Education Nation

Commentary: From the Ground Up, Chicago Embraces Technology

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Reasonable and deliberate aren’t words that come to mind when describing large school systems. But, thanks to our pioneering educators, Chicago – with more than 400,000 students – is taking just that approach to technology in classrooms and schools.

It is a simple idea: our most talented educators, those who work with students every day, are identifying how to best use emerging technology to transform teaching and learning. This “bottom up” approach is supported – not driven by- the reasonable and deliberate actions of Chicago Public Schools (CPS), the city and funding community.

Barton Dassinger is the Principal of Cesar E. Chávez Multicultural Academic Center, serving 900 predominantly low-income Chicago students. In 2011, Chavez educators added 90 minutes to their school day to address individual math and literacy challenges. With math and reading technology, students could move through concepts at their own pace, allowing teachers and tutors to focus attention on those who needed it most. This individualized, self-driven learning worked – Chavez students reading and doing math at grade level increased by nearly 10 percent that year.

Local charter leaders, like Melissa Zaikos at Intrinsic and April Goble at KIPP, lead fully blended schools, where teachers use technology to personalize learning across most subjects. They have opened their doors to hundreds of educators in other schools, allowing them to observe and learn from their success.

Connectivity and network capacity could stand in the way of this kind of educator-led technology use, but the city and district have prioritized infrastructure investments. In just the last year, CPS has doubled the number of school buildings capable of using technology in ways similar to Chavez, Intrinsic and KIPP.

When faced with budget constraints, the district proactively secured state and federal funding for iPads, laptops and e-readers. A series of district-run competitions put devices in the hands of educators who wanted them most. The district also created institutional supports. Since 2010, more than 800 teachers have attended the nationally-recognized iPad Academy – a program that enables teachers to use tablets to supplement instruction and advance outcomes.

To fuel more educator-led change, the district engaged national and local partners.

At The Chicago Public Education Fund, we launched the Summer Design Program (SDP). In 2013, the SDP cohort of 16 principal-led district and charter teams spent their summer working with experts to confront specific instructional and engagement challenges that they had at their schools. The Spencer Elementary Technology Academy team developed an innovative first and second grade literacy curriculum that uses laptops and tablets, small groups, and one-on-one time with teachers to support advanced and struggling learners. Students at Haines Elementary School now consider themselves environmentalists thanks to their technology-supported work to restore the prairie during a math and science project-based unit. The Chicago Academy High School team created a dashboard that allows individual students and their parents to plan and track the necessary steps to prepare for and apply to college.

These leaders join other talented educators as members of our emerging Innovative Educator Network. This group of principal and teacher leaders is committed to transforming teaching and learning by the deliberate and reasonable use of technology, time and talent. Regular meetings and workshops allow them to learn, share successes and struggles, and support each other.

National innovation leaders are taking notice of our organic approach. In partnership with New Schools for Chicago, the Next Generation Learning Challenge announced Breakthrough Schools Chicago last fall. Breakthrough is an opportunity for at least six Chicago schools to plan and implement models that use technology to personalize learning for all students. Of the 13 schools in contention, nine are SDP participants, including Chavez, Spencer, Haines, and Chicago Academy.

This work isn’t stopping at the school door. Mayor Rahm Emanuel expanded internet access to more homes, parks and public spaces through the Broadband Challenge. He joined with the MacArthur Foundation to launch Chicago’s Summer of Learning, which extends the personalized learning approach beyond the school day and outside school walls.This approach could be easily misconstrued as too messy, or too slow. Chicago’s educators and leaders disagree.

Rather than forcing a specific device, curriculum or one-size-fits-all model on schools, educators are best-positioned to implement new technology in ways that accelerate learning. Early results suggest educator-driven innovation yields increased student achievement and engagement. In the coming years, we will work with those educators to scale what works and stop what doesn’t, allowing everyone – students, teachers, principals, and other stakeholders - to benefit from reasonable and deliberate change.