All Screen Time is Not Created Equal

Screen TimeIn 2007, the American Academy of Pediatrics made its famous recommendation that children under the age of two should not have any screen time, and that older kids should be limited to two hours a day.  Their understanding of “screen time,” however, implies that whether a child is watching “Sponge Bob Square Pants” or “Sesame Street,” playing “Minecraft” or a new learning app,” tweeting or blogging for school, it is all equally dangerous.  Such an understanding of technology is appealing to young parents looking to keep their children safe in a 21st century world that is full of dangerous new technologies because it is so black and white and straight forward, but it is also an oversimplified view of what technology can offer children.

When imposing limitations on children’s screen time, parents – and schools for that matter – need to pay attention to what specifically they are limiting.

The research confirming the positive educational benefits of children’s television, for example, has been pretty conclusive over the last fifteen to twenty years.  Most recently, though, researchers have begun to differentiate between entertainment television and educational television.  While a study conducted out of the University of Texas finds that children who watch a few hours a week of entertainment television receive lower test scores than those who do not, the results for those who watch educational television are flip flopped.  Kids who watch these programs at ages 2-3 – the approximate time that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time at all – score higher on academic tests than kids who follow the AAP guidelines.

In 1995, the U.S. Department of Education entered into a partnership with PBS to create quality educational television through a program called the Ready to Learn Service.  Milton Chen, one of the founders of that program, admits that while moderation is key, the benefits of this type of screen time to kids is simply too evident to limit entirely.  “I’m a big supporter of media technology and I do agree that kids spend far too much time with television and other media,” Chen says.  “But I come out on the side that specific television programs and experiences can very much support literacy.”

And again, there is real research to back up such claims.  A study reported in Education Week shows that the PBS show “Word World” improves vocabulary and word recognition.  This same study confirms that watching the show “Between the Lions” leads to “significant gains in students’ understanding of how letters combine to make words, as well as of the purpose of the printed word.”

By far, the gold standard with regards to children’s educational programming is “Sesame Street.”  Last year, in order to determine if the show was having its intended academic impact, producers consulted an independent third party to review their own research.  The independent study finds that the academic difference between students who watch “Sesame Street” as a child and those who do not is comparable to the difference between those who attend preschool and those who do not.

This positive impact of screen time is simply staggering, and parents would surely find it ludicrous if the AAP recommended that children not attend preschool.

But there is another kind of screen time becoming more prevalent today.  As school districts across the country look to develop a 1:1 student to device ratio, providing all students with tablets or computers to use both in school and at home, many parents have become rightfully concerned about the amount of time children spend on their devices.  Many even cite the AAP recommendations, not realizing how oversimplified they are.  It is again important, however, to make a distinction between gaming and social media apps (though they too have an academic benefit – more on that in another blog…) and educational ones.

Rosie Flewitt studies early childhood development in London, and her research into the use of tablets in the classroom shows that they can help engage children who struggle to learn through the use of traditional print media and even increase participation among students who tend to shy away from talking during class.

A study of the reading habits of 3-5 year olds conducted by the National Literacy Trust finds a seven percentage point increase in the number of kids who say they enjoy reading when traditional print media is supplemented with digital e-books.  The study points out that enjoyment is a key factor in predicting a child’s future success, and even openly wonders if these findings could be “the first indicator of the benefit of technology to young children’s outcomes.”

Participating in online discussion groups and web logs is another positive form of screen time that the AAP is suggesting should be limited.  This is despite the fact that research shows “students using the technology…benefited from that use through increased learning, as demonstrated by stronger course performance.”  Furthermore, studies into the effect of blogging on students shows that kids become exposed to more diverse points of view and become more engaged in their writing when they know they have a wider audience in their peers than just an instructor.

Additionally, by allowing students the opportunity to collaborate and discuss classroom topics easily and conveniently in a way in which they are used to communicating, blogging leads to an increase in reading comprehension.  There is also evidence that the use of blogs and social media lead to an increase in students’ GPA.  And despite the perception that internet based communication leads to students becoming isolated from their peers, the use of classroom blogs has actually been proven to create stronger academic bonds between learners and promote more student-centered classrooms.

The recommendations made by the American Academy of Pediatrics oversimplify a very complex topic and have caused many parents to unnecessarily limit, and in some cases deny all together, their children’s access to tools that will enhance and improve their education.  While a child’s exposure to inappropriate television shows, violent video games, and social media must be closely monitored, the AAP overlooks the many researched and documented benefits of screen time.

The problem with screen time is when it becomes a passive activity.  That’s when it can lead to a brain drain.  But when screen time produces active engagement in an educational topic, teachers and parents should not seek to limit that kind of screen time.  If they blindly follow such black and white guidelines, they are denying children of a chance at success.

