Superintendent says one-to-one computing initiatives could decrease inequities among students

one-to-one-computingTwo of West Virginia’s top K-12 education leaders on Nov. 2 advocated spreading one-to-one computing across the state.

In a short speech to state and local education officials, business leaders and others at the third annual West Virginia Education Summit, state Schools Superintendent Michael Martirano said one-to-one computing initiatives, which have led to controversy in other states over issues including cost and computers’ perceived added learning distractions, could help decrease educational inequities among students.

The state superintendent, who has set a goal of getting a one-to-one computer to student ratio in grades 3-12 in all Mountain State schools by 2020, said he wants pupils to have devices with all their classes on them to use at school and take home. He also wants devices available for younger kids, but not to take them home.

“Equity and access allows for opportunities to push young people higher, so they can solve the problems necessary through the process of innovation,” Martirano said to the audience at Charleston’s Embassy Suites hotel.

Mike Green, the president of the state Board of Education, who also said Monday that Wi-Fi Internet access could be added to school buses at under $200 per bus per year, asked for the business community’s help in expanding technology access for kids.

“Doesn’t it bother you that a lot of kids don’t have the infrastructure at home?” Green asked. “They don’t have a computer, they don’t have a tablet.”

The event, which touched on several education innovation ideas, was organized by The Education Alliance, a nonprofit that Emily Pratt, its communications director, said aims to convene businesses, community organizations and educators. Pratt said there were more than 200 attendees.

Green said 18 out of 55 West Virginia counties have one-to-one computing programs of some sort; some may not have them county-wide. Martirano said Kanawha and Wirt counties are the two main drivers of one-to-one computing in the state. Kanawha County, the state’s largest school system, distributed more than 14,000 iPad tablet computers to every middle and high school student in the county last school year through the roughly $14 million Learning 20/20 initiative, said Leah Sparks, Kanawha’s technology director.

Education Week has reported on problems with one-to-one computing initiatives in large school systems in other states, like California’s Los Angeles Unified School District, where students hacked the devices to bypass security systems. A report released last month by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, an international group of 34 partner countries, also raised questions about the effectiveness of technology implementation in schools in general.

“Where computers are used in the classroom, their impact on student performance is mixed at best,” states the report, which analyzed different countries’ performance on its Programme for International Student Assessment. “Students who use computers moderately at school tend to have somewhat better learning outcomes than students who use computers rarely. But students who use computers very frequently at school do a lot worse in most learning outcomes, even after accounting for social background and student demographics.”

When asked what research and evidence he believes shows one-to-one computing will work in West Virginia, Martirano reiterated that an Internet-accessing digital device doesn’t have the same limits on content that “static” and “finite” textbooks do. He said the costs of implementing one-to-one computing could be offset by the possible elimination of textbooks.

“Why would we invest all of our money into a textbook that is gonna be obsolete, that has to be replaced in future years, as opposed to looking at an online delivery model, a device, a tablet, whatever it is, that constantly has the latest information at the fingertips of our teachers and children?” he said.

Martirano said there wouldn’t be an “infusion of state dollars” for one-to-one computing at this time, so he wants county superintendents to get support from the business community to bring more devices into schools. He expects counties will see the benefit of one-to-one computing, but said the expansion is currently just a goal, not a mandate.

“I’ve seen no research that goes into great detail on the negative side of having good technology, good infrastructure,” Green said. He said there needs to be technical support for teachers and students to make the devices a good tool, and stressed they will never replace good teachers.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin also spoke at the conference Monday, reiterating his contention that all West Virginia students should have 180 instructional days and touting educational programs launched during his tenure as governor, such as the truancy diversion initiative.

In an interview after his speech, Tomblin told the Gazette-Mail he had no specifics to share on his education agenda for the upcoming legislative session. He said he’s yet to finalize what that agenda will be.

When asked if he would sign possible legislation repealing or changing the state’s Common Core-based math and English/language arts standards — some legislators have pledged to continue trying to dump the standards after failing to do so in the last session — the governor said he wants to stick by the standards and the new, statewide standardized test based on them.

“We have gone from test to test to test over the last several years, and it’s kind of hard to compare, you know, have we gained or have we gone backwards in our education system because of the changes in the test,” Tomblin said. “I would prefer to leave the Common Core in place for a few years — like most of the states are doing — and be able to compare.”

The state Department of Education released last week county- and school-level results on the state’s Common Core-based standardized test, which, aside from a field test in the 2013-14 school year, students in grades 3-11 took for the first time in the spring.

Proficiency rates in math across the state are significantly lower on the new test than on the Westest it replaced, though state education officials have stressed the two tests aren’t directly comparable.

“Let’s look at it for a few years before we throw that baby out and get a new baby to start testing with,” Tomblin said.

The governor also said he’s not opposed to charter schools, which are supported by the state Chamber of Commerce, though he said he doubts they’d work successfully in a rural state like West Virginia. Charters, which currently aren’t allowed in the state, are publicly funded schools that are given more autonomy from their districts than normal public schools in the hopes of spurring innovation, but they’re unpopular with local teacher unions because they can effectively make educators at-will employees.

“In West Virginia, to get enough students to form a good charter school it’s going to take pulling from a large area of our state,” Tomblin said. “And basically that would also take money away from our public education, and many of our public education systems in our state need all the help they can get right now.”

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