June 5, 2012

A Model District

How Mooresville, NC schools are solving the teacher-technology equation

(This is article reprinted given President Obama's announcement today in Mooresville, North Carolina of the ConnectED plan.)

Technology can’t replace the teacher, but it can go a long way towards improving student outcomes and reducing the achievement gap. According to The New York Times, these findings and others are part of the reason the Mooresville, North Carolina school district has become a model for educators and administrators nationwide.

As The Times describes:

The district’s graduation rate was 91 percent in 2011, up from 80 percent in 2008. On state tests in reading, math and science, an average of 88 percent of students across grades and subjects met proficiency standards, compared with 73 percent three years ago. Attendance is up, dropouts are down. Mooresville ranks 100th out of 115 districts in North Carolina in terms of dollars spent per student—$7,415.89 a year—but it is now third in test scores and second in graduation rates.

In addition to the district’s teachers, laptop computers are being credited with the turnaround—every student in grades 4 through 12 is issued one.

In order to secure the 4,400 MacBooks needed, the district had to eliminate a number of jobs, including 37 teachers. As a result, middle school class size went from an average of 18 students to 30. Though a dramatic shift, that increase doesn’t suggest teachers will be obsolete anytime soon. As noted above, Mooresville administration officials credit their success to finding out which tasks computers can do well, and freeing teachers to work more effectively with students on an individual basis. For example, computers allow students to practice math at their own pace, helping teachers to identify a student’s weak spots in the process.

Computers also allow for diverse and engaging digital content, and enable collaborative student activities such as social networking and the crowdsourcing of materials using tools like Google Docs. Participating in class and sharing information in these ways also relieves shy children of the dreaded march to the blackboard in order to deliver a report or document their problem solving. And while students work in groups, teachers can spend time with individual kids, helping them with difficulties and answering questions.

According to The Times, “the technology had helped close racial performance gaps in a district where 27 percent of the students are minorities and 40 percent are poor enough to receive free or reduced-price lunches.” What’s more, teachers in Mooresville schools have come to “value computers not for the newest content they can deliver, but for how they tap into the oldest of student emotions—curiosity, boredom, embarrassment, angst—and help educators deliver what only people can.”

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