When Lifting a School Cellphone Ban Is a Win for Poor Students

In New York, the out-of-sight, out-of-mind ban is enforced predominantly at schools with metal detectors—the same schools that could benefit the most from technology-friendly policies.

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.

Policies banning electronic devices trace back to the late ‘80s, when cellphones and pagers were associated with students involved in gangs and selling drugs, according to Kenneth Trump, the president of the consulting firm National School Safety and Security Services. The rules have since evolved to focus on cellphones as a disruption to learning and an impediment to the schools’ emergency response.

But much of that has changed now that cellphones are so commonplace in everyday life. Large urban districts such as those in Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami have enacted policies allowing student cellphone use. (A key concern is that kids should be able to have their mobile phones on them in the event of a school shooting.)

A recent survey from the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development found that two-thirds of respondents believe students should be allowed to bring cellphones to school and use them as a learning resource in class. Twenty-two percent of respondents said the devices should be allowed but not used in class, while just 12 percent said they should be banned altogether.

Prohibiting them from bringing cellphones to class could equate to a missed opportunity for needy kids, says Larissa Pahomov, a Philadelphia teacher who works in a public high school that gives every student a laptop.

"Greater privilege equals greater access," said Pahomov, who recently wrote the book Authentic Learning In The Digital Age: Engaging Students Through Inquiry. "If one is bestowed on you, the other comes naturally. Access is not automatic."

Pahomov’s school—Philadelphia’s Science Leadership Academy—focuses on inquiry-based learning. Under that model, the students learn by asking questions, doing research, and engaging in projects; the teachers don’t just recite facts and reinforce rigid paths to knowledge. Access to the Internet is critical to this learning model, Pahomov said, emphasizing that digital technology is one—but surely not the only—tool used in the classroom.

The Chromebook laptops, which the school secured this year thanks to a partnership with Dell, are the primary digital devices students use for their inquiry-based classwork. (The academy is the only public school in the district to participate in the one-to-one laptop program.)

But Pahomov said cellphones play a role, too. Kids primarily use them to produce content, Pahomov said: record audio, take photos, film video clips.

School districts nationwide are also embracing that kind of approach. Facing tight budgets while acknowledging that most of today’s students are "digital natives," many districts have even adopted a policy known as BYOD—bring your own device.

Pahomov said the majority of her students have smartphones but acknowledged that relying on kids to use their own mobile devices can be problematic because not everyone has the same technology. That’s one reason many educators remain skeptical of BYOD policies and why programs such as Science Leadership Academy’s one-to-one laptop initiative are so ideal.

Still, the program demonstrates the power of technology in the classroom. And, as Miller points out, BYOD can be very effective when the right guidelines and teacher training are in place.

BYOD can also prove useful in school districts that are increasing their focus on students’ digital fluency as they move into the new Common Core math and reading standards. School districts across the country, including New York City, are increasingly adopting standards that explicitly expect kids to be competent with digital tools.

Draconian digital-device policies, Pahomov added, can also take a toll on morale and even undermine students’ attention levels. At the Science Leadership Academy, teachers encourage their students to use their apps and explore the web rather than peek at their phones under their desks during class. And a loud, unexpected call in the middle of class doesn’t prompt awkward silence and punitive treatment for the phone’s owner; instead, the students and teacher laugh, dance to the ringtone, and move on with their lesson.

"It reveals the deeper question of, ‘How do you view your students? Do you view them as people you can trust?’" Pahomov said. "We [teachers] really see ourselves as coaches, or facilitators for encouraging the healthy usage of technology.

"I’m not the technology police," she continued. "I’m sort of their personal trainer when it comes to technology use … Learning to separate yourself from technology is like strength training. If you learn how to separate yourself from it, then it doesn’t become a fight."

Of course, implementing such programs is easier said than done for many schools new to digital classroom tools. Schools need to design strict, clear policies and provide teachers with proper training.

De Blasio has already said he doesn’t want to drop the policy without clear, constructive alternatives in its place.

"If you just put technology in the classroom with poor instruction, you’re just going to get more poor instruction," Miller said.