Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Improving Academic Achievement with Cell Phones

A recent article in the New York Times (“Reaching out to students when they talk and text,” November 13, 2007) describes a planned campaign in New York City Public Schools to improve the academic performance of students in underachieving schools using mentoring and various incentives for high performance. According to the Times article, the incentives will include “free concerts and sporting events and free minutes and ringtones for their phones.” That’s another part of the program. Each student in participating schools will be given a cell phone even though the Mayor of NYC has banned cell phones in City schools.

The program will also include the use of text messages created by an advertising agency that promote academic achievement. This is an effort to “rebrand” educational achievement. The article cites a study undertaken by the NYC schools that many poor Black and Latino students in the city’s poorest neighborhoods “had a difficult time understanding that doing well in school can provide tangible, long-term benefits.”

I guess the problem is that academic achievement has a bad “rep.”

Apparently, the antidote to under resourced schools, impoverished curricula, a shortage of “highly qualified” teachers, and the material effects of poverty is an advertising campaign. This all seems incredibly naïve to me. And, if the stakes weren’t so high, I might find such blind faith in the power of advertising charming.

But the stakes are very high and ads and incentives miss the more important point. Students in high poverty schools need better facilities. They need better teachers. And, most of all, they need challenging, high expectation curricula.

Sarah Michaels and I are currently examining data we collected in a South Bronx elementary school that used Shared Inquiry and Accountable Talk as part of its reading program. In this program, students read and discussed challenging texts, using textual evidence to make sophisticated arguments. We also found that, during the time students were involved in Shared Inquiry, reading scores increased and teachers’ perceptions of their students’ learning potential were transformed. Our findings are consistent with the work of Jeannie Oakes and other urban scholars who have demonstrated the power of high expectation curricula to turn around low achieving schools.

Maybe if I had the cell phone numbers of NYC school officials I could text them.


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