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LOS ANGELES — First-grader Lena Barrett clicks through a series of icons and logs onto a laptop under the fluorescent lights of her classroom. Before long, a cartoon version of a game-show announcer appears.

“It’s time to show what you know by finding words,” the announcer says. “In this game, you will click on words that mean the same thing as the word the narrator says. Click on the word that means the same thing as ‘marvelous.’ ”

Lena, dressed in her school’s burgundy-plaid uniform, clicks on “wonderful,” and the announcer doesn’t waste time with praise. “Pay attention. Go as fast as you can and do your best,” he says. A few words later, she hesitates over “fragile,” before finally clicking on “breakable.”

Photo by tcoffey

Six-year-old Lena was among 116 kindergartners last year who participated in an experiment at her school with a teaching method called “blended learning,” where students learn from computers as well as teachers. She attends the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) Empower School, which opened last year to serve minority and low-income students in a tough South L.A. neighborhood. Results from the trial year were so promising that school administrators are continuing the use of computers in kindergarten classrooms this year, and they expect computer use to expand throughout the KIPP charter-school network of 109 schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia.

“The early indications are that this is replicable in future kindergarten classrooms and, as we grow, into higher grades,” says Richard Barth, chief executive of the KIPP Foundation, which supports the KIPP model of extended school days, a longer school year and frequent standardized tests to measure progress.

Computer instruction in kindergarten classrooms can be controversial. It is occasionally used by some teachers as a supplement, but it’s rarely used every day to substitute for traditional teacher instruction of the littlest learners. Still, KIPP Empower is among a growing number of schools that are embracing technology-infused approaches to teaching and learning. Rocketship Education, another national network of charter schools, is putting its kindergarteners in front of computers, too.

The kindergarten experiment at KIPP Empower comes as some schools and districts in California, Arizona, Virginia and elsewhere are experimenting with computer-based learning in the elementary grades. Advocates of blended learning say it holds the promise of offering engaging, individualized computer instruction that allows children to move at their own pace. And, at a time when school budgets are being slashed nationwide, the new model at KIPP could help educators manage larger classes.

At KIPP Empower, principal Mike Kerr devised a complicated school-wide rotation where children are on laptops inside their classrooms twice a day for roughly half an hour each time. He says the computers allow him to preserve the small-group instruction that he considers critical to student success. As a result, students who started the year behind their peers graduated from kindergarten on track.

Kerr says the blended approach led 95 percent of his kindergarteners to score at or above the national average in math after the first year, while 96 percent scored at or above it in reading. The test, Measures of Academic Progress, was developed by the Northwest Evaluation Association. More than half of Kerr’s students scored in the nation’s top quartile, or top 25 percent, in both subjects.

Kerr said the first-year test results were especially heartening because his students—94 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch based on their family incomes—did not start out the year in a strong position. Only nine percent arrived in kindergarten ready, according to the STEP (Strategic Teaching and Evaluation of Progress) pre-reading test, developed for high-risk children by the University of Chicago.

Blended learning lessons

Want more information on blended learning? Innosight Institute has profiled more than 40 different schools that are blending online learning with traditional classroom teaching.

By the end of the year, 96 percent of kindergarteners reached or exceeded the proficient mark on the same STEP test, Kerr says.

With just one year of data, however, it remains to be seen whether these results are evidence that the use of computers in the classroom can improve long-term student outcomes, especially at the early elementary-school level.

In addition, some education experts are wary of putting kindergarteners in front of computers.

“Parents, teachers and educators are right to be concerned about time at the computer if it replaces essential learning experiences and activities,” says Chip Donohue, director of distance learning at the Erikson Institute in Chicago, a graduate school of education that specializes in early childhood development.

Five-year-olds need “active, hands-on, engaging and empowering” activities, “not electronic worksheets and drill and practice,” Donohue says.

On a recent visit to KIPP Empower, it was not clear that computers—or the educational games that the children play on them—were doing much teaching. Instead, Kerr says the computers provide a way to reduce his class size of 28 students. By having half work on laptops in the classroom, a teacher is able to work intensely with the other 14 students.

“We wanted to preserve small-group instruction and the computers are allowing us to do that,” says Kerr. “If a teacher can work with eight or nine kids at a time instead of 25, they’re going to get better results.”

The computers are more than just high-tech babysitters. Students are engaged in animated cartoon games that, for example, drill phonics and arithmetic. More importantly, the programs flag topics when a student is getting the answers wrong.