Give Success a Chance

About this time last year, an event planned by a student group at Grosse Pointe South was cancelled.  The group Young Americans for Freedom had organized and funded an assembly featuring former Senator Rick Santorum to be held during the school day.  They received the proper authorization from building administration to hold the event. The only problem was that it is a violation of school policy for student groups to hold an event during school hours, so Superintendent Tom Harwood cancelled the assembly.

The Grosse Pointe Public School System is still dealing with the repercussions of that series of events.

Students organized and community members showed up at a board meeting claiming that our schools were Communist institutions looking to indoctrinate young children and take away their rights to free speech. These vitriolic assertions were given front page coverage in the Grosse Pointe News when they ran an interview with the chairman of Young Americans for Freedom in which the teenager called for the removal of Dr. Harwood as superintendent.

Though it wasn’t known at the time, school board trustee Cindy Pangborn was acting as the adult adviser to the group calling for Dr. Harwood’s ouster.

Since that time, three groups of residents have formed all calling for Dr. Harwood to be removed from his position as superintendent.  During the recent technology bond campaign, a common theme from opponents was that they were voting no because they didn’t trust Dr. Harwood to manage the money responsibly.  Many even said publicly that they believed if the tech bond failed, Dr. Harwood would lose his job.

Throughout this campaign there was one board member writing letters to the Detroit News and Grosse Pointe News, accusing teachers of acting irresponsibly with students at a technology fair, and making presentation to various city councils all in an attempt to defeat the bond: Trustee Pangborn.

Additionally, a group of concerned parents with serious issues regarding the special education program in our district have become increasingly at odds with Dr. Harwood, though lately there has seemed to be a slight easing of tensions.  Members of this group admit that there was only one board member who reached out to them regarding their issues with the superintendent: Trustee Pangborn.

Most recently, a group of Grosse Pointe South Parents have become frustrated that the principal of that school was reprimanded for actions he took that the superintendent and assistant superintendent felt were inappropriate.  The stories told about this principal and how he has impacted the lives of students in this district have been truly inspirational, but it is frustrating that each of them seem to end with a plea for Dr. Harwood’s removal rather than a call to work together to find the truth and solve the problem.  The principal from South was recently offered a superintendents position in another district, and when representatives came to tour South to see the good work he had been doing, there was one board member from Grosse Pointe present: Trustee Pangborn.

Dr. Harwood is not a perfect superintendent.  He needs to do a better job of communicating and relating to the public, and he needs to be more effective at being out in front of the various issues that arise in the district.  He also needs, however, a school board that seeks to work with him rather than constantly undermine him.  He needs partners, not adversaries.  We need to work with him.

PPF Meme02To create these types of partnerships and move this district down a more positive path forward we need strong leadership on our board that is open and honest 100% of the time.  We need leaders who are transparent and behave privately the same way they speak publicly.  Once we have established that a partnership between the community as represented by the board, administration, and teachers is the best way to move forward down a positive path, we need leaders who stand up for all members of that partnership.

Everyone in this district wants our schools to be successful, but too often we do not recognize that while we all may have different ideas and approaches to achieve that goal, we are all working towards the same goal.  Over the last year, Dr. Harwood has had powerful elements of our community working against him to try to remove him from office.

Today at 6:00 pm in the Brownell Library, our school board will be discussing whether or not to renew Dr. Harwood’s contract as superintendent.  I believe Dr. Harwood has not been given the chance to succeed in his position.  Should the board decide not to renew his contract, the district would find itself in the middle of a technology issue, a looming vote to renew the Sinking Fund and a Hold Harmless millage, and numerous other issues that are vital to the stability of the district.  In my opinion, now is not the time to add a superintendent search to the list of things before the board.

If the board does decide to renew Dr. Harwood’s contract, I am hopeful that he will be given the authority to step up and take control of some of these issues that have gotten away from him over the past few months.  He can only do that, however, with our support, not with us working to defeat him.

View tonight’s meeting agenda here and here.

Contact the board here.

A Positive Path Forward

Grosse Pointe needs a more Positive Path Forward.  The last few months have confirmed what many of us residing in the Grosse Pointe Public School System have known for quite a while – there is widespread distrust throughout our community in both the elected and appointed leaders of our schools.

There is a simple solution to this problem.  The board, and the district, needs to start enforcing its own policies and rules, and there is one overwhelmingly clear place to start.

The bylaws of the board state the following:

The Board President or designee functions as the official spokesperson for the Board.

