Thursday, January 2, 2014

Kids Lose Out in O'Malley's One Man Technology Show

Under O’Malley, the distribution of tax-payer dollars for technology has been remarkably secretive and uneven.  Accounts of technology handouts, directly from O’Malley, made informally in school hallways, have become commonplace.  Appeals for technology, made by teachers directly to O’Malley, are welcome by O’Malley and now, apparently, largely circumvent school administrators and supervisors, Assistant Superintendents, and district technology personnel.  And now, for the first time, the Edison BOE has publicly announced, on its website, the existence of a so-called “pilot” program: “21st Century Learning Rooms.” (When I began writing this draft the BOE had a press release about these classrooms on their website, but it is no longer available on the website – I am fairly certain one could obtain a copy through the BOE and I will attempt to upload it when I have done so)

Set aside for a moment the fact that this new process of technology distribution has never been formally posted or shared via email with the school community (teachers, administrators, families, etc.).  Set aside that for a long time many teachers were unaware (and many teachers are still unaware) that they could request iPads and other expensive gadgets directly from O’Malley.  Set aside the questionable ethics inherent in a system over which ONE individual presides and for which no public data exists regarding the amount being spent or the number of requests being approved or rejected (my OPRA requests for amounts being spent on these classrooms were rejected by the BOE and are in a process of resubmission prior to judicial appeal).  Set aside the fact that “21st Century Learning Rooms,” if we are to accept them as the “pilot” program the BOE claims them to be, would represent the most expensive “pilot” program ever initiated in Edison, apparently, without explicit BOE approval or public discussion (I say apparently because I admittedly do not watch every minute of every BOE meeting; however, I have personally researched minutes and meetings and asked O’Malley via email and Business Administrator Michaud via OPRA requests to direct me to the minutes or meetings during which such a discussion and/or vote took place and, to date, they have not responded).  Set aside each of these incredibly valid concerns and let us consider the impact of O’Malley’s methods on Edison School Children.

For those who don’t know, according to the BOE website, “21st Century Learning Rooms” are completely redesigned classrooms.  Each classroom was redesigned, with the help of a “design consultant,” with state of the art ergonomic furniture for both students and teachers.  Each student has unfettered access to their own personal iPad, and mini-laptops for each individual student are also available for exclusive use.  Flat screen televisions and other multi-media projection devices were purchased specifically for these classrooms, as well.  Naturally, brand new storage facilities were purchased for these devices and appropriate upgrades to classroom infrastructure were made.  Also, the website mentions that the program began at Woodbrook School.  This means, really, that Woodbrook was the “pilot” during 2012-2013 and now the program has been adopted, endorsed, and expanded to Lincoln School for 2013-2014 (and expansion is expected to continue in several other, but not all, elementary schools for 2014-2015, although again it appears nowhere in BOE minutes).

I predicted to a few of my colleagues last year that when it came time to tell parents about “21st Century Learning Rooms” we would see an Orwellian rhetorical game unfold and it would be designed to ward off parent opposition or concern.  I assured that the BOE would not inform parents that their child, entering 4th and 5th grade, had a less than 20% chance of being selected for a class which would provide their child with his or her own personal iPad to take home on a daily basis and use exclusively in their classroom (by the way, that 20% chance drops well into the single digits when we include all students entering 4th and 5th grade across Edison).  Sure enough, when the letter was sent home to parents it included only a vague description of the technology in the classrooms and it did not even ask parents if they wanted their child to be included in the classroom.  The letter only asked if parents wanted to “opt-out” of being considered for these classrooms.  You see, quite cleverly the BOE realized, if a parent never has the opportunity to request that their child be included, the BOE never has to provide an explanation as to why the child is not being included.  Most students entering 4th and 5th grade in Edison lost the lottery and they are not even aware it happened.

