Teaching to the tech: On Sacramento schools, Common Core and the digital divide

Will a contentious test and shiny new computers help bridge the technology gap?

Specialist Michelle Blanton helps a student learn how to use new MacBook Airs at Leataata Floyd Elementary School. Kids are taking a practice version of a controversial new test—next year, the exam will be for real.

Specialist Michelle Blanton helps a student learn how to use new MacBook Airs at Leataata Floyd Elementary School. Kids are taking a practice version of a controversial new test—next year, the exam will be for real.

It's a rare moment at Leataata Floyd Elementary School: 30 sixth graders are completely silent.

The kids look like they're focused on a test. But maybe they're just mesmerized by the devices that the exam is on: shiny new MacBook Airs. The Sacramento City Unified School District recently deployed more than 6,000 of these laptops to its schools in preparation for a test that the whole country is talking about.

Michelle Blanton is conducting all the exams at Leataata Floyd, and she circles the room slowly. No one seems to have any problems during this practice round. Time is up, and the students take off their headphones, close their MacBooks and file into a separate room for a class meeting. They sit down cross-legged in a big circle and pass around a microphone—which is actually a plastic pink flower taped to a green pen—so everyone has a chance to speak.

Blanton proposes the question of the day: “What did you think of the test?”

“It was better than taking it on paper,” one student says.

“I like that my hands don't hurt,” another offers.

They make it sound so simple.

Students are taking the test now, through June 6, but it’s been a long, complicated road to get here. It’s all because of the new education standards called Common Core. State legislators recently sprung the test on districts, and now teachers are scrambling to figure out how it works.

But Common Core also speaks to a broader digital divide. Will the test only increase bias toward rich kids with iPads and Internet access at home? Or will this new emphasis on digital technology in schools level the playing field?

Leataata Floyd principal Billy Aydlett sure hopes so. His school serves some of the city’s poorest kids, and he spends budget money on technology whenever he can. He’s in firm support of Common Core and the computer-based exams.

But Sacramento schools are not created equal. Some of the district’s “priority schools” like Leataata Floyd swim in new tech toys, while others can barely get their hands on computers, let alone tablets and expensive MacBooks.

This divide also remains very real in children’s homes. In pockets of Sacramento, less than 40 percent of households have broadband Internet. That’s a long ways to go to meet the state’s goal of 80 percent by 2015.

“It’s not a genie you can put back in a bottle. Technology is already part of everyday life,” Aydlett argues. “Sheltering folks from it is crazy.”

Apparently, so is teaching it.

Digital classrooms and guinea pigs

Today's K-12 kids are digital natives. They grew up with the Internet. And when they're grown up and running the world, what will it look like? Probably totally teched out, which is why teachers are starting kids on iPads and expecting them to know how to type before the third grade.

“It’s amazing,” Aydlett says. “These kids had never lived in a world without a screen that will tell them anything they want to know.”

With Common Core’s new digital tests, schools had to get wiring and hardware—and now all kids who can’t access a computer at home will at least get to in school. But access doesn’t close Sacramento’s digital divide alone. Digital skills need to be learned, and that means they need to be taught.

Tara Thronson, a self-proclaimed “broadband evangelist,” agrees that digital-literacy training is important—even if kids already have great tech intuition. As a project leader with nonprofit Valley Vision, she’s always trying to get more people connected to the Web. Because the 14 percent of Californians who still don’t use the Internet are going to lag behind.

“You can’t compete in the workforce,” she says. “You can’t even apply for a job at Wal-Mart unless you apply online.”

Here’s the context: In 2010, California and more than 40 states adopted Common Core, a blueprint for what kids ought to know at the end of each year. It includes a new assessment, too—out with the bubble-in Standardized Testing and Reporting (a.k.a. STAR) exam, and in with a test-run of a computer-given exam. Suddenly, schools needed a lot of computers.

But the funding didn’t arrive until last fall, when the state allocated $1.25 billion toward Common Core. SCUSD spent $9 million—including some bond money—to prepare, and it’s been a whirlwind ever since.

