By Philip Elmer-DeWitt
February 13, 2012

For once, an educational success story that’s not really about the computers

Kudos to the New York Times‘ Alan Schwarz for seeing beyond the Apple (AAPL) angle — those 4,400 MacBooks, the school district’s cutesy slogan (iBelieve, iCan, iWill), the fact that the DOE’s director of educational technology worked for Apple for eight years — in his front page story Monday praising the Mooresville (N.C.) Graded School District as a “shining example” of what digital technology can do for students and teachers.

It is not, as his headline proclaims, just about the laptops that were issued three years ago to 4,400 students in grades 4 through 12. The district’s success in raising its attendance, its reading scores and its graduation rate has less to do with the computers than with how the school system is using them. As Schwarz puts it:

“Mooresville’s laptops perform the same tasks as those in hundreds of other districts: they correct worksheets, assemble progress data for teachers, allow for compelling multimedia lessons, and let students work at their own pace or in groups, rather than all listening to one teacher. The difference, teachers and administrators here said, is that they value computers not for the newest content they can deliver, but for how they tap into the oldest of student emotions — curiosity, boredom, embarrassment, angst — and help educators deliver what only people can. Technology, here, is cold used to warm.”

For a program like Mooresville’s to work, the story makes clear, teachers have to be willing to make sacrifices. They have to give up their scripted lectures, their printed textbooks and the predictable flow through a curriculum that made a hard job easier to manage. “You have to trust kids more than you’ve ever trusted them,” superintendent Mark Edwards tells the Times. “Your teachers have to be willing to give up control.”

Many of Mooresville’s teachers weren’t, and the district paid for its laptops in part by laying off the most reluctant. The district has 37 fewer teachers than it did three years ago and — contrary to conventional wisdom — student performance went up, not down, as average class size in the middle schools increased from 18 to 30.

Perhaps most miraculously, Mooresville ranks 100th out of 115 districts in North Carolina in terms of dollars spent per student — $7,415.89 a year — but is now third in test scores and second in graduation rates.

For educators wondering what PCs and tablets can and can’t do for them, the piece in today’s Times is a must-read. Click here.

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