Professional Development :: Tennessee

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INVESTING IN PEOPLE

An unconventional initiative embedded full-time technology coaches in Tennessee publicschools, resulting in demonstrable boosts in teacher confidence and student engagement.

RISK-TAKING, innovation, and imagination are not typicallythe hallmarks of state government, but a risky, innovative,and distinctly imaginative route is exactly what JerryBates, director of applied school technology for the TennesseeDepartment of Education, designed for the structureof Title II-D competitive grants for the state’s public schools.First, the initiative, titled Tennessee EdTech Launch(TnETL), called for awarding substantial funding to a smallgroup of schools rather than funding multiple schools withmuch smaller amounts.

Second, it focused on investing in people, providing extensive training for a single teacher from each of the 27 participating schools to serve as a full-time, embedded technology coach, as well as providing for a part-time tech-support person. As conceived, the coach would implement comprehensive, ongoing, and individualized professional development to meet the needs of each teacher on the campus, and the support person would troubleshoot hardware and software problems. The funding for the initiative was structured so that all equipment installation and initial professional development was completed prior to the start of school, so that teachers would have what they needed when students returned in the fall.

The plan’s final component was an evaluation process called the Formative Evaluation Process for School Improvement/ Technology Package, which supplied the state, the districts, and the schools with evaluation data of all kinds. The varied types of data FEPSI/TP assembled included classroom observations, surveys, student performance assessments, interviews, focus groups, school-developed technology benchmarks, and analysis of student achievement. Use of FEPSI-TP enabled TnETL schools to develop ownership of their technology integration efforts, while also ensuring accountability to the state using common data points that addressed state and national standards.

"TnETL classrooms were more student-centered, projectbased,and academically focused. One teacher says,“I’ve been here 18 years, and this is the biggestsuccessful schoolwide event that we have ever had.”

A Mixed Bag of Results

The two-year program was introduced in two overlapping parts. Launch 1 ran from 2003 to 2005, and Launch 2 from 2004-2006); the evaluation was conducted from 2003-2006. As with many technology-based initiatives, the results were mixed, depending upon the purpose of the initiative and the kinds of outcomes that were sought. Were schools able to achieve successful technology integration when key barriers that commonly impede such efforts—insufficient professional development, lack of funding for hardware/software, and inadequate technical support—were removed?

The answer is mostly yes, from the perspectives of participating students, teachers, principals, and technology coaches. TnETL students more frequently used technology as a tool to support learning, were better able to use spreadsheet software and the internet, and revealed a higher level of attention, interest, and motivation than students in control classrooms. In addition, teachers in the program reported improved technology skills and greater confidence to integrate technology into lessons than teachers in a control group. This confidence was evidenced in observation results showing that TnETL classrooms were more student-centered, project-based, and academically focused. As one teacher says, “I’ve been here 18 years, and this is the biggest successful schoolwide event that we have ever had.”

Principals also had many good things to say. They were in general agreement that students were excited about using computers because they were fun and helped them to do better in school. Their greater interest in learning raised the quality of their work, which in turn motivated their teachers. Plus, the students took a great deal of pride in their digital tools. One rural school principal says that he knew the program was a success when a student declared, “We ain’t no country school no more!”

At the heart of TnETL were the technology coaches, whose work facilitated the program’s overall success. The coaches were primarily involved in designing technology training sessions, assisting teachers with computer skills, locating web-based materials, and troubleshooting classroom and/or lab computer problems—even though the schools were also given a part-time tech assistant. The coaches reported that the program’s greatest achievements were the increased confidence teachers gained in using technology, and the boosts in student engagement and knowledge.

However, the extensive evaluation revealed less positive findings. Of concern to most educators was the lack of any discernable achievement differences between TnETL students and control students as measured by the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, customarily used for summative assessment. In addition, although TnETL students used technology significantly more than control students, their experiences were mostly limited to using the internet and drill-andpractice software.

As the participants in the program look to the future, they express the usual concerns over funding-related matters, such as program sustainability and equipment upgrades—and keeping the technology coaches on board. Some are worried about the need to win over reluctant teachers and the time it may well take to see noticeable improvement in state scores.

Even with the mixed results, the positives of the program decidedly outweigh the negatives. The state’s educators plan to continue furthering technology integration efforts by applying for grants, continuing the technology coach position, and providing additional professional development. It’s a positive outlook and forward-thinking approach that draws entirely on students’ growing excitement for learning and their growing confidence that they are better prepared for success in the new century.

-Deborah L. Lowther is an associate professor of instructional design and technology at the University of Memphis.

This article originally appeared in the 07/01/2007 issue of THE Journal.

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