Open Letter to School Board

Open Letter from Mark Shead to USD234 School Board:

I shared some of the information in this letter at the last board meeting. However, there is an upper limit to how much can be conveyed in three minutes no matter how fast one talks. Hopefully this format with links to supporting materials will be a bit more effective at fostering the discussions on how technology can be used to create educational outcomes that will propel our community forward.

One-to-one devices

The first area I’d like to discuss is the idea of giving kids a one-to-one device–especially when the distribution of such a device becomes the goal rather than a particular program tied to a particular educational outcome.

In some of the discussions about the bond issue, I was told that there was a fear kids would somehow fall behind if they weren’t given some type of one-to-one device like a tablet or laptop. I wasn’t clear exactly what academic outcomes were thought to be in danger if gadgets aren’t deployed.

Simply giving kids computers has been tried in a number of large experiments with well documented results. In one of the largest randomized studies in the US researchers concluded, “we find no effects on any educational outcomes, including grades, test scores, credits earned, attendance and disciplinary actions.” In fact the only thing measured that was an “improvement” was simply the amount of time kids spent using a computer.

Another randomized study in Peru, showed some increases in Raven’s Matrix scores, but only for kids who didn’t have access to a computer previously. There was no increase to the sample as a whole. Worse, they found that having an individual device reduced the amount of time children spent reading books.

Uruguay made a country wide deployment of laptops to school children. There researchers were able to track test scores as laptops were rolled out from district to district. They said, that “the program had no effects on math and reading scores.” They pointed out that the use of laptops to do research on the Internet and to look up information didn’t provide any improvement over pre-laptop methods. (Uruguay Study)

As bad as those results sound (given the huge amount of money that was spent with no significant academic return on investment), two economists from Duke University tracked a million kids in North Carolina who were given computers and found, “Students who gain access to a home computer between the 5th and 8th grades tend to witness a persistent decline in reading and math scores.” Of particular interest for Fort Scott, they found that the negative effects were especially predominant among students from poor families. Also from that study (article about study), “The introduction of home computer technology is associated with modest but statistically significant and persistent negative impacts on student math and reading test scores. Further evidence suggests that providing universal access to home computers and high‐speed internet access would broaden, rather than narrow, math and reading achievement gaps.”

I point out all these studies because it is important to see how easily huge sums of money can be spent with no academic benefit. This is especially true if decisions are being made based on “fear that students will fall behind without one-to-one devices” and the misconception that “exposing” kids to devices is somehow beneficial. (I’ll talk about exposure in a minute.) The actual evidence suggests that school systems should be more fearful about making huge investment in gadgets in ways that aren’t tied to programs designed to support specific educational goals. Worse than just being a waste, some of things schools are trying are actually creating negative outcomes. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use computers in education, but it does mean that you need to decide on the educational outcomes you want to achieve FIRST and then find programs that are getting those outcomes elsewhere. Once all that is in place you may find you need certain devices to reach your goal. Starting with the device and trying to work backwards to find educational outcomes that they can support has been a huge failure in every study I’ve seen where that has been tried.

“Exposure” Theory of Technology Education

The second thing I kept hearing is that USD234 needs to “expose” kids to technology. While technology can be a beneficial thing when used correctly (and the previously mentioned studies show that it can be easy to get wrong), it is a bit of a stretch to think that giving every kid a computer merely so they can be “exposed” to it is going to help kids academically. There are some good ways technology can be used for education, but becoming skilled at technology isn’t like catching chickenpox.

Consider the following: Lets say you decided that the school system really needs kids prepared to go into the medical field. So you go look at doctors and see that they wear lab coats and carry stethoscopes. In an effort to “expose” kids to the medical field, you give all the students lab coats and stethoscopes to carry around. Now perhaps you’d inspire kids to think about the medical field, but the academic benefit of carrying around a stethoscope is nothing. So what should you do if you want kids prepared for the medical field? Have them focus on biology, chemistry, algebra, calculus, and physics. In other words, having them focus on mastering existing high school classes is going to be much more important than trying to “expose” them to the tools that doctors happen to use.

In addition, most of the devices that are easy to manage in a classroom are specifically designed to insulate the user from the technology that makes it work. Chromebooks and iPads are designed for people with no experience with technology to be able to easily use. You may be able to run a good curriculum on the device, but merely using the device isn’t going to teach you anything substantial about how computers work because all of that is hidden away.

