iPod program helps school test scores

Oregon third graders' reading and math results benefit from iPod Touch access.

Last month, we had an exceptional panel talking about Mobile in Education at our largest Mobile Portland meeting ever. A report on how iPod Touches are making huge differences in third-grade test scores really stuck with me.

Joe Morelock, the director of technology and innovation for the Canby School District in Oregon, shared with us how Canby started a pilot program of iPod Touch devices in a single third-grade classroom. The pilot’s success led to the district setting a goal of providing every third-grade student with access to an iPod Touch.

Morelock has documented the program in a presentation you can download from the school district’s wiki.

Below, I’ve pulled out a few slides from Morelock’s presentation that illustrate the remarkable improvements. These charts start to explain why the school district got behind the program so quickly.

The charts compare the performance of third graders throughout the Canby school district with those whose classroom used iPod Touches throughout the year. As you can see in the chart below, the number of students that meet or nearly meet the math requirements on a standardized test are much higher for the iPod Touch classroom (left circle).

Pie charts comparing math scores of students with iPod Touches with those throughout the district

The difference in performance is striking when looking at students with disabilities (below, left column):

Migrant and ELL students

The increase in test scores for students with disabilities appears to validate some of the early anecdotal reports that iPhones and iPod Touches were making a difference for children and adults with autism.

The program also had a positive affect on English language learners (below, right column):

Students w/ disabilities, minorities

And it’s not just math scores. Here are reading test results from the same classroom:

Reading test scores

Reading test scores continued

Parents whose children have been exposed to iPod Touches in the classroom don’t like the idea that their children may not have them when they move on to the next school year, so they’re organizing fundraisers to purchase additional devices. Because iPod Touches are relatively inexpensive, five can be purchased for the same price that would have been required to purchase a single laptop.

The Canby School District is extending the iPod program by providing iPod Touches for all third graders district-wide during the 2010-2011 school year. In addition, pilot programs using iPads will run at the elementary-, middle- and high-school levels.

Perhaps most importantly, both students and teachers love using the devices:

You know that little boy who came up to us this morning? He loves the iPod Touches. They have made an incredible difference in his math work. He has Asperger’s, and before the iPods, he could never sit through a math class. The kid absolutely loves math now and gets As. He sits himself up at the front of the room — he likes to be by himself — tucks his foot up, leans on the desk and goes to town on math. It’s simply amazing. — Gale Hipp, sixth-grade math teacher. [Note: Link added.]

And simply:

This is the most fun I have had teaching in the last 25 years. — Deana Calcagno, fifth-grade teacher.

The full panel discussion is available in the following video. Morelock’s segment on the Canby School District and their iPod pilot program starts at 19:20.


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  • Dan Blaker

    As much as I’d love this to be legit, I’m concerned this might be an example of the soft bigotry of low sample sizes. While it’s possible that the devices themselves had something to do with the results, it’s more likely that the 6 or 7 kids whose test scores increased are responding to the change in training methods from the normal classroom approach to whatever technique is used in the math app.

    And then there’s this quote: “This is the most fun I have had teaching in the last 25 years.” This illustrates another likely reason that test scores went up for some kids: their teachers were more engaged and hopeful.

    At any rate, I’m interested to see if these results are reproduced across the entire district. Anything that can help engage the teachers and some of the kids is worthwhile; on the other hand, many Oregon schools are low on basic supplies like paper. I’m not sure this is the best use of limited funds. If it actually is a silver bullet, I’ll be happy that my skepticism is misplaced.

  • Passing standardized tests != getting a good education. All the tests do is provide an incentive to teachers to “teach to the test” rather than actually teaching the subject at hand. So I reserve judgment until somebody can replicate these results in other ways.

