Digital learning is helping this school close achievement gaps

There’s a widening technology achievement gap for minorities, despite blacks and Hispanics having more interest in learning computer science. So why is the field so dominated by whites?

eSchool News recently spoke with Mashea Ashton, who founded Washington, D.C.’s first computer science middle school last year in a struggling, historically black community to help bridge the technology achievement gap. Today, 99 percent of the students at Digital Pioneers Academy (DPA) are on a free lunch program. Ashton, who previously worked with Senator Cory Booker to create more educational options in Newark, N.J., talked about how innovative educators can help solve the racial achievement gap.

Related content: How our district is narrowing the digital divide

eSN: There are lots of cities with impoverished neighborhoods and poor public school systems, so why did you choose to start DPA in southeast D.C.?

Ashton: My husband’s family goes back six generations in southeast D.C. and I taught here early in my career. Southeast Washington, D.C.. is a unique and multifaceted community, where the talent pool is high, but access to transformational educational opportunities is often lacking. I love my community and know that our students can achieve anything they set their minds to accomplish. I saw DPA as a way to bridge the achievement and opportunity gap for scholars east of Washington D.C.’s Anacostia River, and for people of color who are disproportionately underrepresented in the technology field.

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What is nature deficit disorder?

This year marked the 40th Anniversary of Earth Day celebrations all over North America, as well as around the world. The origin of Earth Day links back to the works of Gaylord Nelson and Rachel Carson and their work and dedication to the Earth’s environment. They were able to stand by their values because they felt the direct connection with nature, the outdoors and an approach towards environmental education that brought people together from all walks of life.

Currently, we are in a precarious situation. On one hand, we have Greta Thunberg, an environmental activist in her teens, taking a stand in the global arena. On the other, we have a rising number of K-12 students who say they feel they are losing their connection to nature.

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What is nature deficit disorder?

In an interview, Richard Louv explains that “nature-deficit disorder” is not a medical diagnosis, but a useful term to describe what many believe are the human costs of alienation from nature.

● Diminished use of the senses
● Attention difficulties
● Higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses
● A rising rate of myopia
● Child and adult obesity
● Vitamin D deficiency, and other maladies


What makes professional learning actually work?

“Don’t call it professional development—call it professional learning.” Jill Abbott, senior vice president and managing director at SIIA, made this statement in a recent edWebinar.

Additional panelists Jeff Mao, CEO of Edmoxie; Bruce Umpstead, director of state programs at IMS Global Learning Consortium; and Ilya Zeldin, founder and CEO of 2gnoMe, recommended that educational leaders take a deep breath and recognize that there is a crisis happening in our districts.

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There are vast quantifies of people who could be the best teachers ever, yet they don’t want to be in the profession. It is not easy for teachers to thrive and to grow when teacher professional learning is irrelevant, generic, and unsustainable.

A familiar comment from teachers regarding district or school-wide professional learning is, “Well, we’re just going to ride this one out because it is going to change in two years or when we get a new administrator.” The panelists suggest that if “we can get the professional learning piece done collaboratively with teachers, not at teachers, maybe we can retain and recruit highly qualified engaging and innovative educators.”


Disrupting students’ opportunity gaps will hinge on networks

Recently, Stanford researcher Raj Chetty came out with yet another new study on the jagged landscape of opportunity facing America. Analyzing the relationship between young people’s exposure to innovation and the likelihood that they would go on to become inventors, the study highlights an alarming rate of what the authors dub “lost Einsteins”: young people who show promising potential but who, due to lack of exposure to innovation, appear far less likely to pursue careers as inventors. Perhaps unsurprisingly these gaps fall along demographic lines. Children from high-income (top 1 percent) families are 10 times as likely to become inventors as those from below-median income families.

The consequences of Chetty’s specific findings are profound. Society is passing up entire reservoirs of latent innovation potential in the next generation.

Related content: How one middle school is closing the tech achievement gap

The findings are also a microcosm of a broader reality facing the education establishment in an age of stark income and geographic inequalities. If Chetty’s research tells us something about schools, it’s that all the academic interventions in the world may not add up to tackling opportunity gaps that shape students’ ability to realize their potential as inventors or otherwise. In recent years, education reformers have focused relentlessly on K-12 achievement gaps and college graduation rates as proxies for leveling the playing field. But Chetty’s data suggests that opportunity gaps don’t merely spring forth from gaps in achievement or attainment—they are based on exposure. They are also social and geographic in nature.

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eSchool News Digital & Mobile Learning Guide

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How do U.S. students’ computer and information literacy skills stack up?

U.S. eighth-graders scored above the international average for computer and information literacy, but they also struggle with some key 21st-century employability skills, according to an international study.

The International Computer and Information Literacy Study (ICILS) measures eighth-graders’ ability to use computers to investigate, create, participate, and communicate at home, at school, in their future workplace, and in their communities. The 2018 study’s results were released in the United States by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), marking the first time that U.S. ICILS data are available.

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“The study shows that the idea of the ‘digital native’ is more myth than reality,” says Peggy G. Carr, associate commissioner for assessment at NCES. “Today’s eighth-graders were raised in a world in which computers and smartphones are commonplace, but the majority of them were unable to execute basic tasks independently. Clearly, we have work to do to ensure that our students are prepared to use digital devices to successfully navigate all aspects of life.”

