Classroom Tech a Firewall for Spanish Speaking Parents in Silicon Valley


SAN JOSE, Calif. – With Common Core now in place in schools across California technology is playing an increasingly outsized role in and out of the classroom. For some Latino parents in Silicon Valley, the shift presents an added firewall to engaging in their child’s education.

Maria Martinez lives in San Jose’s Mayfair district. A parent of three, her children – ages 7, 10 and 13 – are enrolled in the Alum Rock Union School District. She volunteers with the community organization Somos Mayfair, which she says helps keep her informed of what’s happening in the classroom. But, she admits, even she has struggled to make sense of recent changes.

“They [my sons’ school] explained to us that there will be a test, and that it will be different,” said Martinez, referring to the new computer-based standardized test that California students recently took. But rather than explaining what the changes were, Martinez says school officials simply pointed parents to a website.

“They didn’t really explain the changes,” she says.

Those changes include the new Smarter Balanced assessment, which this year replaced the previous pencil and paper California Standardized Test. The SBAC, as the new test is known, measures student progress under the Common Core standards in English Language Arts and math. Given over several days to students in 3rd through 8th and 11th grades, the tests require students to give an answer and, in places, articulate how they got it.

The computerized test typifies the larger shift happening with the Common Core, which has driven a growing number of teachers to turn to online resources in lieu of more traditional curricular materials.

According to a 2013 nationwide survey by PBS Learning Media, 48 percent of K-12 teachers say technology plays a “critical role” in daily lesson plans. Teachers in low-income districts were especially optimistic about the benefits that technology brings to education, with 75 percent saying they would like to more of it. 

Martinez stays in touch with her children’s teachers through the school’s online portal, which is used by teachers to communicate lesson plans, grades, homework, and allows parents to send in any questions they may have. But while she finds the system efficient, she worries about other parents in the Latino community who may not have access to the technology or who don’t speak English.

“That’s the largest problem that we have, that many parents don’t speak English,” said Mayfair resident and parent Oliva Ortiz, adding, “The person who pays the most is the child because they are not at the level they need to be at.”

Martinez says for all the benefits of technology, schools still need to focus on providing more bilingual staff support and educational resources for parents. “Many parents don’t know all the help that the district has to offer,” she said.

Like Martinez, Ortiz says she was directed to the school website after asking about changes to the curriculum and testing.

“The majority of those here in our community don’t have access to the Internet or a good computer,” explains Ortiz. “If the schools are only telling us to look on the Internet for explanations, then I think that’s not going to work.”

A recent report from UC Berkeley’s Joan Ganz Cooney Center bears that out. The report found that only 48 percent of Spanish-only households had access to high speed Internet, compared to 86 percent in English only households, and 68 percent in bilingual households. Spanish-only households also relied more heavily on television for educational content rather than the Internet or an online app.

While the figures point to a lingering digital divide, they also suggest an equally troubling information gap when it comes to things like the Common Core. Many in the community say they have either not heard of the standards, or, if they have, do not understand them.

But Ortiz says her concerns revolve less around what the new standards are than around the increased use of technology. Her daughter is in the second grade at Cesar Chavez Elementary and uses the learning tool i-Ready for most of her classroom lessons. The i-Ready learning software is specifically designed to follow Common Core standards while helping teachers monitor the progress of individual students.

Ortiz feels the tool hamstrings teachers by taking away their ability to personalize lesson plans in the classroom. “The teacher has to follow those instructions, they have to follow the manual … it’s a little worrying to think that the teachers aren’t teaching anymore, that the program is.”

Veronica T. Avendaño wrote this article as part of the Informed Communities Education Reporting Fellowship, a partnership between New America Media and Silicon Valley Community Foundation.
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