While it’s widely acknowledged that technology has the power to transform education, some districts wonder: in what ways? A recent webinar sponsored by NSBA’s National Affiliate and Technology Leadership Network offered some specifics and hopefully inspiration to other educators wondering how they can dramatically improve student achievement without dramatic financial investments.
Literacy and reading comprehension continues to be one of the fundamental challenges schools face. Milton Chen, a senior fellow and executive director emeritus of the George Lucas Foundation, said student reading levels have basically remained flat since 1992–and demographic shifts will only exacerbate the problem.
Chen pointed to a January report from the Foundation for Child Development, which called the need to improve English Language Learner instruction critical. Though demographic projections estimate the ELL student population will balloon to 40 percent by 2030, only 6 percent are currently reaching reading proficiency levels by fourth-grade.
In many ways, this was the same scenario California’s Escondido Union School District found itself in. Located in the state’s southern interior valley, the K-8 district serves some 18,000 students–half of whom are second language learners. And that diversity certainly led to huge disparities in reading levels across the district.
“When you look at the challenges our kids face, we have kids from poverty and very limited English spoken at home, we couldn’t keep throwing text-based material at them,” said Kathy Shirley, the district’s technology and media service director. “It’s really important we harness the power of multimedia and these devices do it better than others.”
Those devices happen to be iPods, which Escondido first began experimenting with in 2006-2007, providing a handful of reading specialists with the handheld tool to help students improve their fluency.
“Why did we focus on fluency? Well, we know that is that gateway skill to reading comprehension,” Shirley explained. “If you are using all your working memory to just get through words you will not comprehend what you’re reading.”
Loaded with apps like an interactive dictionary and a dictation program that allows students to practice enunciation, the iPod devices proved so powerful major academic gains were seen in just the first year, prompting district officials to expand the iRead program, as it’s known, each year. Currently, 3,000 iPod devices are spread throughout 160 classrooms, with 70 of them being 1-to-1 iPod classrooms, and six of them operating on 1-to-1 i-Pad initiatives.
“We used to get asked, why do you do this, aren’t these just toys, do kids just play games,” Shirley said.
But as several recent district assessments have shown, these devices are clear game-changers for struggling readers and ELL students.
In one 1-to-1 iPod classroom, the students made almost two years worth of academic gains in reading as compared to the control group of similarly at-risk students. But iPods can also be a benefit to talented and gifted students. Kids in one of the district’s highest performing fifth-grade class still gain about a year’s worth of growth between the fall and spring.
“My message is it’s not the stuff, it’s not the technology, it’s what you do with it,” Shirley said. “[And what you can do is] provide differentiated content, increase engagement, excitement, the projects, all those things the possibilities are limitless, it seems.”