First, the district had to deal with major network and infrastructure issues. In January, schools received laptops. In February, three specialists were tasked with training teachers across 75 campuses. Most district schools started testing in April.

Ted Wattenberg, one of these newly hired specialists, is supposed to train teachers at 25 schools and deal with any of their tech glitches. He might visit six schools in one day and troubleshoot by email. But is that enough time to get everyone up to speed?

“No, it’s not enough,” he says.

And some things are just beyond his or the district’s control, Wattenberg says. The state releases details and tools on their own timeline. And technology can be unpredictable—sometimes the system might just stop, or a test will vanish. There will be hiccups, which is why this year’s test is a practice test.

So far, students say they’ve seen plenty of glitches and computer crashes. But Sandra Smith and her son, Nick Smith, a fifth grader at Dudley Elementary School, are more exasperated that teachers aren’t properly trained to deliver the test at all.

“Our teacher didn’t even know how to start a computer,” Nick says.

That’s partially why Sandra opted Nick out of the exam. But they also think the government will mine student data from these tests and that Common Core is a profit scheme for tech companies.

Leataata Floyd principal Billy Aydlett says access to technology should be an educational right. He thinks the new Common Core test will be a good thing.

Sandra’s eldest son, Josh Smith, a junior at Center High School, took the test. He found it frustrating more than anything else.

“It’d be a lot easier to just do a pencil-and-paper test,” he says. “Instead, we were all guinea pigs.”

Technology fits and starts

At a last-minute training session the day before Sutterville Elementary School begins testing, Wattenberg demonstrates to 13 teachers how to sign onto the special browser. “Macs 101” was Wattenberg’s previous session at Sutterville, but some teachers still have issues with the trackpad, the pop-up blocker and refreshing Web pages.

“I start tomorrow, and, oh my God, I don’t know what I’m doing,” one teacher says.

After about an hour, all 13 teachers successfully log in to the testing browser, but only five say they feel comfortable doing so.

“I don’t think we’re having any problems that other schools aren’t having,” says principal Lori Aoun. “Half of our teachers are tech savvy and half are less than tech savvy.”

Sutterville isn’t one of the district’s priority schools. Only 45 percent of its students meet the poverty threshold, so the school is 5 percent shy of earning extra federal funding. That makes things difficult for Aoun. If they had more technology, would teachers have been better prepared? Before the MacBooks arrived, classrooms had only a handful of desktops at most. No computer lab in the library, either.

Aoun hopes for more training from the district. So does Alice Mercer, a sixth-grade teacher at Hubert Bancroft Elementary School and an education blogger at www.mizmercer.edublogs.org. But Mercer is skeptical.

“There’s a lack of coherence with the Common Core training in general—especially the technology,” she says. “Where people say they’d like us to be is very far from where we are now.”

Yes, adding more technology in classrooms can help bridge the digital divide, but not if teachers lack the skills to use it.

At this point, Mercer hasn’t seen any guidance from the district for how to incorporate technology into the classroom year-round, either. And the local and national focus on the new computer-based test doesn’t help.

“It’s not utilizing the technology in a transformative way,” she says. “We’re just replacing a paper-and-pencil test with another paper-and-pencil test on a computer.”

Mercer fears that teachers will use the laptops for assessments and—without a major push from the district—not much else.

She also says there’s a big difference in terms of how richer and poorer students use—or are taught to use—technology. Studies find that poor kids learn whatever the computer tells them, while rich kids tell the computer what to do.

Mercer says the technology rollout and testing has been smooth; most of Bancroft’s teachers use technology often. It’s been smooth at Leataata Floyd, too. As a priority school, it’s staffed with tech-capable teachers—and Blanton, a bonus specialist on staff who took over all the testing reins so other teachers wouldn’t have to worry about it.

Still, it’s also been challenging. “No one has ever done this before,” Blanton says. “We have people teaching us how to do something that they’ve never done in a practical setting.”

