Wednesday, February 04, 2015

If I Had A Million Dollars

We first started seriously discussing laptops for our students in the fall of 1999. At that time, the obstacles were cost and infrastructure (wireless), and not everyone was convinced that they would help students learn. Over the years the cost came down, the infrastructure began to be built out, and more and more folks were convinced that laptops would not only be helpful for students, but essential to their learning process. Yet still we didn't do it.

It took until the Fall of 2012 to pilot a program, and then the Fall of 2013 to roll it out for all Freshmen at AHS. We did it via a Bring-Your-Own-Device program, counting on a large percentage of our students to bring their own, and then we would provide laptops (netbooks) for those who couldn't afford one or didn't want to bring one. The district provided support in terms of helping us with a few netbooks and, more importantly, guaranteeing that if we didn't get enough students bringing their own, they would help us financially to make up the difference. It turns out that our students did bring their own in the expected amounts (roughly 65% that first year, and now well over 70%), but it was nice to have that insurance. Since then we've now rolled it out to two classes (this year's Freshmen and Sophomores), and next year will roll out it to a third class (Freshmen, Sophomores and Juniors), and possibly to our Seniors as well depending on a few things (more on that later).

Two weeks ago my school began receiving what will ultimately be 993 Chromebooks from our district. These weren't purchased because we've finally decided that laptops are important enough instructionally for our students to provide them, we're receiving them due to mandated state testing. Because both the PARCC and the CMAS tests are taken via computer, and because we can't sufficiently lock down the netbooks we had previously, the district decided to replace them with Chromebooks - and, of course, we had to add significantly more in order to test all of our students. After sixteen years of not being willing to spend money to support our students instructionally, we are willing (actually, forced) to spend money to support testing. Our Superintendent told us in a faculty meeting that district-wide more than $1 million dollars was being spent to purchase Chromebooks.

Now some folks might argue that I shouldn't complain, we are getting laptops that we will be able to use instructionally when we are not testing. (And, given this influx, this may allow us to accelerate our rollout to include Seniors next year - one year early.) I am certainly appreciative of this, and we will do our best to take full advantage of it, but I still think it's important to note the priorities of our national and state leaders, and what actually makes school districts spend money they otherwise wouldn't.

Since we have so many of our own students bringing their own devices, much of this $1 million will end up sitting most of the time in carts, unused (once we've rolled out Connected Learners to all four grades). So I wonder what else we could've spent $1 million on? I'm sure we could all come up with lots of ideas, but here's one pretty simple one: let's hire more teachers.

Now, I realize that $1 million doesn't go very far when you're talking about hiring teachers, but what if we did this. What if we hired eighteen teachers and provided six teachers each to three elementary schools in our district that we identify as being the most at-risk. Each school could decide how best to utilize those teachers. One school might decide to create one more class at each grade level (K-5), thereby lowering class sizes and student-to-teacher ratios across the board. Another school might decide to leave classes the same, but have one teacher work at each grade level, helping the existing teachers co-teach, or working with individual or small groups of students. Or a school might choose to place all six of those teachers in K-2, creating two extra sections at each level. How many of you think any of these ideas - or some permutation I haven't enumerated - would have a more positive effect on students than state-mandated testing? Which is more likely to change students' lives?

The problem with testing isn't limited to the dubious quality of the data we get when we purport to measure what's "important" for students to know. It's the opportunity cost of the testing. It's not just the $1 million spent on chromebooks that will often sit in carts instead of spending it on something that will help students learn. It's the tremendous monetary value of the staff time that goes into administering these tests including, but not limited to, a district assessment coordinator and their secretary, building-level assistant principals and counselors that spend an inordinate amount of time coordinating these tests, and the time that teachers spend in proctor training for these exams.

And then there's the value of the lost instructional time, not just the time students spend taking the tests, but the time taken in class to prepare for the tests (even teachers who don't do test-prep are very much encouraged to expose their students to the format of the test ahead of time), and the lowered quality of the instructional time that we typically have on testing days (where we test in the morning and have altered schedules in the afternoon).

And then there's the effect on students, both psychological and philosophical. Where they are stressed by the testing, and their motivation is decreased by constantly being told what they aren't good at. And it's the philosophical message we send to students, that being able to prove that adults are doing their job is more important than the students' learning.

If I had a million dollars, I'd buy you the opportunity for more learning, not more testing.

1 comment:

  1. Hello Karl, I am Jennifer Vanderhoof a student at the University of South Alabama in Mobile, AL. Currently a junior studying for a degree in Elementary Education I am enrolled in EDM310, which is a class that assigned me to comment on your blog post. First of congrats to your school for its progress on getting the “bring your own device program” initiated, good to hear you guys are reaching your goals.
    I agree with you that it is ridiculous that it takes mandatory testing rules to make funds become available for technology to teach our students. Then it would seem that the money was a partial waste because the Chromebooks are going to just be stored when not being used for testing. I love your proposed ideas on what they could have spent the money on instead of the large quantity of Chromebooks. I am sure every district across the country could have come up a great way to utilize some extra teachers.