I took my 9th grade English class to the Tech Lab this week to type up Autobiographical Narratives. In today's world of computers and smartphones, one would think this activity would be, for my students, like coming home. This is the generation of information and technology.
Here in the Bay Area, these students should be the next coders for Google and Facebook. In fact, one would think that by now, I should hardly have to help them, as they probably know more about computers than a man in his thirties.
Anyone who thinks like that hasn't visited a low-income public school recently. Here is a list of things my students don't know how to do on a computer:
• Open Microsoft Word (or applications in general)
• Open a new document
• Find the Toolbox
• Change the font size
• Change the font type
• Indent (they like to hit the spacebar anywhere between 5 and 40 times)
• Change margins
• Zoom in to see better (they put the font at 25 instead of zooming to 200%)
• Save a file
• Use a flash drive
• Open up the Internet
• Open their email
• Compose an email
• Add an attachment on an email
• Send an email
• Print something
I didn't have to help just a couple students with a couple of these issues. When I say I have students who don't know how to do these things, I mean most of my students know how to do almost nothing on the list above. Keep in mind these are 14 and 15 year olds. For the hour I was at the tech lab I essentially never stopped walking around the room helping students with these 20 things. I even had my two senior assistants help me.
It may seem surprising in this age of the flipped classroom and everyone getting iPads. But the digital divide is not only still here, it is the biggest it's ever been and getting bigger every day.
Think about it like this. If you didn't have a computer at home 15 years ago, you weren't that far behind the rest of the world. Sure, it sucked, and you were missing out on a lot of really funny cat videos, but it probably wasn't keeping you from completing everyday tasks. You weren't lost in the dark.
Now take today's world. Can you imagine the life of anyone who doesn't have a computer at home, let alone a computer with an Internet connection? What about someone who can't PRINT? In 2013 that is like saying "I have never owned shoes." If you don't have a computer today, you are so far behind the rest of the world you might never catch up.
Unfortunately I just described a hell of a lot of my students.
Flipping classrooms sounds like it does some good things, although I still maintain it doesn't do anything good teachers don't already do. Good teachers are already up on their feet getting to every student every day. Good teachers don't let the silent students fail because they are afraid to ask questions. Good teachers already use technology and creative lesson planning to reach all learning styles and abilities.
In fact I will claim right here that grades are going up in flipped classrooms because it essentially eliminates homework. The gains in pass-rates are simple and something many of us have already done: Eliminate homework, and your rate of failing students goes from 50 percent to 10 percent. Students can't do homework if they don't have a home in which to do it – the playing field is so uneven it can be aptly described as mountainous.
So let's slow down with the technological aspirations for a minute and get real. Flipped classrooms sound great for rich kids with Internet access at home. Poor kids aren't going to be watching videos at home because they don't have computers, printers, the Internet, or smartphones. Many don't even have homes. The schools they go to don't have computers either. Our actual public school students are already so far behind affluent districts it is scary, and the gulf is widening with every smartphone upgrade and each new app that comes out.
So what's my answer?
We need to see where the money in education is going. We spend more per student than any other nation on earth, yet if you walk into a public school classroom you would think we spent the least. Our campuses look like jails. The water faucets don't work. There's no Tech. No computer labs. Many teachers at my school don't have the ability to show the Internet on their screen at the front of the room. Some still use overhead projectors. Talking to public school teachers about all the money in education is like talking to an archaeologist about Bigfoot. From what we can see, THERE IS NO MONEY supporting real teachers in our toughest schools.
And you wanna talk about flipping classrooms? That's flipping ridiculous.
(Matt Amaral is a writer and high school English teacher from the San Francisco Bay Area. He is a featured blogger at EducationNews.org, a leading international website for education issues. You can also follow his work on the blogsite, Teach4Real.com.)