Sparking a Revolution in Teaching and Learning
How one of Ohio’slowest-performingelementary schoolsraised its third-gradereading test scores bya whopping 124 percent.
As a technology specialist, I’msupposed to believe in the power ofeducational technology to changechildren’s lives. But when I saw one of ourlowest-performing schools increase its passrate on the state reading test by 124 percentin one year, even I was a little stunned.
About two years ago, our schooldistrict, like many other districts nationwide,was beginning to feel the first effectsof the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).Reading scores at many of our elementaryschools were unacceptably low, and oneschool in particular—Fairmount ParkElementary School—had been labeled as“in need of improvement” by the OhioDepartment of Education.
Fairmount was a challenged school in adepressed community. With a city-wideunemployment rate of over 9 percent, two thirdsof the students in the district qualifiedfor free and reduced lunches. Thingswere even more challenging at Fairmount,as nearly 80 percent of its students camefrom economically disadvantaged homes.For many of these K-5 students, reading wasnot something that was valued in the home.Little wonder that nearly two-thirds ofthem were unable to get a passing score onthe third-grade Ohio Achievement Test forReading.
We tackled the district’s reading problemswith a broad approach that included anew research-based curriculum, intensivestaff development, aggressive pre-testing,and daily after-school interventionprograms. Because of its low test scores,Fairmount qualified for an NCLB Title II D:Enhancing Education Through Technology(EETT) grant. As the district’s curriculumspecialist for instructional technology, I waspart of a team that formed and implementeda technology strategy that would have a realand measurable impact on student learning.
Four Criteria for Technology Integration
We were certain of one thing from the outset:We needed a technology solution that wastruly integrated into daily classroominstruction. Schools in our district had beenusing educational technology for years, butall that hardware and software seemed to beirrelevant to the teacher’s job in the classroom.Students could go to the computer laband pop in a CD with some supplementaltitle as an enrichment activity or a reward forgetting their real work done early. Theseactivities stood outside the actual life of theclassroom, and many teachers were able toavoid involvement with technology entirely.
For educational technology to make animpact on our mission to improve readingscores, we had to break out of this oldmodel.“Integration” has been a buzzwordamong educational technology specialistsfor a long time now, but what d'es it reallylook like? We had four criteria in mind:
- Standards incorporation. To improvestudent performance on the state’s readingtest, we needed to make sure that classroominstruction closely supportedOhio’s academic standards for reading. Wewere looking for a lot more than the typicalcorrelation document that explained howa program related to our state standards.We wanted our actual standards languagebuilt into the program, so that teacherscould go directly from a specific readingstandard to assessments and tutorials thatsupport it.
- Curriculum alignment. We hadchosen the Four-Blocks Literacy Model(www.four-blocks.com), developed byPatricia Cunningham and Dorothy Hallof Wake Forest University (NC), abroad-based approach that includesguided reading, self-selected reading,word study, and writing as a way ofteaching to the strengths of every learner.Our technology component had tosupport each element of this model.
- Whole-class instruction. This was acritical component. Our district waslooking for technology that would be atool for teaching an entire classroom, notsomething that only worked in a labsetting. The interaction among teachersand students—and more importantly,among the students themselves—is apowerful part of learning. Therefore, weneeded technology that would furtherthat interaction, not isolate students infront of a terminal with headphones on.
- Adaptive, engaging content. In additionto supporting our standards andcurriculum, the technology had toconvey content in a way that respondedto the needs of every learner, from thestruggling special-education students,to the gifted and talented ones. We alsowanted programs that our studentswould love to use, which is especiallyimportant for our at-risk students.Engagement is a crucial component;without it, you may have their bodies,but you’ll never capture their minds.
“We pulled all the teachers from a single grade together fortwo days of training, which allowed us to focus on the specificcontent for that grade.”
