De­bate is on

Can com­put­ers en­hance the work of teach­ers?

The News Herald (Willoughby, OH) - - Life - By Maria Danilova

WASH­ING­TON » In mid­dle school, Ju­nior Al­varado of­ten strug­gled with mul­ti­pli­ca­tion and earned poor grades in math, so when he started his fresh­man year at Wash­ing­ton Lead­er­ship Academy, a char­ter high school in the na­tion’s cap­i­tal, he fret­ted that he would lag be­hind.

But his teach­ers used tech­nol­ogy to iden­tify his weak spots, cus­tom­ize a learning plan just for him and coach him through it. This past week, as Al­varado started sopho­more ge­om­e­try, he was more con­fi­dent in his skills.

“For me per­son­al­ized learning is hav­ing classes set at your level,” Al­varado, 15, said in be­tween lessons. “They ex­plain the prob­lem step by step, it wouldn’t be as fast, it will be at your pace.”

As schools strug­gle to raise high school grad­u­a­tion rates and close the per­sis­tent achieve­ment gap for mi­nor­ity and low-in­come stu­dents, many ed­u­ca­tors tout dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy in the class­room as a way for­ward. But experts cau­tion that this ap­proach still needs more scru­tiny and warn schools and par­ents against be­ing overly re­liant on com­put­ers.

The use of tech­nol­ogy in schools is part of a broader con­cept of per­son­al­ized learning that has been gain­ing pop­u­lar­ity in re­cent years.

It’s a ped­a­gog­i­cal phi­los­o­phy cen­tered around the in­ter­ests and needs of each in­di­vid­ual child as op­posed to univer­sal stan­dards. Other fea­tures in­clude flex­i­ble learning en­vi­ron­ments, cus­tom­ized education paths and let­ting stu­dents have a say in what and how they want to learn.

Un­der the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, the Education De­part­ment poured $500 mil­lion into per­son­al­ized learning pro­grams in 68 school dis­tricts serv­ing close to a half mil­lion stu­dents in 13 states plus the District of Columbia. Large or­ga­ni­za­tions such as the Melinda and Bill Gates Foun­da­tion have also in­vested heav­ily in dig­i­tal tools and other stu­dent-cen­tered prac­tices.

The In­ter­na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion for K-12 On­line Learning es­ti­mates that up to 10 per­cent of all Amer­ica’s pub­lic schools have adopted some form of per­son­al­ized learning. Rhode Is­land plans to spend $2 mil­lion to be­come the first state to make in­struc­tion in ev­ery one of its schools in­di­vid­u­al­ized. Education Sec­re­tary Betsy DeVos also em­braces per­son­al­ized learning as part of her broader push for school choice.

Sup­port­ers say the tra­di­tional education model, in which a teacher lec­tures at the black­board and then tests all stu­dents at the same time, is ob­so­lete and doesn’t re­flect the mod­ern world.

“The econ­omy needs kids who are cre­ative prob­lem solvers, who syn­the­size in­for­ma­tion, for­mu­late and ex­press a point of view,” said Rhode Is­land Education Com­mis­sioner Ken Wag­ner. “That’s the model we are try­ing to move to­ward.”

At Wash­ing­ton Lead­er­ship Academy, ed­u­ca­tors rely on soft­ware and data to track stu­dent progress and adapt teach­ing to en­able stu­dents to mas­ter top­ics at their own speed.

This past week, sopho­mores used spe­cial com­puter pro­grams to take di­ag­nos­tic tests in math and read­ing, and teach­ers then used that data to de­velop in­di­vid­ual learning plans. In English class, for ex­am­ple, stu­dents read­ing be­low grade level would be as­signed the same books or ar­ti­cles as their peers, but com­pli­cated vo­cab­u­lary in the text would be an­no­tated on their screen.

“The dig­i­tal tool tells us: We have a prob­lem to fix with th­ese kids right here and we can do it right then and there; we don’t have to wait for the prob­lem to come to us,” said Joseph Webb, found­ing prin­ci­pal at the school, which opened last year.

Webb, dressed in a green T-shirt read­ing “su­per school builder,” greeted stu­dents Wed­nes­day with high­fives, hugs and hu­mor. “Red box­ers are not part of our uni­form!” he shouted to one stu­dent, who re­sponded by pulling up his pants.

The school serves some 200 pre­dom­i­nantly African-Amer­i­can stu­dents from high-poverty and high­risk neigh­bor­hoods. Flags of pres­ti­gious uni­ver­si­ties hang from the ceil­ing and a “You are a leader” poster is taped to a class­room door. Based on a na­tional as­sess­ment last year, the school ranked in the 96th per­centile for im­prove­ment in math and in the 99th per­centile in read­ing com­pared with schools whose stu­dents scored sim­i­larly at the be­gin­ning of the year.

It was one of 10 schools to win a $10 mil­lion grant in a na­tional com­pe­ti­tion aimed at rein­vent­ing Amer­i­can high schools that is funded by Lau­ren Pow­ell Jobs, widow of Ap­ple founder Steve Jobs.

Find more of this ar­ti­cle at www.News-Her­ life­style


Brit­ney Wray, a math teacher at Wash­ing­ton Lead­er­ship Academy, helps sopho­more Kevin Baker, 15, with a math prob­lem dur­ing class in Wash­ing­ton, Wed­nes­day.

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