Three Forces That Will Get Phones Out of School

I suggest that you reach out to school leaders to request that your school become phone-free. Know that science is on your side. Also, know that leading schools have shown that limits work. Together, we can help our students succeed.
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My recent Huffington Post article, "Why Phones Don't Belong in School," received tremendous support. I recommended that teachers and school leaders work together to provide rules that student phones be kept off in backpacks during the school day--that's because research shows that phones at school hurt academic success and increase cyberbullying.

Understandably, some of those commenting on the article asked how phones can be limited when many kids resist putting them down and some parents desire contact with their kids throughout the school day. In this article, I describe three powerful forces that I believe will overcome these challenges.

Demands for Improved Education

The science that students' multitasking on phones and other mobile devices detracts from learning is increasingly undeniable. A recent Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study compared West Point students' final exam scores for those who used personal computers and tablets in class to those who didn't. Not surprisingly, the researchers found that "students perform worse when personal computing technology is available."

The MIT researchers hauntingly concluded that the detrimental effects of multitasking "could be magnified in settings outside of West Point." That's because cadets at the highly-selective U.S. military academy are likely more motivated to learn than typical students, and because West Point's small class size (capped at 18) limits distractions compared with the much larger class sizes in the typical middle or high school.

Just how much of a disruption are student phones? A recent survey at Hillcrest High School in New York City found that almost half of the teachers said they have to stop class to tell students to put their phones away several times a period.

Such preventable disruptions--which impact not only the student on their phone but everyone in class--are absurd in the context of a struggling American education system. Scores dropped in the latest Nation's Report Card assessment, so that two-thirds of American 8th graders now score "below proficient" in reading, and this same percentage score "below proficient" in math.

Many American parents are demanding a better education for their children. I'm confident that they will soon realize that phone distractions have no place in school.

The Civil Right to Phone-Free Schooling

Some civil rights advocates--swayed by the claim that phones offer an education equalizer for the disadvantaged--declare that children of color and low-income children should be able to use their phones during school. However, research suggests that disadvantaged children are actually the biggest victims of phone distractions at school.

Paul Barnwell teaches English at Fern Creek High School in Louisville, Kentucky, a school that has a high percentage of African-American and lower-income students. He describes a troubling environment at his school in his recent Atlantic article: "When I peer into classrooms, I see students tuning out their peers and teachers and focusing instead on YouTube and social media... it's a constant struggle to keep kids engaged in lessons and off their phones."

In fact, a recent London School of Economics report found that students using phones in school hurt the performance of low-achieving and low-income students the most. One reason why is that less advantaged kids spend far more time playing on phones than more advantaged kids.

A recent Common Sense Media report found that kids use their phones predominantly for entertainment, and that there are substantial demographic differences in phone use. When looking at teens who use phones, while white teens spend 3 hours, 52 minutes per day on phones, black teens spend an incredible 6 hours, 32 minutes each day on the devices.

There are costs. Jessy, the mother of 17-year-old Mark, a bright black teen who was failing classes, explained to me during counseling, "Phones may offer the latest technology, but all it's done for Mark is distract him from what he should be doing in school." Mark's poor grades kept him from applying to college and he added to the statistics of low rates of college admission for African-American youth.

How can civil rights advocates help parents like Jessy? By broadcasting the message that college is a springboard to success and that colleges use proficiency in reading, math, and other educational fundamentals--not phone expertise--to gauge admission.

Schools That Lead by Example

Pointing the way to dramatic improvements in education are schools that limit student phones. At Dorris-Eaton, a private K-8 school in the San Francisco Bay Area, students respect the policy that phones aren't used during the school day. Jerry Ludden, the Head of School, can't recall a time when the rule was broken.

How is it possible that Dorris-Eaton's students can skip Instagram posts and texting for an entire school day? "We instill in our students that it's cool to learn... Kids hang out with teachers after school to talk about the subjects that interest them," Ludden says. The school insists that all students follow the rule, recognizing that one phone-obsessed student risks dragging down the learning focus of many peers.

Ludden sees that Dorris-Eaton's phone limits contribute to the school's academic achievements, as its students are frequent recipients of state and national awards. There are other benefits too. Many American kids--heads down staring at phones--aren't developing social skills, including the ability to make eye contact during conversation. Ludden says that without phone distractions his students gain the ability to relate socially--skills that will serve them well in job interviews and other real-life endeavors.

As the father of two school-age children, I know that parents compare the quality of their children's education. As more parents learn about the success of schools such as Dorris-Eaton, they will demand that their children be provided a similar opportunity to learn away from phones.

The Will to Make Schools Better

I suggest that you reach out to school leaders to request that your school become phone-free. Know that science is on your side. Also, know that leading schools have shown that limits work. Together, we can help our students succeed.

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