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In the 1990s, the term “digital divide” was coined to define the gap between people who had regular access to technology and those who did not—the proverbial technology “haves and have-nots.” Since then, the digital divide has shifted to mean more than simply being able to surf the web. And as technological needs and capabilities have grown, so have the inequities.

This week I looked at schools that filter and block certain websites on school Wi-Fi networks, as well as on school-issued laptops and tablets that students take home. The concerns and challenges all circle back to how heavy-handed internet filtering undermines student learning, particularly for children who depend exclusively on school-provided internet access and devices.

This common-sense viewpoint, however, has yet to trickle down to many schools, where over-filtering—filtering beyond the requirements of [the Children’s Internet Protection Act]—is common. One of the most ardent and active opponents of over-filtering to date has been the American Library Association, which for many years has championed the need to protect students’ access to “legal, constitutionally protected information that is necessary for their school studies [and] personal well-being,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, the deputy director for ALA’s office for intellectual freedom. Stone said in some cases, the problem is as simple as school staff failing to adjust the pre-set maximum settings on filtering software, though much of the difficulty resides with school personnel who misunderstand the federal law and the requirements necessary to be in compliance. As an example, she said both the Federal Communications Commission and representatives from the Department of Education have issued guidance stating that Facebook, YouTube, and other platforms do not need to be filtered, but school districts often block these websites “on the grounds that students might access content barred by CIPA.”

This finding is confirmed by anecdotal and empirical evidence. In Maine, Portland Public Schools in April 2012 installed filters on high-school students’ school-issued laptops that banned access to social networks, games, and video-streaming sites. At the time, Portland was among the first districts in the state to authorize such stringent filtering on take-home school devices. As the Press Herald reported, Portland High School students had very different responses to the new policy, based on their access to another computer at home: “…those from middle-class families expressed various degrees of annoyance when told of the new filtering measures. A group of immigrant students reacted with anger.”

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Firefighting is a noble and selfless profession. And there’s a shortage of firefighters across the country. It’s also a physically dangerous and psychologically taxing profession. CareerCast, an online portal for job seekers, ranked firefighting the most stressful job of 2015. And firefighters have among the highest rates of injuries and illnesses, according to government data.

So, taken all together, this raises some questions about equity and opportunity when career academies at high schools with higher concentrations of disadvantaged youth of color are preparing their students for firefighting, while career academies serving mainly white students—sometimes in the same school district—are preparing students for engineering and STEM careers.

Can such trends lead to “tracking” and perpetuate age-old inequalities for youth of color? Is this deserving of more scrutiny? My latest piece explores this issue.

[James] Kemple, now the executive director at the Research Alliance for New York City Schools, said his study suggests that career academies can be an “equalizing force,” noting that most of his data was drawn from schools and districts with high concentrations of black and Latino students, and students from low-income families and communities. For the desired effects, he said, three important elements must work in tandem: strong personalized-learning environments, a commitment to helping students complete high school, and opportunities to participate in meaningful work-related learning experiences. The biggest threat is inflating any one component at the expense of another. “An over-emphasis on job-specific skills training could lead to tracking,” Kemple said, referring to the educational practice of dividing students based on perceived abilities. “From this perspective, [firefighting] should provide the same opportunities for integrated learning, career-development skills, and advancement to college as business and finance.”

Louie F. Rodriguez, an associate professor in the college of education at California State University San Bernardino, said he has seen this trend before when you take a traditional school environment and examine the program offerings by race, language, and class. Rodriguez, who co-authored Small Schools and Urban Youthsaid there is “a lot of research to suggest that tracking students by race … perpetuates inequality at the school level.” While considering some of the examples cited, Rodriguez said it is vital to scrutinize the degree to which all career academies offer all students the same opportunity to learn. “If some academies offer more academically rigorous and more selective courses, and there are clear disparities in enrollment patterns by race, language, and class, then there is obviously a need to be concerned,” he said.

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When teachers in schools serving under-resourced communities can only be cast as heroes, martyrs, or patriots in books and movies, the result has proven to be far-reaching—namely, damaging myths about urban students and urban schooling.

In my latest piece, I examine how these literary and film accounts reinforce harmful stereotypes of urban teaching, and bring to the surface underlying racial aspects – i.e., the “white savior teacher” – that add to the discord.

The trope of the gung-ho greenhorn in the wilds of urban public education can trace its roots back to popular classics like To Sir, With Love(1967) and contemporary films like Dangerous Minds (1995). In each, a novice teacher is able to overcome and succeed where others have failed. The stories entertain movie audiences, but it is the way in which these tales have shaped the discourse about teaching and urban schooling that is of rising concern among some critics in the education world.

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Elden admits that these stories have the elements of a good Hollywood plot, but fall short as a guide for real teachers who “fall into the trap of comparing their unedited footage to other people’s highlight reels.” The maverick teacher “has become the only acceptable story to tell about our experiences as educators,” said Elden, adding that it creates a dynamic where beginning teachers are afraid to admit they’re struggling and soon are exhausted from trying to keep up with a false ideal.

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This breed of books and films “hold up … white people as exceptionally brave or exceptionally self-sacrificing or just exceptional and heroic for doing the same work educators have done for years without fanfare,” said Royal, whose work with preservice teachers brings this sharply into focus. “I debunk this idea with my students before we begin field experience in Baltimore City schools each semester,” she said, stressing that “white saviors aren’t bringing light and hope. The hope is already in our students and in our schools and communities. Our job is to cultivate it, to bring out what already exists.”

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(Photo: Clark County School District)