If you want kids to actually learn technology, they need to be able to do all the stuff that Chromebooks and iPads are designed to hide. There are programs that do this. For example Cisco’s Network Academy for high school students. Also old desktop computers and networking gear are probably some of the best pieces of equipment to really learn about how technology works if you have a good teacher and curriculum.

There may be some amazing things you can do with giving kids their own devices (assuming you are careful enough to avoid all the negative problems mentioned previously), but “exposure” is not an educational plan.

Managing Technology Lifecycle and Funding

The third thing I want to address is technology management. Back in the mid 90s, there were several school systems that passed long term bonds to buy computers. When I work with businesses to establish technology management plans, I use that as an example and it nearly always elicits a laugh because it is so intuitively unsustainable. From there it prompts a good discussion about how the business needs to approach and budget for their technology lifecycle.

I’ve talked to a local teacher who claims that the school is still using all the computers that were purchased 25 years ago and suggested simply issuing another bond whenever you need to replace computers was a good financial management strategy. This made me realize that it may not be common knowledge just how long computers are expected to be useable. Just for reference 25 years ago is when the 486 was selling for around $10,000 to $30,000 (double those amounts if you want to know what it would have been in today’s dollars) and the Pentium had yet to be invented. Schools would have been purchasing 8088, 286 or maybe 386 hardware running at 25 Mhz. (That is 40 times slower than a typical smart watch today.) If USD234 just finished up the last payment on a bond that a previous board had used to buy computers 25 years ago, would you be praising your predecessor’s financial genius? Could you imagine paying interest for the last 25 years on the purchase price of a 25 Mhz computer that hadn’t been used for the last 17 to 20 years?

Maybe you can get school computers to last 3 to 7 years with a few outliers on either side of that. Maybe devices used in the classroom will only last 2 to 3 years on average. (Take a look at the wear and tear on three year old textbooks for a quick guestimate.) Please don’t use money that the community will be paying interest on for 25 years to buy something that is only going to last 2 to 7 years. In simple terms, you really need to think of your computers as an ongoing expense and budget for them the same way you do for electricity and water. Maybe you can get your all-in costs for student computers down to $75 per device per semester. Costs have come down enough that it might be possible. The point is, that when considering technology you need to be looking at those yearly numbers to make decisions and not spending bond money on technology that has no chance of being used for more than a fraction of the bond payment period.

Studying Computer Science

The final area I’d like to address is preparing students to be able to enter the field of computer science. A lot of stuff gets lumped into computer science. Just to be clear computer science isn’t about plugging computers in or knowing how to use Excel and Word. Computer science is a branch of mathematics and isn’t about computers any more than astronomy is about telescopes.

If you want kids to do well in computer science courses in college, having them focus on algebra, calculus, statistics, probability, and discrete math (if it is offered) is going to give you much greater returns than having them carry a computer around. That isn’t to say there aren’t some great things you can do with a computer, but if you have to choose between spending an extra $150 per year per student on a computer, repair, software, etc. vs. spending that on getting great math results, math is a better overall investment–and not just for people going into computer science.

You’ll find a number of very successful computer scientists in Silicon Valley send their kids to schools that specifically avoid technology in the classroom.  (With limited use as creation tools when they get to high-school.) They aren’t trying to keep their kids away from computer science (see this video). They just know that the focus in high school is on getting kids to think and master high school subjects as the foundation of what they will choose to study in college. Technology can often be an impediment to and distraction from that goal rather than an enabler.

If you do want to teach computer science concepts in high school, the programs that seem to be working well are the ones that integrate it into the math curriculum. For example the Bootstrap World program has a free curriculum being taught in New York and other places that is having a lot of success in using a simple programming language to teach algebra concepts. The curriculum is free, but there is a two day training in New York at the end of February aimed at teaching math teachers how to use it. Also in March there is a meeting of the Special Interest Group in Computer Science Education being held in Kansas City.  The creators of the curriculum are going to present their preliminary findings.  There are of course other successful programs out there, but this is the only one I know of where we could invest 1.5 hours of drive time and get a chance to talk to its creators.

So in summary:

  1. One-to-one devices need to be driven by educational goals not the other way around.
  2. Exposure to technology isn’t an educational plan.
  3. Don’t pay for things over  a period that is longer than their expected life.
  4. Students that want to study computer science in college will be best prepared by investing in math skills.

The community is going to be paying on the bond for the next 25 years. Hopefully the information and links in this letter will do a small part toward creating useful discussion. Hopefully that discussion will lead to decisions that can give Fort Scott the strongest possible academic foundation as we head toward 2040.

Sincerely,

Mark Shead

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