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Wise: Digital Learning Has Produced Noticeable Gains

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September 26, 2011 08:23 pm


The World Economic Forum recently announced that the United States fell to fifth place in its annual competitiveness rankings behind Switzerland, Singapore, Sweden, and Finland—countries known not just for competitive economies but also for their world-class education systems. While the United States continues to enjoy benefits from earlier education investments, it risks falling further behind if it fails to embrace advances in technology that can improve education outcomes for all students.

Last Sunday’s New York Times article, “In Classroom of Future, Stagnant Scores,” gives an incomplete picture of the current—and rapidly developing—use of technology and digital learning. By focusing essentially on one Arizona school district, the article ignores the positive changes taking place in many other schools and districts as a result of innovative instructional methods that use technology to improve teaching and learning. Successful initiatives implement technology as part of a comprehensive plan that personalizes learning for the student, allows teachers to be more effective, and gives students access to richer content in an engaging way. While more research still needs to be done, there are many schools around the country that have achieved noticeable student gains by adding digital learning and technology focused on increased personalized learning for students and additional teacher training.

At Winterboro High School (Alabama), 86 percent of its students are considered low-income; despite this, it effectively used technology and digital learning to cut dropouts by 64 percent, decrease teacher absences by 40 percent, and increase student proficiency in math from 79 percent to 88 percent for eleventh graders. Vail School District (Arizona) received international attention for opening the country’s first school that substituted laptops and digital instructional materials in place of textbooks, and it was recently named the state’s top-performing large school district. The enhancing Missouri Instructional Networked Teaching Strategies (eMINTS) National Center combines professional development for teachers with technology and has seen its third- and fourth-grade students significantly outperform their peers on state standardized tests. Further, students with disabilities and English language learners in eMINTS schools outscored their non-eMINTS peers in each of the four main subject areas.

Carpe Diem Collegiate High School (Arizona) adopted a blended approach that combines the traditional classroom teacher with high-quality digital learning. All students have personalized learning plans and their learning progress is monitored daily providing teachers and parents with regular data on each student. With a student body that includes 53 percent of students of color and 55 percent of low-income students, 92 percent of Carpe Diem’s students are considered proficient, compared to only 57 percent for Yuma and 65 percent for the state.

Increasingly, school districts are effectively using technology to boost student outcomes. Approximately five years ago, the Mooresville Graded School District (North Carolina) began a digital conversion that combines a teaching strategy with state-of-the-art technology for every school, classroom, teacher, and student. Since the conversion, Mooresville’s graduation rate has increased by over 25 percent and its composite test scores increased by 13 percent while maintaining a per-pupil expenditure that ranks 99 out of 115 school districts in North Carolina. Previously ranked in the lower quarter of state school districts, Mooresville now ranks third for proficiency on end-of-grade testing and graduation rates.

When teachers have on-going, sustainable professional development to apply technology effectively, they are empowered to use real-time data, robust digital content, and additional instructional strategies to meet individual students’ needs regardless of achievement levels, learning styles, and challenges. It is not about technology for technology’s sake—it is about how the technology is utilized. Imagine the outcomes for patients if surgeons bought the shiniest medical instruments without regard for how they would be used.

As the nation works toward graduating more students from high school ready for college and a career, it cannot continue to merely tweak its way toward improvement. Digital learning that is personalized, based on rich content, and allows teachers to be more effective can serve as a force multiplier to accelerate the pace of change, especially as the nation faces increased global demands for talent, an aging teacher workforce approaching retirement, and rapidly declining federal and state budgets. By pairing high-quality academic content and experiences that technology can provide with effective teachers leading instruction and maximizing student engagement, the nation can ensure the success of students today and guarantee its future competitiveness.

Bob Wise is president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia. He cochairs Digital Learning Now! with former Florida governor Jeb Bush.


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