The Technology Solution
To create a technology solution that meetsall these integration goals, we started with ahardware platform that put technologydirectly into teachers’ hands in the classroom.Each teacher at Fairmount wasissued an Apple iBook G4 laptop(www.apple.com/ibook); one that couldbe used in the classroom and taken home.The iBooks were equipped with Apple’sAirPort Extreme (www.apple.com/airportextreme)wireless cards, so the computercould travel easily around the class. Everyclassroom was also given a Toshiba(www.toshiba.com) data projector and aprojector screen, so that teachers couldpresent online lessons and virtual manipulativeswith the entire class.
As for software, the Ohio SchoolNetCommission had adopted two possibleelementary-level reading programs fromwhich we could choose. We selectedDestination Success from Riverdeep(www.riverdeep.net) because of its comprehensiveapproach that included engaginginstructional content (Destination Readingand Destination Math) and fun, illuminatinganimations, songs, and activities thatchildren (and a lot of adults) fell in lovewith. More importantly, the tutorials focuson actual instruction and real-world examples,not just endless drill and skill. We couldsee how this would be the ideal resource forintroducing units and reinforcing skills infront of the whole class, while still providingindividualized instruction.
In addition, Destination Successincluded a learning management systemthat had the Ohio state standards built rightinto it; teachers could click on a standardand instantly see tutorials and activities thatsupported it. They could also create teststhat directly correlated to the standards, andsee how their classes and individualstudents were progressing toward mastery.
Our proposed solution for Fairmountwas standards-based, validated byresearch, and included direct instructionin all vital reading skills—everything theEETT grant required. In the summer of2003, we were ready to go.
Getting Teacher Buy-In
We insisted on intensive, face-to-facetraining for every teacher who was going tobe part of implementing this solution. Aspopular as it is in some districts, I personallydon’t like the train-the-trainer model.All too often, the trainer is the only onewho gets all the information she needs toimplement the program, and it may takeher months to impart this knowledge toher colleagues. If you’ve invested in aquality program and expect teachers toactually implement it, you have toempower your teachers. You have to givethem the tools they need and the trainingthey need to use those tools. That way, younot only make sure everybody knows howto use the program; you also build theteacher buy-in that’s absolutely necessaryif you’re going to get full use of theprogram once the teacher closes that classroomdoor.
For Fairmount, we asked our technologyconsultants, YES Learning & Computer Center (www.yeslearning.org), to provide two days of on-site training foreverybody in the building—and I meaneverybody: the principal, K-5 classroomteachers, Title I teachers, special-educationintervention specialists, volunteer tutors,everybody who was going to be involvedwith student reading and math. But thetraining didn’t stop there: Once a month,the YES trainer would come back to delivermentoring days, model lessons, answerquestions, and brainstorm solutions forproblems that cropped up.
We tried hard to avoid giving teachersthe impression that we were laying onemore burden on them. I told the teachers:“I don’t want you to change the way youteach. I just want you to use another layerof tools. Continue to use manipulatives,textbooks, exercises, and other thingsyou’ve come to rely on.But now you’ve gota new set of tools that can help.”
For instance, if the teacher was going todo a phonics unit on the silent “e,” he coulduse the Destination Reading unit to introducethe concept to the whole group. Thetutorial includes a cute song about a tigerthat turns one word into another byadding a silent “e” with a flick of its tail.Then there’s an activity where studentstransform words by adding the “e.”Students can take turns going up to thelaptop to work the exercise, while the restof the class watches on the projectionscreen and participates. The processbecomes an engaging, memorable way tointroduce the unit.
For one-on-one interaction, the schoolhas a stationary lab and an Apple iBookWireless Mobile Lab equipped with up to 30notebooks. Teachers can bring the mobilelab into their classroom for an hour a day, acouple of days a week.During lab time, eachchild individually reviews the lesson andworks on practice sessions assigned by theteacher. In a lab setting, the coursewareautomatically provides an increasing levelof explanation and support if a student isstruggling to get the right answer; thus, it’sindividualizing instruction in real time tothe learning needs of each student.
Despite the inevitable learning curve,Fairmount’s reading technology implementationwent amazingly well. Teacherswho had been reluctant to use technologybefore were now making it a part of theirdaily classroom routine. And the kids wereexcited and motivated by the content.Students were actually asking to stay infrom recess so they could work with theprogram. It was a thrill to hear themhumming the songs from the courseware tothemselves as they headed home—talkabout extending the learning day!
