Technology in Tennessee: Why State Schools Must Catch Up With the Digital Age

It's the last week of school in Nashville, Tenn., and I am trying to keep my sanity. Students are passing in forms every day for dozens of different things: athletic banquets, field trips to colleges, permission slips for roller skating during P.E., doctor's notes, progress reports, pieces of paper I never even handed to them that they are just passing in, signatures askew. I have 16 different windows on my computer open: one website for attendance, a tab for my school email, a tab with a Google doc for tracking all these papers students hand me, another tab to track student behavior, and four Word documents. School is almost over for the year, but feels like it's just beginning.

As a teacher at a low-income middle school, I am in the midst of students' favorite time of year and teachers' least favorite: the start of summer. Now, don't get me wrong, teachers love the start of summer as well -- it means a break from incessant questions and hormonal inconsistencies and, of course, an opportunity to bronze by the pool for a couple of months. But it also means the most chaotic weeks of the entire school year -- in a profession that is already unavoidably frenetic. As I reflect on the year in the last days of the school year, I realize that as a state and a country, we need to start better equipping ourselves with technology that controls this chaos and improves the culture of high achievement for students.

In a state where education reform is a hot-button issue, Tennessee teachers and students are fortunate to be on the forefront of innovation. Tennessee was granted $501 million (cash money!) from the Race to the Top funds in 2010, allowing the state to turn around some of its desperately failing schools. It is also home to two base camps of Teach For America teachers, Vanderbilt's top-ranked Peabody Education School, and some of the most renowned names in education serving in its leadership roles like Chris Barbic, Kevin Huffman, and Elissa Kim.

Still, just over three-quarters of economically disadvantaged students graduate from Tennessee schools, and many of these students are nowhere near prepared for college. Obviously, more must be done to see our students successful. So, what do teachers need in order to do this? And how will this ever happen?

Teachers, for students' sake, need innumerable supplies to make a classroom function: dry erase markers, books, pencils, inspirational posters -- you name it. It's easy to argue that the best teacher could teach with nothing but a chalkboard and a piece of chalk, but we're not all Michelle Pfeiffer. And, considering it is 2013 and our country revolves around computers, it is nearly impossible to prepare teachers and students for the future without access to technology.

We need our students to have access to computers, to typing classes, to Internet connections and Google searches and online research and all the ups and downs that come with putting a student in front of a computer and trying to keep him off of Pandora for an hour. If our students cannot understand how to send an e-mail attachment, how will they survive in this ruthless world? The progression of technology is inexorable, and our students need to be prepared for it.

And, certainly, teachers need this technology too. Sure, we can make a classroom work without it, but its presence and can be imperative to teacher success, which ultimately leads to student success.

Take Nashville's own ed-tech start-up, Live School, for example: a behavior management software that allows teachers to track student behavior in real time, and teaches students financial literacy by awarding them a "paycheck" each week based on their behavior. This kind of tool can revolutionize a classroom by creating a school culture focused on results rather than poor behavior choices. Plus, it makes incentives sexy. Take it from an expert: there's nothing kids like more than getting paid.

And, this software teaches students how to handle this faux currency by using their behavior as a way to earn and lose "money." Students can then use this money to purchase rewards, or save it for a rainy day.

There are also ingenious new grading systems like Active Grade available to teachers that allow them to grade students based on what they've actually mastered, not just on what they've turned in. Imagine! Being able to identify what students know as opposed to what they left at home! Or, consider other places around town who leverage social media and other technology to raise awareness and funds for their causes like Ride For Reading, the W.O. Smith School, and the not-so-local juggernaut: 826 National.

Yes, it's true; a lot of schools now have a 1:1 program, where students all have iPads or tablets or robots that they use throughout the day. In fact, Nashville's Harpeth Hall launched its 1:1 program in 1999, and Montgomery Bell Academy has more than 75 percent of its students with laptops registered to use around the school. And yet, just down the road, there are still schools throughout Davidson County (Nashville proper) that have less than 100 computers for approximately 400 students to use. Even in charter schools, technology is often less available than it is in public schools in neighboring suburban schools. Private schools, in particular, are overhauling their curricula across the country to incorporate technology, but what about our low-income schools? Where many students don't even have computers at home, let alone at school? These are the students who need this access; these are the schools where teachers need to be able to utilize technology so that the students can understand it.

If we're not equipping our teachers and our students for the future, then we're not equipping them for anything. It's true: education reform is a behemoth. It is a gargantuan monster that seems difficult to tame. But it's not impossible, and it has to start somewhere. Technology, while hardly the whole piece to this otherwise daunting puzzle, is, at least, a start.