Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Providing equal access - #edchat 6/29/2010

Tonight's #edchat asked the question "How do we ensure those without privilege have equal access to quality education?".  Interestingly, we dealt with a very similar, but more specific topic on 5/4/2010 - "How can we ensure that all students have equal access to technology?".  What's interesting is that one of the main threads running through tonight's discussion was specifically about technology.

Some of the comments that I reasonate with are:
Russ Goerend - "Access to the Internet = access to quality education"
Tim Furman - "access to books would go a long to help an impoverished child"
Mary Beth Hertz - "Equal access means that all students have the opportunity to learn from a teacher who is a lifelong learner and dedicated to his or her students"
I'm sure there were others, but I had to cut out early due to guests arriving at my home.  Looking back over the archive, I found this statement that probably best sums up my feelings.
Ms. Bethea "As long as the underlying system is broken, there will always be inequality in education regardless of access."
If we can fix the system, we will address the other comments and so many others. I going to try an avoid sounding like a broken record in this post.  Instead I'll point you to my vision for how school school should look in order to speak directly to these issues.

First of all, I think "equal access" goes beyond access to technology.  I take tonight's question at face value - how do we ensure equal access quality education, which is a much bigger issue.  I do think access to technology helps.  Access to technology and the web opens up access to a wide array of resources not available otherwise.  As I said earlier tonight, we can rearrange our budgets so that money being spent on textbooks can be spent on technology.  If the technology is integrated throughout the school, throughout the day, lack of access at home is not as big a factor as it once was.  Proper internet access opens the doors to open sourcing education.

Some of tonight's discussion dealt with the socioeconomic factors that are associated with access.  Being an idealist, I want to assume that the teachers of John Doe Impoverished Neighborhood School are just as good as the ones at Charles Moneybags Suburban Gated Community School.  I want to ideally assume that teachers will receive (and seek on their own) the necessary professional development to help them be quality teachers.  So don't comment on either of these issues.  They are for another time.  This is about a broken system.

By the way, I've taught at both schools and it is certainly is "easier" at the latter.  However, that can only go far in terms of providing excuse in unequal access.  As Will Richardson said earlier last week, you may not have caused the problem but now you own so do something about it.  We cannot control the environment from which our students come, at least not in a free state.  But there are lots of things we can do to deal with that environment - free and reduced lunch, parent outreach, parent engagement, before/after school programs, etc.

In order for any of this work, we have to change the system.  We can't just tweak it.  It needs serious overhaul.  I'm not saying that all textbooks are bad.  I am saying we need to seriously take at look at the money we are spending on those books.  What would be the net effect of using technology to provide the same (or better I would argue) access?  We have to look seriously at things like testing.  We must stop playing the role of cash cow for testing services and developers.  We must fight the conventional (yet contrary to what people actually in the know and in the trenches say) wisdom regarding the validity of these tests.  

We have to change what we measure and how we measure it.  If equal access means something different from equal treatment, why are we using the same metric for everyone?  Throw out promotion schedules and report cards.  Provide access to a guaranteed success at accomplishing learning goals without a stigma regarding how long it takes.  Providing equal access is not that hard.  But it requires changing the system, and that's really not that hard either.


  1. Good post. I'm a little chagrined because I actually thought the topic was about equal access to technology. Oops. Clearly the idea of equal access to quality education is a deeper question.

    Note to self: pay attention to the question asked.

    I'm not totally sure I agree with you that changing the system is not really that hard. It's hard. We have a poverty cycle exacerbated by a built-in funding disparity mechanism, and the links to achievement are clearer in the data than any other known causal relationship. We know more about the effect of poverty on achievement than we do about the effect of teacher behavior on achievement. We certainly know more about poverty's impact on achievement than we know about technology's impact on achievement.

    I completely agree: we definitely have to change what we measure and how we measure it. Let's measure our graduates by how well they reduce the pernicious problems that have only gotten worse during the era of "accountability" because clearly, we're missing the point of education. As a society, we now have more wealth concentrated in the top 1% than ever before, and our standard of living has declined by almost every common measure. Here in Colorado, there are over 162,000 children living in real, tangible poverty; their achievement patterns are entirely predictable. As a nation, we often long for Finland's achievement test results, but their entire nation has fewer children living in poverty than we have in Colorado, and those Finnish children are cared for by an extensive social safety net, the extent of which is totally unimaginable here in social Darwinism-country.

    In the US, we're living in a time when schools are just supposed to set high expectations and ignore the world in which we live.

    Anyway, I appreciated the dialogue. I often feel like the tech world is married to the intellect but divorced from the soul. Our country has a problem-- we ought to stop making up remedial strategies for children of poverty and start working on the problem-- the poverty. In the meantime, we ought to be deploying transformative technology (laptops, connectivity) exactly where they're needed the most. If there were a clearer example of pennies on the dollar, I don't know what it would be.

  2. Tim,

    I appreciate the comments. I believe the system is easier to change than we believe because we are trying to change the wrong system. Having lived and worked in the inner city for five years I have seen first hand the mire that seems to prevent anyone from climbing out of their situation. Poverty is not just about economics, despite what politicians and other politically correct people want to say. It is a sociological and psychological problem - read Ruby Payne's "Understanding Poverty".

    There are things we can do in education to help transform that part of the equation, but largely it is out of our control. Don't misread me - I'm not saying that society as a whole should just ignore it. I am saying that if the education system tries to change that part of society we will fail at both our mandated and our chosen mission. We still need to provide free and reduced lunch. We still to provide before and after school programs and all the other things I mention above. The part of the system we need to change is that which directly affects the student when he or she walks in the door. If we focus on issues like access, pedagogical methodology and do away with grade levels and other artificial boundaries, the changes we make in our part of the system will be better able to affect change in larger society.

    Let's keep the dialogue going.

  3. (from @educatoral aka Alfonso Gonzalez via twitlonger.com)

    Matt and Tim, you both make excellent points and you both have me thinking. What I keep coming back to though, sadly and unfortunately, is how so many of us have such great ideas and yet where are our great ideas getting us? I'd love to see things done to help get people in our country out of poverty. I'd love to see all chidren have equal if not just good access to an education. But I agree with you, Matt, we have little control over poverty and to some extent acess. But even with the other things you mention, Matt, we also have little control. In my school I can deal with access and pedagogical methodologies but really only in my classroom and only to the extent my budget or grant getting ability allow me. I don't mean to be a downer, I am making changes in my classroom like doing away with grades (wish I could do away with grade-levels and schedules, too but I can't). That still doesn't change education. I think my disillusionment is coming from a sense of urgency. I see that we are making changes. Without my PLN I wouldn't have had the resources I needed to do away with grades in my classes. I just wish all these great changes would happen now. And by now I would even settle for within my lifetime. I'd love to be an educator in the future we're all envisioning.

    Thanks for this post! I seem to have come full circle and feel much better now. How therapeutic! :)