Sunday, June 28, 2015

FCCPS and Technology – the June 23 School Board Work Session

In February, over 60 Falls Church City families wrote to Dr. Jones and the School Board expressing their concerns regarding the use of technology in our schools – in full disclosure, I was one of them.   We expressed our concern that technology was being used where it didn’t fit, that there were problems in implementation, and that an undue burden was being placed on teachers.  The point was not to end the program, it was to improve the program.

On Tuesday evening, June 23, George Mason, Thomas Jefferson, and Mt. Daniel discussed their technology programs with the School Board.  The program has certainly been valuable to students across the schools, and in places was implemented with considerable forethought and training for teachers, students, and parents.  But there were problems too, and the activities that have taken place since February, including the school-specific tech meetings at Mary Ellen Henderson (which I attended) and Thomas Jefferson, and Tuesday’s School Board meeting, have left me more concerned, not less, than I was in February when the letter was sent. To be clear, this is not about the teachers, who are doing a great job and adjusting to all the new things they can do with technology. 

Our kids need to be prepared for the 21st Century, and I, as many, believe that technology has the capacity to make school more personalized, engaging, and relevant.  I also think that the school administration recognizes there were problems in transparency and communication around the program, especially at MEH.  However, I am not sure that the administration recognizes that the problems were not ONLY about communication, but about some elements of the program itself.  We are not “cranky parents” who don’t know what is going on the at the schools, but parents who don’t know enough about what is going on, and of what we do know, disagree significantly on a few issues, such as applying the same level of filtering of Internet content to twelfth graders and kindergartners.

Certainly the schools have made adjustments.  Principal Byrd described how the Digital Learning Team was convinced a bar needed to be set to ensure technology was used in the classroom, and thus developed the goal that technology should be used 50% of the time.  He said the team quickly realized that goal led to situations where the use of technology was “crowbarred in,” and so the expectation was removed.  That’s a good thing, of course, but it took some time for the effect of that goal to dissipate.  Some parents also felt like technology was being “crowbarred in” well into the year, and a student representative to the School Board asked at the June 23 School Board meeting about what the requirements were to use technology, because certain students felt the use of technology was forced sometimes.  I believe that good, experienced teachers were concerned.  Communication could also have been better here, as the 50% goal was present on the website until recently. 

By all accounts, the rollout at GM was the best planned and most successful.  Yet even there, according the information provided by Mr. Byrd, over a quarter of the teachers surveyed at GM disagreed or strongly disagreed that technology increased student productivity.  I’d bet that a neutral survey of teachers at MEH would show that a higher percentage would say that student productivity had decreased due to technology.

While I can’t speak for others, I at least would like to see metrics to ensure that the clear benefits of technology do not lead to overuse by students, rather than just trying to prevent underuse.  No parent I know worries about encouraging a kid to use a computer – we worry about limiting screen time and ensuring exercise and face-to-face interaction.  And that isn’t to say I don’t want my kids to learn coding, I do.  The topic under discussion is improving the use technology.

Last, I’d suggest we try change the tone on this topic.  I, and other parents, have been told that we don’t understand the technology and how the schools are using it, that we are in the extreme minority, and that we need to trust our schools and let them make the right decisions.  We certainly trust our teachers and schools, but I also think parents don’t want just to be informed about the decisions that have been made for them, but to be more involved in those decisions.  Principal Harris’ announcement at the MEH tech forum that he would include parents on the school’s Digital Learning Team is a big step in the right direction. 

Next time I hope to talk more specifically about Internet Safety.

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