How else do students lose out in this deal?  Let us consider both the impact these classrooms might have on student achievement and where the “pilot” was launched and why.  O’Malley has made it clear his decision making is largely driven by standardized test data (see my post dated 12/9).  By next school year (2014-2015) all students will be taking standardized assessments on computers or other similar electronic devices.  O’Malley, in deciding to advance these technology based classrooms, must be banking on their ability to improve standardized test proficiency percentages.  So if increased test proficiency is the goal why launch this “pilot” at Woodbrook School, one of the district’s highest performing schools (according to the BOE’s data driven definition)?  O’Malley made a point of addressing Lindeneau School’s lagging test scores when commenting in the press about the transfer of the Principal.  If the BOE and O’Malley were so worried about NJASK data at Lindeneau, and if the Lindeneau community was asking for assistance and support, why didn’t they launch the “pilot” initiative at Lindeneau and expand it there if it was successful? (It is worth noting here that a colleague involved in “21st Century Learning Rooms” confided that O’Malley admitted no statistical academic improvement occurred during the “pilot” year of the program at Woodbrook and still the program was expanded and continues to expand – so much for data driven decision making when you can post a fancy press release on your district website about “21st century learning”)  And, as I can hear the voices already, I say to those of you who will postulate that this investment was initiated at a North Edison school because our BOE is nearly wholly comprised of North Edison residents... Well, I say to you: knock it off.  This blog is no place for reckless speculation, especially about a most noble and impartial BOE.

Finally, Edison kids lose out because this process is just not fair – no BOE or Superintendent should abide a system which collects tax payer funds from all over town and distributes them among our school children in so lop-sided a fashion.  Only O’Malley knows which school will be next to have a “21st Century Learning Room” bestowed upon them and which will go on in relative squalor.  Only O’Malley knows why some schools are receiving this investment while others are ignored in this initiative.  Only O’Malley knows which teacher and students will be blessed with a set of 6 iPads exclusively to be used in their classroom.  Only O’Malley knows when he will retrieve an iPad from his car and give it to a teacher who happens to ask for one in passing.

O’Malley has fostered, quite knowingly I imagine, a culture of “Have’s and Have Nots” and our kids are losing out as a result.  Prior to the advent of the O’Malley method, technology was distributed evenly and fairly across the district.  Maybe I’m just nostalgic, but it used to be that when Edison could afford to construct a technology classroom they would allow all students access to the classroom – Edison might have even hired a professional computer teacher to run the class (Special thanks to Mrs. DiMuzio, my computer teacher at Woodrow Wilson Middle School circa 1987).  Used to be that when Edison could afford laptops they purchased a few for each classroom so all students could get their hands on them.  Used to be Edison would purchase a mobile cart with laptops or netbooks and students would have equal access to them.  Used to be that students could use iPads purchased for the school on a rotating basis and the iPads would be stored at the technology center.  Nowadays, we have 11 elementary schools in Edison, yet only two specific schools have received astonishing investments in technology – this deserves, nay this demands an explanation.

Finally, I have said this before but it bears repeating.  To my colleagues working incredibly hard to make these classrooms successful, my concern here is open governance and equal access, not pedagogy.  I admire the professional effort you put forward and I know students in your classrooms will thrive.  You have, like so many teachers, gone above and beyond what is asked of you because you care about the kids in your classroom.  I wish not to be an obstacle to progress, insofar as it is done in an open and democratic fashion.  It is difficult to read my attacks on these programs, programs you are heavily invested in and proud of, and not take them personally.  But I beseech you: focus on the criticism I am making and not how those criticisms make you feel.  If anyone can explain to me, from the standpoint of openness and fairness and access, why this method of developing classrooms is a beneficial initiative for Edison students and their families I welcome your response and I promise to post it onto my blog if you desire.  I would even welcome an open Q and A with any proponents of “21st Century Learning Rooms,” including O’Malley or any BOE member, and I offer to publish the transcript here on your behalf.

If some Edison Public School Students have access to certain beneficial technology then all Edison Public School Students have the same right to access that same (or similar) technology, do they not?  Title IX guaranteed women equal access to athletic programs offered to men, how different is what we are seeing here to the pre-Title IX days of athletics, where some groups are enjoying opportunities other groups are not?  Would it be acceptable to everyone if O’Malley and I developed a tax payer funded world traveling classroom “pilot” program where I and my students would travel everywhere from Honduras to Hawaii?  Be warned, we’re meeting to discuss this “pilot” next week – just kidding, you have nothing to fear, I am not going to Hawaii with my class next year, he seems generally opposed to meeting with me on the issue of pilot programs.

But seriously folks, the BOE and O’Malley should be openly assessing technology needs and providing technology opportunities in a uniform way, or at least in a way we can understand and appreciate.  The only thing I understand about this way is that ONE person seems to be controlling it and that seems to be the way ONE person likes it.  And that is a real shame for the kids of Edison, particularly those who, through no fault of their own, fail to land in one of O’Malley’s chosen classrooms.