New York City’s public school district is gearing up to scrap a controversial policy forbidding its 1.1 million students from having cellphones on campus. The thing is, plenty of students are already ignoring the ban. It turns out some of the poorest kids in the city are the ones who will notice the change most.
The decision to lift the ban was prompted by safety concerns. Mobile phones aren’t just for snapchatting but a way for kids to let parents know where they are. And with teen cellphone ownership rates so high, an ongoing ban increasingly seemed impractical—if not impossible. Civil rights activists call the move inevitable and long overdue.
Still, for most of New York City’s 1,800 or so public schools, the ban on cellphones is little more than a line in the district’s discipline code. The out-of-sight, out-of-mind rule doesn’t appear to be in force at most schools. When discussing his plan in September to axe the policy, Mayor Bill de Blasio even acknowledged that his son Dante brings his cellphone to his school, Brooklyn Technical High.
In fact, some New York City teachers rely on student cellphones as tools in the classroom to help with tasks such as research projects. These classrooms become what Andrew Miller, a Tacoma-based educator who specializes in online learning, called "pockets of excellence." But these kinds of pockets of excellence can’t exist at the 87 schools with metal detectors on campus because the security screening effectively bars kids from physically bringing their devices to class.
Schools with metal detectors tend to serve large populations of poor, at-risk kids. They also have higher-than-average percentages of black and Latino students. These students are the ones who could, in theory, most benefit from the kinds of innovative, effective instruction that advocates say digital devices such as cellphones can offer: lessons that are customized to the needs of each kid, real-time feedback on class work, opportunities to work in smaller groups, and engaging assignments such as scavenger hunts, to name a few.