The acid test, of course, was the statereading test. We were amazed by the results.The third-graders at Fairmount had gonefrom a disappointing 37.5 percent passingrate in fall 2003 to an 84 percent passing ratein spring 2004; an astonishing 124 percentincrease. In the course of a single year, thelowest-performing school was now givingthe most affluent schools in the district arun for their money. With results like this, itwas no problem getting additional EETTmoney to fund the program at Fairmountfor another year, and to extend it to sevenother elementary schools.
Refining the Model
Interactive whiteboards. We added anumber of refinements to our second yearimplementation. We purchased interactivewhiteboards from SMARTTechnologies (www.smarttech.com) foreach school, so students could use virtualmanipulatives by just touching the screen.Not only was it great for kinestheticlearners, but it put the student right up infront of the class—not over at the laptop.The SMART Boards allowed for so muchmore engagement by our students, andthey loved it.
Staff development changes. We made anumber of important changes in our staffdevelopment model. Rather than trainingevery teacher at a school at once, we pulledall the teachers from a single grade togetherfor two days of training. This turned out tobe a very powerful technique;it allowed us tofocus on the specificcontent for that grade,and was a rare chance forall teachers of a singlegrade to talk, share,brainstorm, and come upwith wonderful ideas forimplementations. In themonthly mentoring sessionsthat followed, wehad the teachers sit downby grade level with thementor. We also hired afirst-year teacher to workwith us in the second yearof the implementation.She visited a differentelementary school every day to work withteachers and students. She taught classes,worked with students in the lab, and helpedsolve problems that came up. Our traveling“coach” was fabulous; she not onlyprovided enriched instruction for students,she gave just-in-time training to teachers.Her support helped many reluctantteachers overcome their technology fears.
Other staff members played a role inour success that second year: At eachschool, we appointed a lead teacher whohelped manage the implementation, andserved as my primary point of contact.These lead teachers made the whole systemwork; we couldn’t have kept constant tabson eight elementary schools without them.
Principal participation. The principalsbecame champions as well. Almost all hadtaken a graduate-level course on becominginstructional leaders in technology. Theprincipals got their own laptops and weretrained in their use. With the laptops, theprincipals were able to use the managementsystem to check the progress of each classroom—a feature they really loved. Theywould bring their classroom reports to theircollaborative planning sessions withteachers, so they had specific guidance onwhat each class needed. Their participationhelped ensure our regular formative assessmentshad a real, effective impact on classroominstruction.
With all this support and involvement,it was no surprise that every elementaryschool in our second-year implementationshowed significant gains in reading scores,often reaching pass rates of over 80 percent.It was also no surprise that we began to getpressure to extend our technology model toother elementary schools—both from principalsand teachers who had heard aboutwhat was happening in our EETT schools,and from teachers who were transferredfrom an implementation school to a nonimplementationschool, and couldn’t facegoing back to their old way of teaching. Withthe help of special-education funds, Title Imonies, and other funding sources, we gotDestination Success into all our elementaryschools for the 2005-2006 school year.
I have to say, however, that our successg'es far beyond any specific program. I’venever seen a technology initiative have theeffect this one has had. The process of integratingtechnology has really changed thewhole culture of the schools, and the districtas well. It’s changed people: I’ve seen teacherswho were afraid of technology fall in lovewith it. They’ve branched out to e-mail, presentationtools, personal Web pages, digitalcameras and video, and put it all to work inthe classroom. And the same-grade trainingmodel has led teachers to form strong bondsfor technical (and emotional) support.
In the end, our students (who start lifewith so many strikes against them) are findingreal success with hands-on, active, engagedlearning. And isn’t that what the classroom ofthe future is supposed to look like?
Carole Eaton is a curriculum specialist forinstructional technology for the CantonCity Schools in Ohio.
This article originally appeared in the 08/01/2005 issue of THE Journal.