MIDDLETOWN, N.Y. — A second-grader furrows her brow, searching her keyboard to find that funny number sign for her password. A third-grader holds her Chromebook aloft, hoping to speed the connection to a wireless router. A high school teacher puts his iPad in a drawer, having wasted precious minutes taking attendance on a new system with no success.
Educational technology, for all its potential, is riddled with glitches and startup pains, especially when you’re among the first to trade pencils for tablets. Yet some pioneering school leaders insist that thrusting schools into the digital Petri dish is imperative for students’ success.
These leaders _ from places such as Overland Park, Kan., and Middletown, N.Y. _ risk upsetting staff and budget watchdogs by following their conviction that innovation with technology can help teachers target learning and help students master basic skills. They forge ahead, piloting programs, building digital curricula, enabling enthusiastic teachers and dragging the reluctant ones into the new age.
In Johnson County, Kan., Blue Valley School District Superintendent Tom Trigg has been orchestrating a culture change emphasizing daily innovation among teachers. Trigg’s 22,000-student district has changed schedules and trained staff on how to embrace change and work together. The district also has infused classrooms with devices _ such as Netbooks and iPads _ and given teachers training to use them.
In New York, Middletown Enlarged City School District Superintendent Ken Eastwood has plodded through obstacles to encourage a tech-savvy school culture. The district has seen a 24 percent boost in graduation rates since his arrival in 2004 to 2013, and higher elementary and middle school scores, too, according to state data and a validation study.
Eastwood also brought $20 million to Middletown, N.Y. _ an urban low-income district about 70 miles north of New York City _ when his 200-page plan earned one of just 16 federal Race to the Top district grants in 2012.
But, Eastwood cautions, “technology initiatives either fail or aren’t sustained because the leader comes and goes, or the jazz around the technology goes away.”
Despite calls from governors, senators and the president for American education to shift into the digital age, technology-infused districts exist only in pockets of the country. Among the reasons: limited high-speed Internet access, inadequate teacher training, curriculum that isn’t synched to technology and, of course, budget constraints.
About 63 percent of the country’s schools don’t have the required Internet connectivity, according to EducationSuperHighway, a San Francisco nonprofit that works to enable more schools to go high-speed.
Most schools nationwide still haven't intertwined digital resources into learning, according to an annual survey from the Software Industry & Information Association. More schools are getting devices into classrooms, but they haven’t done the follow-through needed to help teachers make the best use of these devices.
“I would say we have a long way to go,” said Richard Culatta, director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education. “We have some really great models out there, but by far the majority of schools have not crossed that tipping point and we need to be able to get there.”
It’s up to leaders with vision and guts to tame this technological frontier, observers say.
On a typical day in Mauro Bruno’s Middletown classroom, a third of his fifth-grade students sit at laptops playing math games.
Eight others sit watching a digital lesson that Bruno crafted with an app called Keynote; his voice drifts down from a ceiling speaker, asking them to figure out the area of a square.
Then there’s Bruno himself, a teacher for 21 years, who sits in a cozy corner with three students explaining how to do three-dimensional math.
Early in his career, Bruno was one of the first teachers to get a desktop computer and a SMART Board in his classroom. But these tools essentially just replaced pencil, paper and chalkboards.
It wasn’t until Eastwood won federal money for blended learning that Bruno and 35 other teachers got the tools to be the district's pilot team in transforming their classroom practices. Each participating teacher’s students got a Chromebook and online software that adapts to his or her skills. Teachers also got collaboration time, training and support.
“The tendency for some teachers is to look at some technology as a new fad that’s going to go away,” Bruno said. “But if you’re going to put something in front of them and say, ‘Here are good reasons for using it,’ we’ll do it.”
To usher in digital learning, school leaders are working to get teachers on board, convincing everyone from eager millennials to experienced skeptics who have seen many fads come and go.
“When we think about leadership, we think about those people who are able to elicit action,” said Karen Cator, president of Digital Promise, a Washington nonprofit that helps schools integrate technology. She defined them as “people who are able to share that vision and get many people bought in, so it isn’t just the leader at the top driving and pushing everyone to do these things.”
That work often requires a philosophical shift toward collaboration rather than hierarchy.
In the Blue Valley School District, Trigg has transformed the school day to give teachers many opportunities to collaborate, including one morning a week before high school students arrive, two planning periods a day for middle school teachers and 13 days in which students leave early to give elementary and middle school teachers time to meet.
High school social studies teachers used these meetings to create a game plan for teaching research and writing skills at each grade level. The teachers also regularly update their strategies using data from standardized tests, classroom assessments and student surveys.
Even with that intense focus on building an innovation culture, Trigg said, the work is not done.
“I do not believe that we have arrived at a point where we can honestly say that we have a climate where people are totally accepting of change and innovation,” he said. “We are on a continual journey to create such a culture.”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University, as part of a series examining the digital divide in American schools. Read more about how technology is changing education.