Sacramento city chose MacBooks—an average of $1,000 each—while other districts chose Chromebooks—about $300 each —because Macs have a better, more powerful reputation. That means they should definitely be used all year long, and not just for testing. But it presents yet another finance challenge. Technology doesn’t have a great lifespan—they’ll require updates and software licensing every few years.

Patrick Kennedy, SCUSD president, says it just needs to be “part of doing business.”

“We’re in the 21st century, technology is not a luxury anymore,” he says. “Our kids aren’t college and career ready if they’re not tech savvy. It has to be built into our strategic plan going forward.”

Easier said than done.

Haves and have nots

Aydlett is one of those principals who seems to know all of his students' names. He walks through campus half hunched down, picking up bits of trash along the way. A student knocks on his office door, and they talk about her new diet. “I've been meaning to bring her vegan bacon,” he says. He's even tried to go vegan with her for a while. He gave up, but he supports the endeavor. After all, tofu is cheaper than red meat, and Leataata's families have limited food budgets.

Leataata Floyd is located on the edge of downtown in western Land Park. It’s surrounded by public-housing projects—68 acres of sprawling utilitarian buildings. All of the students meet the federal poverty threshold.

So when the district delivered 50 MacBooks to the school, some kids didn’t quite know what to do with them.

Aydlett says they opened them up, and put their hands all over the screen. “They thought it was like a smartphone,” he says. “They had never seen a trackpad before.” But they had access to iPads before. And Smart boards, document cameras, LCD projectors and a computer lab.

Aydlett wants his students to be comfortable with technology before they go to middle school. Leataata students usually go to California Middle School, the same school attended by former students of Crocker-Riverside Elementary School.

“All of those kids have lots of tech exposure because it’s part of their socioeconomic upbringing,” he says. “If our kids haven’t practiced, they’re already behind.”

Crocker-Riverside is just 1.2 miles away from Leataata Floyd, but they feel worlds apart.

In this part of Land Park, parents wait for their kids in BMWs on a block of charming English Tudors with well-manicured lawns. At Leataata, kids pile up in the main office, and Aydlett has to lecture parents for being late, again—even though they live just across the street. More than half of Leataata’s students are black. More than half of Crocker-Riverside’s are white.

For as long as principal Daniel McCord can remember, Crocker-Riverside has performed exceptionally well. The Academic Performance Index measures schools with a target score of 800. Last year, Crocker-Riverside scored an admirable 911.

Students play with tablets. Technology’s coming to Sacramento classrooms, but in some neighborhoods only 30 percent of residents have Internet access.

Without many low-income students, though, Crocker-Riverside has a tight budget. The school can’t afford to purchase new technology, which makes the district’s MacBook delivery exciting. But maybe not that exciting. Its parent-teacher association could afford to purchase some new computers for the school in the past, and its students probably have gadgets at home. McCord assumes as much, anyway—smartphones aren’t allowed at school.

More than 90 percent of the homes in Crocker-Riverside’s neighborhood have high-speed Internet connections. In Leataata’s neighborhood? Fewer than 60 percent. That number is likely lower in the public-housing areas that serve Leataata, where there’s still no Wi-Fi in the community rooms.

“You often assume you can survey parents online, that you can enroll kids online, but you can’t,” Aydlett says. His efforts to increase his students’ digital literacy extends to their parents.

Yet test scores at Leataata have dropped steadily since its influx of technology in 2010, when it became a priority school. On the STAR tests that year, 26.4 percent of its students scored proficiently or advanced in English language and 47 percent scored proficiently or advanced in math. In 2013, those figures fell to 16.6 percent and 22 percent, respectively. Last year, its API score fell by 90 points.

Is the technology just an amusing distraction? Or detraction?

Blanton doesn’t think so. She says students have been more well-behaved with the digital assessments than the old pencil-paper tests.

“We have lots of behavior problems in general—a lot of work-avoidance behavior—but I haven’t seen any of that,” she says.

