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OP/ED: Will iPads boost student achievement?

By Tracey Levesque

and Stella Gammaitoni

Auburn Citizens for Responsible Education

Is Auburn in the middle of an educational crisis? According to one Auburn School Committee member: “We are failing already.” (Thomas Kendall, school committee member, April 27, 2011).

Mr. Kendall believes the “educational system is flawed” and Auburn is using the “failure model.” In fact, he agrees that our educational system was not successful 30 years ago—possibly even further back than that.

While we respect him for admitting that our system is not producing solid results, we wonder why major changes have not been made earlier? Will iPads, the newest fad hoping to boost academic results, actually produce any noticeable improvements?

One third of Auburn high school students fail to graduate in four years. Almost one third of Auburn third graders are not proficient in math or literacy. School committee member Bonnie Hayes recently stated that the dropout rate has been a concern during her most recent two terms on the committee and was a concern 25 years ago during her previous term. Why are our numbers not improving? Why have we been continuing with the same “failure model” for over 25 years?

The new iPad initiative attempts to change these numbers. According to the school department’s presentation on April 27, the purpose is to “increase both student mastery of foundational skills and a student’s attitude toward schooling and learning.” Proficiency goals in both literacy and math are targeted to increase approximately 30 percent by 2014.

These goals will primarily be achieved through childrens’ use of an iPad, starting in kindergarten and continuing through third grade. Software on the iPad will allow children to tap on the screen and choose correct numbers or letters through a game-type reward system. While improving proficiency is a necessary goal, there is virtually no evidence-based research showing that iPads will, in fact, improve student success.

Medical professionals were not contacted prior the iPad proposal, but learned of the proposal through reports in local news outlets. In fact, according to Auburn Superintendent Tom Morrill, no occupational therapists were consulted before considering iPads for kindergartners.

Despite being overlooked, many medical and childhood-development professionals have since shared their expert opinions and research with the school committee though email and at public meetings. The primary medical concerns are the impact that screen time will have on such young children, as well as motor-skill development and repetitive-use injuries.

Numerous studies have shown that more than two hours in front of a screen increase chances of childhood obesity, attention problems, social problems, eyesight complications and a whole host of other serious medical conditions.

How has Auburn School Department responded to these medical professionals’ concerns? They have redefined screen time. In a presentation on April 27, a technology representative for the school explained that screen time has been redefined. Despite experts’ opinions, Auburn school department does not consider that iPad screens may possibly have a negative impact on children’s health. Thus, they believe that screen time on the iPads do not have any influence on the iPad initiative in Auburn.

When asked whether there are studies to show that iPads do improve proficiency in the general education classroom, the answer given in the presentation was there is “no research that this doesn’t work.” Also, according to the timeline presented, 100 iPads were passed out to five kindergarten classrooms last week. iPad effectiveness was to be researched and data collected from May 12-15 (a Thursday through Sunday).

Thus, the success and expansion of the program will be determined on four days of research with two of those days falling on a weekend. If this is how our school leaders collect data and support their arguments, it is no wonder that our students are failing at such alarming rates.

Just as concerning, the iPad initiative has no secure funding base. The public has been told the program will be funded through donations and grants. To date there are no specifics as to the amount of donations or the source of the grants. Is this a solid strategy for funding a program that our school committee deems so important? How will future repairs and updates for the iPads be funded? Will any future iPad expenses be covered by a grant? Or will residents be responsible for maintenance costs, as in the case of the middle school laptops?

The school committee says that we need to intervene earlier than high school. We agree. But there are many other cheaper and proven methods that should be explored. Right now there is legislation pending that would give Maine students more school choice through the creation of charter schools. Forty states have charter schools. Many special-purpose public charter schools in other states have had huge success with early intervention programs. When will the school committee investigate these and other options?

Our children are being used as test subjects for the nation and the world. Despite all of the evidence presented, safer and cheaper alternatives and a lack of community support, the school department is going forward with the iPad rollout. If this is how our school leaders make decisions and respond to the community, we agree with Superintendent Tom Morrill: it is a dark day in Auburn right now.

For more information on Auburn Citizens for Responsible Education and the ideas presented here, please see the Facebook page for Auburn Citizens for Responsible Education. For information on charter schools, see the Maine Association for Charter Schools at www.mainecharterschools.org.

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One Response to “OP/ED: Will iPads boost student achievement?”

  • Jared:

    Thank you to the Twin City Times for running this thought provoking op-ed piece that truly reflects the investment parents have in their children and in their community. I applaud the authors of this article for asking important questions and challenging an Ipad initiative that seems misguided, though well intended.
    As an educator, I would like to also mention that research continues to point to socio-economic status as a very reliable indicator of student achievement. I researched the performance of Auburn Middle School students on the NECAP, a standards-based test, that measures how well students are mastering specific skills defined for each grade by the state of Maine.
    I discovered that in 2010, 69% of grade 7 students in Auburn meet or exceed standards in reading. The state average was 68%. In Math, 58% of Auburn students meet or exceeded the standard. The state average was 60%. In Grade 8, 60% of students met or exceeded the standard in reading, while the state average was 69%. Finally, in Math, 57% of students met or exceeded the standards and 59% was the state average. In summary, it seems as though Auburn Middle Schoolers are achieving slightly below the state average.
    After looking at the test data, I looked at the socio-economic situation in Auburn. The number of students eligible for free and reduced lunch—normally used as an indicator of poverty–is slightly above the state average. 44% of students at Auburn Middle School are eligible for free or reduced lunch. The state average is 38%. In summary, Auburn Middle Schoolers are above average in poverty.
    When discussing standardized test scores and drop out rates, it is paramount that we are willing to look at all the issues that affect student achievement. The research continues to show the importance of socio-economic status in education. Recently, Falmouth was recognized as having the top school system in the Northeast. Only 4% of students in Falmouth receive free or reduced lunch. I have been a teacher for ten years. I can tell you for certain, if you had all the teachers and administrators from Falmouth switch with Auburn, you would see the exact same standardized test data.

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