Union City Online, Union City (New Jersey) School District

Union City Online: An Architecture for Networking and Reform is a National Science Foundation-supported initiative designed to investigate the potential of Internet technologies in a context where systemic educational reforms have taken root. In 1989, the students of the Union City school district were performing so poorly that the district was given an ultimatum--improve student outcomes or be taken over by the state. The district chose to comprehensively restructure every facet of the educational system. Changes were made in the curriculum, the structure of the school day, professional development opportunities, and teachers' roles in decision-making processes. Providing access to technology was, and continues to be, a central component of the district's reform efforts.

In 1993, the district entered into a unique partnership with Bell Atlantic Corporation. The telephone company was interested in experimenting with cutting-edge technologies that would deliver multimedia resources on demand. This effort, known locally as Project Explore, provided a cohort of 135 seventh-grade students, their teachers, and school administrators with access from both home and school to technologies including Microsoft Works, a library of CD-ROMs, e-mail, and in later years the Internet.

From a research perspective, Project Explore has enabled researchers to look comparatively at a cohort of students who have had deep and sustained access to networked technologies, and a comparable cohort of students who have school-only access to technologies. All students, however, have been beneficiaries of the district's comprehensive reform agenda and have been participating in a curriculum that emphasizes project work, critical analysis, and interpretation skills over rote memorization and practice.

The research analysis (Chang, Henriquez, Honey, Light, Moeller, & Ross, 1998; Honey & Henriquez, 1996) is based on state-mandated testing data and other indicators of achievement, such as enrollment in honors classes and participation in advanced placement courses. New Jersey administers a statewide test, the Early Warning Test, to all eighth-grade students in the state. The Union City schools also administer nonsecured versions of the test to their seventh and ninth graders. This test measures students' knowledge and skills in three subject areas: reading, mathematics, and writing.

Examination of the impact of the reforms and investigation of the impact of technology on student learning indicate that:

Although the findings clearly indicate that the reforms are having a substantial impact for all students in Union City, the role of technology is less clear. Although sustained access to technology has a measurable effect on students' middle school writing scores, students who have been in the district for a minimum of four years are performing at the same level as the Explore cohort by the tenth grade. In addition, although the Explore group appears to do significantly better than their district peers in mathematics, the cause is not technology-related. A subgroup of Explore students who participated in an Algebra I class as 8th graders do significantly better than Explore and non-Explore students who did not take this class. It is this Algebra I group that is responsible for raising the overall math scores of the entire Explore cohort. Finally, students who enter the Explore program in its second year (as eighth graders) never do as well as the seventh grade Explore entrants, nor do they perform significantly better than their district peers. This result suggests that technology is not the sole cause of the Explore students' success; if it were, there would be substantial gains among the eighth grade entrants to the Explore program.

In summary, the case of Union City demonstrates the kind of complexity that exists between school improvement and technology use. Although some relationships between technology access and test scores are beginning to be evident in Union City, what is much clearer and much more important is that teachers recognize that access to and use of technology in their classrooms provides access to resources that would otherwise not be available, increases student motivation, and helps to ensure that their students are prepared for life in an increasingly technological society (Honey, Carrigg, & Hawkins, 1998).

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References

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