Still, there are some modern-day and vocal Luddites around. They say technology doesn’t have a place in schools, and they’re actively fighting the new education standards.

Orlean Koehle, director of the Californians United Against Common Core group, fears that kids will find more ways to cheat online or become addicted to their devices. Lydia Gutierrez, who is running for state superintendent, says phasing out cursive might do terrible things to children neurologically, or at the very least, so much screen time will worsen their ability to communicate. Less extreme advocates, like parent Sandra Smith, understand the value of technology on a more limited scale.

“It needs to be age appropriate,” she says. “Do 5- or 6-year-olds need computers? They should be doing things that are 3-dimensional.”

Mercer is convinced technology can do a whole lot of good. In her own classes, she has students build wikis, record their own discussions and collaborate creatively. And even youngsters can find extra motivation in tech and use it to document their own work.

Leataata already uses its iPads, in part, as a motivational tool. The school has an abnormally high truancy rate of 62 percent and a suspension rate of 4.9 percent. But kids might behave if their reward is game time on an iPad. Even if they’re math games.

The district’s vision for Leataata isn’t just about test scores and statistics anyway, says Kennedy.

“When you’re changing a culture, it doesn’t happen overnight,” he says. “I wouldn’t say technology is going to solve every problem at every school, but you certainly want to make it available to the kids who don’t have it.”

It’s true that most Leataata kids don’t have Wi-Fi at home. Some end up coming back to school on weekends, sitting outside and using the district’s connection on a donated laptop.

“I remember going up to a couple kids and they were looking at Google Maps, just learning about the world,” Aydlett says. “It was inspiring. It points out that access to information—access to technology—should be an educational right.”

The great divide

It may seem like Sacramento is awash in technology, but it is not. In parts of south Sacramento, Del Paso Heights and North Highlands, only 30 percent of the homes have a broadband connection.

That’s a very low figure compared to the rest of the state. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, 69 percent of Californians have broadband at home—a ways to go from the state’s goal of 80 percent by 2015. And 90 percent goal by 2020.

Why aren’t people going online? Thronson originally assumed it was the cost. Then she started talking to folks, and then the Pew Research Center confirmed it:

The No. 1 reason why adults don’t use the Internet is relevance.

“People don’t understand the importance of it,” Thronson says. “They think, ’Why should I learn this new technology when it’s so frustrating to learn, and I don’t have any support?’”

In the survey, 34 percent of non-Internet users say they have no need to be online, and 32 percent say the Internet is too difficult to use. Only 19 percent say it’s because it’s too expensive.

Thronson thinks that’s because people are finding low-cost options, like the Comcast Internet Essentials program, which the company recently extended indefinitely. Plans run $9.95 per month, plus a $150 computer voucher for qualifying families. But few have taken advantage of the plan so far. It launched in 2010, and according to Comcast, the program has enrolled approximately 35,000 households—11 percent of 313,000 eligible families. In the Sacramento region, 7,100 families have signed up.

Mobile technology might change things. According to the Pew Research Center, 56 percent of Americans have a smartphone, and 10 percent have a smartphone but no broadband connection. Among younger adults ages 18 to 30, that figure rises to 15 percent.

“It tells us people understand the importance of it,” Thronson says. “The question is: How do we get them an at-home connection? Because you can’t do everything on your phone.”

Sacramento’s educators notice the trend among students, too. Wattenberg says over the past 10 years, he’s seen more and more kids accessing a smartphone or tablet at home instead of a computer.

But most efforts to address the digital divide are on a small scale, Thronson says, like laptop donations and computer rooms for parents and community members at schools like Leataata.

“They get used more than I ever imagined,” Aydlett says.

Schools are admittedly behind when it comes to Common Core and behind when it comes to technology. But they’re trying to catch up. And with the rapid pace of innovation, Kennedy says they’re taking it one step at a time.

“I don’t think the digital divide will ever be completely closed, because technology changes so frequently and so fast,” he said. “We’re trying to solve the school divide now. Solving the divide at home is a bigger societal problem.”