  • Jason,
    Thank you for binging attention to this study. It is so rare for anyone to even attempt to measure the results of all of this new gadgetry. It may be that the sample size is small and the controls imperfect; but it’s better than complete subjectivity, conjecture or truthiness. Over the last decade and again in the next huge sums of money will be spent bringing unproven teaching tools into our classrooms. Some will be worth the cost, some will not. Sometimes it will be because the technology isn’t helpful as a teaching tool, other times it will be because the teachers don’t know how to teach with the tools.

    I’m glad that they are trying to measure the results.

  • I think this is a great program but how realistic is it that all 3rd graders will get an ipod touch and what about the other grades. This seems like quite a big cost just to entice the kids to want to learn.

  • @dan I encourage you to watch Joe’s presentation. He talks about the methodology and in the Q&A session, he is asked specifically about whether or not this is just because it is new and flashy. His response is who cares? If it works, why shouldn’t they use it?

    FWIW, they’ve increased the use of iPods year after year and for this coming school year they are doing it district wide.

    @tara they are deploying iPods to every 3rd grader this year. As far as other grades, you’ve got to start somewhere.

  • Corey – I think we can all agree that standardized tests aren’t perfect, but I’ve yet to hear of an alternative measurement mechanism. Further, I think we should distinguish between teaching for a test and teaching a test – one is appropriate as it drives towards actual learning while focusing on topics of importance (the former) while the other is shallow and, IMO, the mark of a poor teacher.

    I too would like to see the results as this program is rolled out further – the sample size is small enough that any number of factors could lead to invalid assumptions. However, initially promising results should be applauded and met with a desire to expand scope and investigation, not dismissal.

    And kudos to Canby for posting their activities and findings in an open and public forum!

  • Michael

    Actually I use my iPad all the time as a tool to learn. I use it to store tons of ebooks which can be used for reference materials. It has note taking software which I can always use as I learn new things. It even allows me to share my notes with others electronically. I think if more people were used to using iPads in classroom environments learning would significantly increase.

  • Michael

    Actually I use my iPad all the time as a tool to learn. I use it to store tons of ebooks which can be used for reference materials. It has note taking software which I can always use as I learn new things. It even allows me to share my notes with others electronically. I think if more people were used to using iPads in classroom environments learning would significantly increase.

  • I see this as a two-dimensional, constrained, hierarchical device that improves students’ performance in constrained, two-dimensional, hierarchical measurements.

    At best, this is to teaching as a microwave oven is to cooking. It will get inconsistent results (too hot in some places, stone cold in others), and it puts the art of great teaching in the back seat the way a microwave puts the art of cooking in the back seat. It won’t be long before iPod-augmented education will be just like microwave-cooked food: ubiquitous, bland, and a far cry from its well-intentioned origins. Just as we have whole generations now who have never cooked popcorn in anything but a microwave, we’ll have generations who think that ‘painting’ is dragging a stylus across an input pad.

  • Jonathan

    Paco, I think it’s safe to say that the median 3rd grade public school district teacher with a class of 30 students is not practicing the art of great teaching. Whether that’s because of the quality of the teacher talent pool, political, social, business, economic or other factors I am not going to get into.

    Standardized curricula, whether focused on a standardized quant test or not, is like microwave education. To solve this you need to decimate class sizes and revolutionize the reward system for professional teachers.

    Until that happens you work within the microwave, and if using 3% of the per-student budget on a digital teaching aid improves quantifiable student performance then it’s a step in the right direction.

  • Nelson

    Pavo -1
    Jonathan +1

  • Sounds wonderful, but in what occupation do you take tests? As long as we continue to think that standardized testing measures anything valuable for the workplace we might as well be buying pet rocks for students because their education is still a joke.

  • “This is the most fun I have had teaching in the last 25 years.” — Deana Calcagno, fifth-grade teacher.

    Where is the fun teaching a bunch of students face down in an electronic device. This statement alone is a big part of the problem.

  • On the surface, this appears to be a wonderful program to help expand the teaching parameters and to actually make good practicable use of an electronic device.

    However, I agree with Tara, how do we justify the cost for this project, when budgets education budgets are already stretched in 95% of the country as it is.