Each day, KIPP’s technology instructional assistant, Elisabeth Flottman, collects data from the educational software on each student and gives the information to teachers.

The software can report, for example, if a student has been struggling with beginning sounds, ending sounds or blending sounds. This can help the teacher zero-in on individual student needs. It also reports if a student sat idly at the computer for an extended period of time.

“If I know that, I can pay a little more attention,” says Flottman, who circulates among the four kindergarten classrooms and helps students with computer crashes, headphone snags and log-on issues.

Principal Kerr says he’s “underwhelmed” by software offerings for five- and six-year-olds. “One of the biggest challenges was finding computer programs,” he says.

Kerr pieced together an online curriculum from a variety of vendors. That required him to build an expensive interface from scratch so that students and teachers wouldn’t have to waste time logging onto each program. And they had to create pictorial log-ons so children who can’t spell their names can click on photographs of themselves and participate.

Still, there were problems. The students exhausted one math program in March that was supposed to last the full year.

Kerr, 34, is a self-professed technophobe who turned to computers to cope with California’s fiscal crisis, which led to teacher layoffs, increased class sizes and slashed school budgets.

Mike Kerr, Principal of KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) Empower School, sits in a classroom in the one-year-old charter school serving minority and low-income students in a tough South Los Angeles neighborhood CA on October 8, 2011. (Photo by Jonathan Alcorn/McClatchy)

He first began to appreciate the power of small classes at the start of his teaching career with Teach For America in Harlem. Later, he helped found a charter school in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, where his students posted some of the highest test scores in New York.

He had planned to replicate his small-class-size approach in Los Angeles, and expected to have no more than 20 kids per classroom. But just a year before KIPP Empower was slated to open in the fall of 2010, Kerr learned that California would be cutting $200,000 from his budget. Kerr said he wasn’t sure he should even open the school because he was not convinced it would be “educationally sound.” A private foundation that was lobbying schools to use technology happened to call Kerr and ultimately gave him a $200,000 grant. (The foundation, which wishes to remain anonymous, is also among the funders of The Hechinger Report.)

The donation allowed Kerr to rethink the school’s design; instead of five classrooms of 20 students, he would now have four classrooms of 28. He decided to hire one fewer lead teacher and take in more students.

Kerry opted against a computer lab because he wanted kindergarteners to feel like they were in a warm environment, not sitting among rows of computers.

“I do worry about students one day sitting in front of computer screens all day,” says Kerr. “That’s not what we’re about.”

Despite the encouraging early results, it’s hard to assess the success, in part due to considerable controversy over the validity of standardized tests at the kindergarten level. The state of California doesn’t even test its public-school children until the second grade, so there are no data for comparison.

And because Kerr’s test results reflect only one year with this particular group of students, it’s unclear whether he can replicate the success.

It’s also impossible to tell how students would have fared without any computers. Kerr had the luxury of handpicking and training his cadre of teachers, after all.

Even Barth remains cautious. “This technology in the hands of an entirely different group of adults may not produce near the results that Mike and his team produced,” he says. “There is a good chance it wouldn’t.”

He added that it would be “naïve” to think “that five-year-olds are just going to walk in a computer lab and be inspired and all of a sudden make these great gains.”

Still, one other KIPP school in the L.A. area has already adopted parts of Kerr’s digital learning model for the current academic year. And two KIPP schools that are scheduled to open in the fall of 2012 are planning to do so as well.

The Gates Foundation has also taken notice. It is using Kerr’s model to design a new computer dashboard that will enable any school in the nation to choose software programs from a variety of vendors. Students and teachers will then be able to go to a single computer screen to log on or access data reports. (The Gates Foundation is also among the funders of The Hechinger Report.)

In the meantime, KIPP students say they like computer time. After dismissal in the schoolyard on a recent afternoon, five-year-old Joselynn Meza offered her own assessment of the experiment: “It was fun,” she said. “My favorite computer program was the games.”

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Letters to the Editor

19 Letters

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  1. Mike Kerr deserves credit for trying. But really, does he not have another way to engage his kindergarten students while he works with a small group? I question whether today’s teachers understand the rich variety of activities they could utilize to create an experiential classroom with very little techonology. These young children need creative activities that help them understand what they are capable of learning without computers. Technological devices will take over their lives soon enough; let’s give them a chance to grow and develop uniquely.