From time-to-time, however, individual Board members make public statements onschool matters:

A. to local media;

B. to local officials and/or State officials.

Sometimes the statements imply, or the readers (listeners) infer, that the opinions expressed or statements made are the official  positions of the Board.  The misunderstandings that can result from these incidents can embarrass both the member and the Board.  Therefore, Board members should, when writing or speaking on school matters to the media, legislators, and other officials, make it clear  that their views do not necessarily reflect the views of the Board or of their colleagues on the Board.

At the February 10, 2014 school board meeting, a member informed the community that she had written a letter to the Detroit News on behalf of the board in opposition to a bond proposal that had recently been approved by a near unanimous vote.  That letter became the basis for the newspaper’s editorial opposing the bond, quoted this individual member, and included what she herself admitted was incorrect information.

Additionally, this same board member attended the January 22, 2014 meeting of the Harper Woods City Council and introduced herself as the board member who voted against the bond, and went on to urge people to vote against the measure.

These actions seem to be clear violations of the above bylaw of the board, as an individual member is expressly prohibited from misrepresenting him or herself as a spokesperson for the board.  The bylaws are clear, only the president of the board speaks for the board.  In these two instances, it appears as though one board member was able to usurp the power of the president and misrepresent the will of the board to the community.

Late last summer, the board voted 5-2 to conduct an RFQ for various technology upgrades it was looking to propose.  It would have been highly inappropriate for the two members who voted against that to go to the media and speak against it on behalf of the board. It would have been equally inappropriate for them to attend a city council meeting in their municipality and denounce that decision.  When board members do this, it reinforces the perception many have of our board as a dysfunctional body that doesn’t effectively represent the community.

Healthy skepticism of our elected leaders is essential to keep them honest and truthful, and indeed, Grosse Pointers have always been good at holding their leaders accountable.  The current level of distrust in our school board, however, has reached a troubling height that is not indicative of what is best in our community.  When the people see the officials they elect continuously violating policy without any repercussions, that is what causes the type of cynicism that currently exists.

It is not until our board members are held to a high ethical standard that the negativity that has pervaded nearly every major board decision for the last five or six years will begin to subside and we can reclaim the true spirit of Grosse Pointe as a community that works together for the greater good.  For far too long, this district has aimlessly lurched from one controversy to another, and the specific problem that causes each issue is rarely ever solved.  In the last year alone, we have seen arguments about student groups, high school enrollment, building administrators, and many others. In each instance, no solution to those problems has been reached.  There are people in our community still upset about each of these issues.

If board members were kept in line more effectively, and if they were held responsible for following proper policies and procedures, it would be much easier for them to solve problems for our community.  As it is now, certain members seem more effective and creating them. This is the source of the cynical belief that too many in our community have that our board is not working for them, but rather against them.  This was an all too common refrain over the last few months, and it is something the leadership of our board must address quickly if we are to move forward down a positive path as a school district and a community.

Toxic

Following the defeat of the technology bond last week, some in our community are working to ban board members from using technology such as social media in order to share information with constituents about what is going on in the district.  They have so far been successful in having the topic added to the agenda for the next Policy Committee meeting this Wednesday, March 5 at 6:00 pm in the board room at 389 St. Clair.  Meanwhile, other board members have inappropriately spoken for our board in the Detroit News and Grosse Pointe News sharing incorrect information for a political agenda.

Please watch the video below and email the board at schoolboard@gpschools.org to let them know that you would like them to enforce the policies that currently exist regarding the public expression of school board members rather than enact new policies that limit the right to free speech in our community.

My Letter to the Grosse Pointe Board of Education

I am writing to express concern over how our school district is being covered in the media, and to point out that each time this happens, there seems to be one particular board member involved.
Last year, the district received a significant amount of bad press when community members were rallied to a board meeting to accuse our district of limiting the free speech of it’s students.  We learned, after the fact, that there was a board member responsible for that spectacle.  It was Mrs. Pangborn.
Not long after that, our district again made headlines when a group of residents, lead by Mrs. Pangborn, inappropriately and inaccrately accused the district of violating the United States Supreme Court decision, Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education.
Now, today, an editorial appears in the Detroit News full of inaccuracies and information credited to only one board member, Mrs. Pangborn.
As a resident of this district, I am first and foremost offended by Mrs. Pangborn’s insistence on portraying our district in a negative light.  If she truly dislikes this community as much as her action’s suggest, she has no right to represent us on this board.
I am also concerned about a pattern of inappropriate behavior on her part that this board seems either unwilling or unable to control.  I attend board meetings regularly and I discuss school issues with my fellow residents.  Much is made of the decline in enrollment in our district.  With headlines like these, it is no surprise that enrollment would be an issue for us.  Who wants to come and send their kids into an environment like this?
I am writing to ask to board to please do something to improve the image of our great schools and take some kind of action to stop this behavior.
Chris Profeta