Closing the Achievement Gap: Nevada's Churchill County School District
Can Technology Improve Student Achievement?
Faculty from a rural Nevada district take part in the Rural Science Teachers Teaching with Technology (RST3) grant program to discover whether technology can really make a difference in student learning.
When my department at the Churchill County Junior High School in Fallon, NV, got the chance to partake in the Rural Science Teachers Teaching with Technology (RST3) project, which uses technology to teach science, we were a little giddy at the prospect of each participant receiving a laptop, an LCD projector, software, professional development, a full year of paid high-speed Internet access at home, three graduate credits, and a stipend. All we had to do was write and teach two units with a technology component and two without, teach two units developed by another team, and then collect the data, and our department got to keep all the money. Sounds easy, right?
When our rural district in Northern Nevada was asked to take part in the RST3 grant program, which involved action research through the University of Nevada, Reno, there were initially five people involved from my department; we viewed ourselves as scientists. We each had an average of 13.5 years of teaching experience, so we knew how to teach children and were already integrating technology into our curriculum, albeit it was on a sh'estring budget with only one computer. Needless to say, we were ready for anything that was thrown our way.
Getting Hit With Reality
Computer problems. Often what looks easy on the surface is a lot more difficult when you wade into it. Our first hurdle was a squabble over who would have administrative rights and ownership of the computers and projectors. The second one came when the district decided to wipe the computers clean and load a lower-end operating system on them. The third hurdle was having to wait a month for the technology department to finish wiping and reloading the software onto the laptops, which caused the teachers to lose some momentum and enthusiasm.
Content problems. Once the computer problems were resolved, the next hurdle was developing content. We had to develop two units that would somehow meet state standards and fit into our current curriculum. The first problem was trying to collaborate since this is a rural community, and some of the participants were up to two hours away by car. We live on Highway 50, also known as the "loneliest road in America," so finding someone to collaborate was a challenge. Fortunately, we were able to resolve most of the distance problem by relying on e-mail and phone correspondence.
This content portion proved to be the area of give and take. We negotiated like we were planning for a peace summit in the Middle East. In the end, we each found out our individual strengths and weaknesses. I was lucky enough to have four people involved in the project at my school. It was an amazing journey to collaborate with colleagues who I had worked next door to for 10 years but had never really worked with. As we overcame each obstacle, our respect for one another grew exponentially.
Skewing the data. The downside to the project was teaching somebody else's units. As an objective participant to another's work, I could see ways to make the lessons more functional and fluid. At least five times a day, I would stomp over to my teaching partner's room and say, "I am just going to fix this and do it the way that is best!" He would calmly reply, "You will skew the data. You have to do it the way that it is presented. Don't skew the data." It became something of a joke between us that I would totally skew the data trying to make something more functional. Ultimately, the process made me more reflective about my own curriculum because it made me realize that I had to be as objective and critical of my own work in order to deliver quality instruction.
Exit-interview strategy. Then there was the testing and the data. Learning to write test questions that measured depth and breadth of student understanding required a sharp learning curve, because teachers generally feel more comfortable with knowledge questions rather than application or synthesis. The students also completed a performance assessment, which was a new tool for those of us who have been teaching for 10 or more years. But the portion of the assessment that proved to be the biggest headache was the exit interview. What do you do with a class full of 30 children while conducting 20-minute interviews that involve five students? We eventually figured out after the first round of interviews how to interview students without the resultant anarchy in the classroom. The exit interviews gave us insight regarding what we did right and what lingering misinformation was still in the consciousness of the students. This further reflection allowed me to go back to the lesson and see just where the "holes" existed in the unit.
Analyzing the Data
As the piles of test papers and performance assessments grew, so did the anxiety of grading and loading the information into a spreadsheet. I was fortunate enough to find a parent to help me get the data numbered and organized. However, loading the spreadsheet and mailing off the data was tantamount to giving birth; relief flooded over me as I dropped the manila envelope into the mailbox. In the end, I had loaded around 1,600 pieces of data, graded 600 tests and performance assessments, and conducted 120 exit interviews.
As I began to analyze the data, I couldn't see a real difference in the scores. I came to the conclusion that good teaching was just good teaching. One of the units that I taught did not have enough of a technology component to even be considered in the study. In fact, my control group ended up performing better across the board than my experimental group on that particular unit. However, when the data was disaggregated, the results were astounding. Our subpopulations of American Indians, girls, and special-education students in the technology groups did significantly better than their peers in the control groups. This information was a wonderful answer to my original hypothesis: If technology is used for science instruction, then student achievement will be greater.
Ultimately, the experience of developing curriculum that would scientifically determine whether technology made a difference in student learning really made a difference in me. While my hubris became a tail tucked between my legs, it d'es occasionally get a chance to wag. Technology in the classroom is like air, I just couldn't get along without it.
Kerri Angel is the department chair for eighth-grade science at Churchill County Junior High School in Fallon, NV. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
This article originally appeared in the 07/01/2005 issue of THE Journal.