Laptops or tablets for every student have led to messes in many big school districts, such as Los Angeles. Could the same be true of the new technology program in Arlington County, one of this region’s best-run school systems?
One Arlington parent told me her fourth-grader and her sixth-grader each got iPad Air devices and her ninth-grader got a MacBook Air laptop with nobody asking her permission. “I spend so much time in my job as mother trying to keep my kids off all screens, and now the school system has totally undercut me,” she said. She doesn’t even know if she is liable for loss or damage.
Parents and teachers told me that Superintendent Patrick Murphy went around the school board when it killed a $200,000 computer appropriation in the latest budget and found money for the new devices anyway. A teacher complained that there was no money to train teachers to use the new devices, teachers and students had not been involved in the planning and there were many delays at her school because of lost printers and system failures. The county’s plan to have a device for every student by 2017 has “been foisted upon the schools with inadequate preparation and funding,” she said.
As far as I can tell, it’s not that bad. Arlington schools are approaching the issue with intelligence, but need to work much harder on telling parents and teachers what they are doing. That should be the concern of all the other Washington-area districts moving in this direction.
I am no fan of the latest school technologies. So far nationally they haven’t raised student achievement in any significant way. But they haven’t hurt learning either. Given what is happening in the world, the changes must proceed. I don’t own a smartphone but know many people who do, and like them. These machines are not going away.
Terri Schwartzbeck, chair of the Arlington superintendent’s advisory committee on technology, is one of a long line of bright and personable go-getters who have facilitated reform in Arlington since my first Post assignment covering its schools in 1971. She acknowledged the sensitivity to pushing more screen time on students whose parents aren’t ready for it. She has two children in the school system. There are no video-game systems and not much television watching at her house.
“But what I’ve learned over the past few years is that all screen time is not created equal,” she said. “Screen time for learning, where the child is engaged, excited, collaborating with peers, creating, exploring, is far different than screen time watching reality TV or playing the latest video game.” When she asked her kindergartner if she had used an iPad that week, the child said no, even though there was a picture in the class newsletter of her doing just that. “Kids don’t notice when they’re using technology for learning,” she said. “They just see it as learning.”
Parents have been told they aren’t liable for the devices, Schwartzbeck said, but that message needs even more repeating. If something happens the device is replaced. Schwartzbeck said she hoped parents would trust Arlington teachers to use the devices appropriately at school, and let them know if they are creating any problems at home.
James S. Lander, chair of the Arlington School Board, says there was no cut in the regular computer funding in the board’s six-year strategic plan. It said no to an extra $200,000 proposed by the superintendent because the budget was tight.
As for teacher involvement, Schwartzbeck said there are two on her committee. Teachers can get training over the summer, or from technology coordinators at their schools. Schwartzbeck said breakdowns would be fixed sooner if schools were quicker to notify the help desk.
Unlike Los Angeles, Arlington has moved slowly and carefully. But the county’s administrators must remember a lot of traditionalists, like me, are going to be leery of such changes and need to have them explained early and often.