While 90 percent of U.S. students demonstrated a functional working knowledge of computers as tools and were able to complete simple tasks, such as opening a link in a new browser tab, an alarmingly smaller group–25 percent of U.S. eighth-graders–was able to independently use computers as tools (such as for gathering information or managing work) and successfully distinguish the reliability of web-based information. The assessment found that girls in the U.S. and internationally scored higher than boys in computer information literacy.


How districts are addressing adolescent mental health

Research from a recent white paper highlights the increasing crisis in adolescent mental health. In a recent edWebinar, presenters emphasized the need for school districts “to intervene with students as quickly as possible to keep them safe.”

The rise of anxiety and depression

Anxiety and depression rates are increasing, and suicide is now the second-leading cause of death for 10- to 19-year-olds across the spectrum of race, gender, and socioeconomic levels.

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Seventy percent of teens cite anxiety and depression as a significant problem for their friends and their peers, and 40 percent of students report that bullying, substance, and alcohol abuse are affecting fellow students. More than 10 million students between the ages of 13 to 18 need professional help for a mental health condition.

This situation is a “mental health tsunami,” moving very fast in schools across the country, and the pressure is on. Some of the underlying causes of adolescent stress identified by mental health professionals include academics, social media, and childhood trauma such as homelessness and abuse.


Strategies to help your institution combat cyberattacks

It doesn’t matter where you look. Today, technology is everywhere. In educational organizations, tech has become a crucial part of the daily learning process, fundamentally changing the way students learn, how teachers educate, and how learning institutions operate. Whether doing research in a computer lab or conducting classwork on a personal tablet, students and teachers are more connected now than ever before. Of course, with such connection, there comes potential of cyber threats and cyberattacks.

Cyberattacks are happening in schools nationwide

Since 2016, there have been 688 publicly-disclosed cybersecurity-related incidents involving U.S. public schools and 61 public school districts have experienced more than one cybersecurity incident.

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One might ask, “Why are attackers targeting schools?” Beyond the troves of personally-identifiable information (PII) on students and staff, there is frequently sensitive—and lucrative—data associated with research projects being conducted at the schools.


Teaching writing one word at a time

As the writing facilitator for my district, I model writing instruction for other teachers all the time. It gives them an opportunity to see effective instruction in practice, of course, but modeling writing itself is an important component of how we teach our students to communicate effectively.

I didn’t always appreciate the power of modeling. It’s something I began to focus on after adopting the Empowering Writers (EW) approach to professional development a decade or so into my career, and these days I’m a big advocate of teaching by example. A recent experience with one of my 6th-grade students really brought home the power of modeling for me.

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Plenty of access to language—but no English

This little girl had just moved to our district from Europe with incredible language skills. She spoke 15 different languages, but none of them were English. She was extremely smart and she walked around with the sweetest smile on her face all day, but she didn’t really know what was going on around her.


How two districts tackle the digital equity gap

Students expect easy and immediate access to technology tools and high-speed internet in schools, and recent research shows that 99 percent of school districts are offering enough bandwidth to support digital and mobile learning in classrooms. But the digital equity gap isn’t so easily solved.

While many schools have reliable high-speed internet access, many students leave school and go home to unreliable internet access, or no internet access at all. This means that even if students have a school-issued take-home device, or a device of their own at home, they have no internet.

Some districts are hoping to close this digital equity gap by giving students take-home Wi-Fi hotspots with filtered, district-provided internet access. Kajeet‘s SmartSpot is one such example. Kajeet’s SmartSpots are filtered mobile hotspot devices designed to give students safe wireless internet connections. Kajeet partners with five major U.S. wireless networks to offer coverage.

Leaders in New York’s Beekmantown Central School District wanted to push instruction in new directions, and solicited participation from teachers across the district. Gary Lambert, the district’s director of 21st century learning, says the district team expected 10-15 volunteers to sign up for the digital literacy initiative, but nobody was expecting nearly 40 teachers to volunteer that first year. Participation grew to about 95 percent of district teachers.

The initiative, which is in its fourth full school year, promotes the use of technology when appropriate, when it offers something new and different, and when it contributes to learning in ways that wouldn’t be possible without technology, Lambert says.

As the district built its digital literacy initiative, educators knew there were important puzzle pieces that needed to be in place to ensure the initiative’s success. One of those puzzle pieces was a hard look at digital equity.

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The eSchool News Digital & Mobile Learning Guide is here! It features strategies to help you effectively use digital and mobile learning resources, along with tips to support digital and mobile learning initiatives. A new eSchool News Guide will launch each month–don’t miss a single one!


Profile of a technologically literate graduate

When school leaders set out to create a profile of their ideal graduate, many trip up on defining technological literacy and subsequently struggle to select the right edtech to get students there.

One way to simplify this process is by connecting the criteria to your school or district’s computer science (CS), edtech and STEAM initiatives. Start by incorporating CS and STEAM into instruction through classroom projects that also address digital equity and digital citizenship while teaching science, math, ELA and other subjects.

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Using the four steps below, you can thoughtfully create a profile of a technologically literate graduate.

STEP 1: Have a model and unpack it

To jump-start the conversation within your school, use your division-wide or statewide profile of a graduate. Many departments of education have developed such profiles that are helpful for educators to review.

First, choose the knowledge and skills that every graduate must have. In my state of Virginia (like many other states), we focus on these four:

  • Content knowledge
  • Workplace skills
  • Community engagement and civic responsibility
  • Career exploration

Since these categories are very broad, you’ll want to describe how they apply specifically to CS and STEAM education. You can start by presenting a model of what a student maker looks like.