  2. I find it very ironic that educators would sow thorns in the path of those who are tryng new ideas to raise the bar, AND save money. Given time and support instead of negative rhetoric, we may find that those kindergartners become the problem-solvers of their generation in the not-too-distant future. Technology is here to stay and those kindergartners will live with it all their lives. Any educator who is over thirty came to face this new thing fairly recently. If people Like Bill Gates and the late Steve Jobs had listened to entities like IBM about thirty year ago, technology would have been smothered in its infancy. Those kids are growing up in a technological world and the jobs they will need to be able to do and the problems they would need to solve definitely don’t exist yet. In fact, the current adult generation is creating the problems and challenges that they will face. Some kids are already writing Apple apps for fun and making money off it to boot. I welcome innovation and will always err on the side of novelty and innovation than impose my antiquated ideas on education. We have no idea what is possible and if those kids enjoy learning at the same time, more power to them!

  3. To Jill’s concerns about the KIPP kindergarten teachers not finding other ways to engage the students with0ut using computers, I partially agree. There are other ways to engage kindergarten students; however, I feel one of our jobs as educators is to prepare our students for the world they will live in. As Aubrey said, “Technology is here to stay…” and we must give students especially those growing up in poverty an equal footing with their more well to do peers.
    I believe that technology is simply a tool that should be available to all students. As a principal, I made sure our students 90% who qualified for free/reduced price lunches, had daily access to a 30 minute session on the computer. Laptops weren’t available at that time for our school district, so our students went to either the Media Center or our Computer Lab. Since our students were in school all day, they had plenty of other opportunities to socialize and participate in creative activities. Our students were much better prepared to take online assessments as they got older. The students loved the computer, and this daily use helped our students and school move off the not making adequate yearly progress list in our state.

  4. Kindergarteners from affluent families are already on the computer at home. The difference here is that these are low income students whose families may not provide that advantage. Kipp is just leveling the playing field by allowing quality computer time.

    The question should not be whether or not to have kids using the computer, but rather, what they do with computer time. Drill-and-kill is still drill-and-kill no matter the media. What the kids need to be doing on the computer is quality learning that includes problem solving and other forms of critical thinking, art and communication, and investigating the big world out there of culture and nature.

    A few minutes spent on mostly aural vocabulary or simple math using items rather than symbols is probably productive for kindergarteners, but computer time should not end there. Go for it Kipp. Do something really unique with technology based learning. Don’t be satisfied with the generic off-the-shelf babysitting materials that dull creativity.

    Why are we always so limited in our attitudes about learning with technology?

  5. Some ideas for robust learning experiences for kindergarteners with blended learning:

    Bird calls – have the kids use the computer to learn the vocalizations of local birds and associate them with bird pictures then actually take them bird watching. Objective: improve aural language skills and attention span. The materials are already available on the Net and free.

    Animal identification – have the kids use the computer to associate pictures with the names of animals native to their area, then take them to the zoo or a local nature preserve: Matching is an important early learning skill.

    They don’t have to just sit there. They can be physically active and be using a computer.
    Have them follow computer picture/word directions as they physically:
    -Assemble legos or other building materials
    -Do a simple science experiment
    -Make a 3D model
    -Use play dough to make objects.

  6. What are we doing to our children?
    How can they become self-directed, life-long learners when their learning is constantly controlled by teachers and computers. What has happened to creativity, discovery and the joy of learning.

  7. Technology offers lots of opportunities for creativity. There are many programs that allow students to create from a “blank slate”. Using the computer is not all about games and gaming. There are website that offer students opportunities to use higher level thinking skills like Jason’s Project and many more. The challenge is finding the resources and aligning them to the curriculum.

  8. I think it is interesting that some educators talk about technology for the future. The future is occurring now, and the relevance of digital literacy to the lives of young children will continue to develop in “their” future.

  9. Although Kerr wanted smaller class sizes, he got instead a data instruction analyst who runs nightly reports.

    Readers would like to know if the anonymous foundation also receives reports on children’s usage and scores, to help it fine tune a product line of ‘blended learning’ software?

    Are the kindergartners a long-running focus group for this education industry segment?

    “A private foundation that was lobbying schools to use technology happened to call Kerr and ultimately gave him a $200,000 grant. (The foundation, which wishes to remain anonymous, is also among the funders of The Hechinger Report.)”

    When an anonymous foundation promoting technology gives to both the KIPP school and to Hechinger, how can KIPP Empower and Hechinger maintain objectivity? That is why it is important for the foundation to be identified.

    “Later, he helped found a charter school in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, where his students posted some of the highest test scores in New York.”

    Although it is a common practice, reporters might refrain from writing down claims without any context or verification.

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