to television. Then, personal computers came along. Then laptops and tablets. Channeling the thinking of another Stanford scholar, Dr. Larry Cuban, Kirst suggested that there seems to be something in the DNA of the classroom that resists any dramatic changes based on technology.

But then, we went on to hear about technology making a difference for students - and their families. Dr. Adams shared a compelling narrative, with both an interesting personal background and some remarkable achievements in education leadership. He grew up in poverty in Memphis, and fell in love with music by overhearing piano lessons given in the home of a local pastor. He went on to play in a band called Xavion, and then became a music teacher, a teacher of the year, principal and superintendent.

The key point that Adams made regarding technology in education is that while it can be transformational, it comes after pedagogy and content in terms of priorities. He related how his district turned to its own teachers who were already leading in technology integration to design a program that advanced the skills of teachers more broadly. The district now provides iPads to every student, with teachers trained in ways to take advantage of that technology; they are empowering students not only to access information, but also to communicate and create, and they’ve seen strong results in a variety of indicators. Adams also related how the availability of an iPad in the home has served parents well. Coachella Valley is among the poorest districts in the nation, so an iPad can be a valuable resource for the whole family, and the district provides software and training for parent use. They’ve also equipped all of the district’s school buses with wifi servers. Students with long bus rides can make use of the time, and at night, they park the buses throughout the district rather than in a central location, turning their transportation resources into free internet access for an underserved community.

I came away from the event optimistic that technology still has the potential to be an important part of the equity solutions we need in education. I hope that state policies can pave the way for more innovative and humanist approaches, accepting accountability for equitably meeting the needs of students, teachers, and communities, rather than prematurely demanding a distorted version of accountability from them.

Photo: (l-r) David Cohen, Darryl Adams, Michael Kirst; by Marc Franklin, Stanford Graduate School of Education, used with permission.
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