Much of our understanding of the relationship between technology and school reform grows out of more than 10 years of collaboration and partnership with the Union City Public Schools. This district—which has been remarkably successful in transforming itself from a failing urban system into a district where the vast majority of children are doing well academically—has taught us much of what we know about the systemic process of change. Our collaboration with Union City has underscored a critical fact: that effective school reform—meaning reforms that take root broadly across multiple layers of the educational system, are sustained over time, and result in demonstrable improvements in student learning—does not require technology. But simultaneously, much of what has been accomplished in Union City has been greatly aided by the ubiquitous growth of technology in the schools. In Union City, technological investment was an integral part of a much larger process of school reform. Technological tools were present that allowed for forms of communication, student production, curriculum development, and collaboration among students, teachers, and administrators that simply would not otherwise have been possible and that were part and parcel of the school system’s process of change.
Union City has also taught us a number of other important lessons:
- Researchers need to honor and privilege the knowledge and expertise of the people who work in schools. Too much work in the education field—whether it be break–the–mold school redesign initiatives or education research in general—is characterized by deficit thinking. Understanding schools on their own terms and suspending judgment of what “should” be in place are critical steps for researchers to take in building effective collaborations.
- It is much easier to work in partnership with a school as a researcher or facilitator than it is to work in a school. As researchers, we do not depend on the school for our livelihood—we can walk out the door, go home, and not necessarily return the next day. Local educators are the ones who shoulder the majority of risk in reform efforts.
- Urban school systems are political environments. Understanding the local political context is essential to being able to work in partnership with schools. Outsiders cannot do this alone. They need the trust, wisdom, and insights of people working within the system who can help to unpack political complexities.
We have also learned through our experiences with Union City and other reform initiatives using technology that five issues—leadership, core vision, professional development, time, assessment—need to be coordinated in order for meaningful, sustainable school improvement to occur. This process of coordination requires that:
- Leadership is anchored in a core vision of teaching and learning.
- Sustained and intensive professional development takes place in the service of the core vision, not simply around technology for its own sake.
- The commitment made by the school or district to the process of change, and to the appropriation of particular technologies for particular purposes, is also a commitment to an adequate period of time to allow agreed–upon changes to unfold.
- There is ample opportunity—that is, adequate professional development—to allow educators to figure out how to use technological tools to assist in carrying out these changes in teaching and learning.
- Assessments are developed that enable school leaders and faculty to determine whether they are realizing their goals, and how to adjust if necessary
Originally published on May 31, 2002