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Figuring Out Technology, Homework and College Readiness

Monday, October 24, 2011 - 07:20 AM

Two news stories on Sunday painted starkly different pictures about the use of technology in teaching, learning and communicating.

In The New York Times on Sunday, Matt Richtel wrote another installment in the "Grading the Digital School" series, this one about the Waldorf School of the Peninsula in California: "A Silicon Valley School That Doesn't Compute."

Yes, that's right — a school in the heart of the Silicon Valley, whose student body consists of the children of some of the techiest people on the planet, where computers are off limits. As one of those parents says:

“I fundamentally reject the notion you need technology aids in grammar school,” said Alan Eagle, 50, whose daughter, Andie, is one of the 196 children at the Waldorf elementary school; his son William, 13, is at the nearby middle school. “The idea that an app on an iPad can better teach my kids to read or do arithmetic, that’s ridiculous.”

Mr. Eagle knows a bit about technology. He holds a computer science degree from Dartmouth and works in executive communications at Google, where he has written speeches for the chairman, Eric E. Schmidt. He uses an iPad and a smartphone. But he says his daughter, a fifth grader, “doesn’t know how to use Google,” and his son is just learning. (Starting in eighth grade, the school endorses the limited use of gadgets.)

For all those who are now nodding their heads in approval, "60 Minutes" put quite a different spin on the use of technology Sunday night, with a report by Lesley Stahl titled "Apps for Autism." The report showed how some children — and even a 27-year-old man — with autism are making remarkable breakthroughs in communication through the use of iPads.

It was a fitting addendum to the fascinating report on the new biography of Steven P. Jobs by Walter Isaacson.

To state the obvious, nothing about education is simple or easy. And even long-discussed issues like the amount of homework dropped on children as young as kindergartners inspire a multitude of opinions.

So an article by Jenny Anderson on Monday in The Times is certain to heat up the conversation in school yards and on the car lines in the suburbs.

The article, "At Elite Schools, Easing Up a Bit on Homework," is about how the anti-homework crusade is making inroads at, of all places, the city's top tier private schools known for their rigor.

Armed with neuroscience, self-analysis and common sense, some of New York City’s most competitive high schools, famed for their Marine-like mentality when it comes to homework, have begun to lighten the load for fear of crushing their teenage charges.

“We have incredibly talented high-achieving kids who need to be appropriately taken care of,” said Jessica Bagby, the head of Trinity’s upper school. “We realize the pressures on them, and to the degree that we’re complicit, we need to own that.”

Of course, not everyone agrees. But as Adam Gopnik, an author and Dalton parent who raised some of the issues about homework, put it: “The wind is blowing in the direction of sanity. There’s no value in stressing kids out. You are robbing them of their childhood.”

Discuss among yourselves — and answer our query below.

Michael Winerip reopens another long-running controversy, this one on whether the city's rising high school graduation rates really reflect learning and mastery of the subjects crucial for achieving in college.

The article points out that the graduation rate was 61 percent in June, up from 46.5 percent in 2005, but 22.6 percent of students who attended City University of New York community colleges in 2010 needed remediation in reading, writing or math, up from 15.4 percent in 2005.

“A few years ago, we noticed the numbers really jump,” said John Mogulescu, the senior university dean for CUNY. Over all, 74 percent of city high school graduates enrolled at the system’s six community colleges take remediation in at least one subject, but those needing all three are at the highest risk of dropping out. So in 2008, CUNY started a program with a few dozen students to see if an intensive semester focused on just the three subjects — five hours a day, five days a week — could make a difference. The program, known as Start, has since expanded.

The programs seems to be making inroads but at a cost — literally — to students.

Also this weekend in The Times, Richard Pérez-Peña wrote about the efforts by the universities competing to create a school of applied sciences on a city campus with up to $400 million in land and infrastructure improvements are trying to out-green one another in their plans. The deadline for the competition is Friday.

Winnie Hu, the suburban education reporter for The Times, had some good news for city parents tired of playing the high-stakes game of getting their children into the top private schools in the city: an invitation from the suburbs, where private schools have seats and often charge much less for tuition.

Finally, another sequel in the "Adventures of Arne Duncan and the Chasm of No Child Left Behind," where a Senate committee last week did an end run around the education secretary and approved a bill that would greatly reduce Washington’s role in overseeing public schools.

Mr. Duncan had long been begging Congress to do something about the law, but on Friday he complained that the bill compromises too much, particularly on teacher evaluations and student-achievement goals. “There are huge — significant problems with the current draft,” he said. “Though there are some things in this that I consider positive, others are quite concerning.”

Stay tuned for the next installment in Washington.

GothamSchools' Rise and Shine post provides a more complete roundup of education news.

Here is what is coming up on Monday:

High school progress reports will be released. SchoolBook will be covering the announcement and analyzing the data.

Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott has declared this Parents as Partners week. The Education Department will host a series of events to "address ways that parents can become more involved in their school communities and their children’s education." The first event is Tuesday, when Mr. Walcott will host a meeting to discuss new, more rigorous standards for New York City public schools.

A rally is planned at 6 p.m. in Union Square in support of the Campaign for Youth Shelter, an effort to add 100 new shelter beds every year until every homeless young person has a place to stay.

Something going on at your school this week? E-mail SchoolBook@nytimes.com and we will list it in First Bell.

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