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West Virginia, We Have a Problem: Teaching 21st-Century Skills in a 20th-Century Classroom

West Virginia, We Have a Problem: Teaching 21st-Century Skills in a 20th-Century Classroom_5fbed33c30404.jpeg
Accountability Appalachia Morgantown Teacher Voice Tiphani Davis West Virginia

West Virginia, We Have a Problem: Teaching 21st-Century Skills in a 20th-Century Classroom

West Virginia, We Have a Problem: Teaching 21st-Century Skills in a 20th-Century Classroom

As an educator, one of the worst feelings in the world is when you open your laptop only to find that your carefully designed lesson won’t work because today, of all days, your Internet has chosen to go out. We’ve all been there.

You stand in front of the class and try desperately to connect to the Internet while your students complete some ridiculous task you made up in the two seconds between realizing the Internet doesn’t work and your valiant attempt to be some kind of high-tech genius.

Unfortunately, this isn’t an isolated event, especially in rural America. You see, while the rest of the country reaps the benefits of high-speed broadband access and marches into the future, many parts of rural America are left stagnant in the past, with entire communities lacking broadband access.

In particular, the southeastern part of my state of West Virginia has entire counties where broadband service isn’t available at all. Yet these counties are required to not only teach 21st-century skills, but they are also required to have their students complete their yearly assessment online.

Having such expectations for students, but failing to recognize that these expectations cannot be met under current conditions, sets students up for failure. How can they be asked to complete an online assessment when their counties barely have Internet service?

This past year, my students spent over a month testing, an entire month of lost or interrupted instruction. Now, this isn’t to say that testing isn’t an important indicator of student achievement, but when students must dedicate a minimum of two weeks to an online assessment, it seems a bit counterproductive.

One of the major issues at my school is that there aren’t enough computers. In many other schools there aren’t enough computers or broadband power—in the case of Preston County, West Virginia, servers aren’t strong enough to support such high levels of traffic at one time and blow up in the middle of testing.

This lack of access, I would argue, is an issue of human rights. Like access to running water and electricity, access to high-speed broadband is essential to progress and being able to succeed today. And yet so many students do not have the access they need to prepare for the future, either at school or at home.

When this happens, it becomes a question of equity among students, especially when there are real stakes attached to test results. Is it really fair to pit counties against each other when one district has far more access to broadband and technology than another? Is it a true representation of how students are learning if one group must test all day, weeks on end, because their school only has 40 computers? Teachers can’t use data to drive instruction if the data collected is skewed because of inequity in testing environments. It is neither fair to teachers nor to students.

Fifty years ago, President Johnson declared war on poverty, using images of Appalachia to inspire change. But that change has been slow and now Appalachia, like many other rural regions in America, is falling further behind the rest of the country, and as industries leave, its people are left with very little opportunity.

Access is essential to progress, both educationally and economically. If our children do not have access to the tools they need to succeed, then the idea of the American dream, the hope that it instills, the change that it inspires is nothing but an empty promise.

Tiphani Davis teaches high school English and world history in Morgantown, West Virginia.

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