As Schools Lift Bans on Cell Phones, Educators Weigh Pros and Cons

Pupil Sending Text Message On Mobile Phone In ClassAlthough students have been using cell phones consistently in their daily lives for almost a decade, many public schools continue to resist allowing the devices into the classroom. Schools generally grapple with new technologies, but cell phones’ reputation as a nuisance and a distraction has been hard to dislodge.

Recently, however, the acceptance of these devices has been growing. Beginning in March, New York City, the largest school district in the country with 1.1 million students, will reverse its long standing ban on cell phones in schools.

The ban, which was implemented by the Bloomberg administration, went into effect in 2006, but Mayor Bill De Blasio championed the policy change, saying that he thought it was important for parents to be able to easily contact their kids.

Will more districts around the country follow? Liz Kolb, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Education and author of Toys to Tools: Connecting Student Cell Phones to Education, says its already happening. According to Kolb, close to 70 percent of schools that had cell phone bans in place five years ago are reversing their policies.

Students from Norman Thomas High School in New York City pay a dollar to check their electronic devices at a van before school.

Students from Norman Thomas High School in New York City pay a dollar to check their electronic devices at a van before school.

“First it was a very slow domino fall, and now we’re seeing more of a tidal wave,” Kolb explains. “Part of it is because it’s hard to fight the tidal wave and there’s so many students with cell phones. The second part is that they’re really seeing them as a learning tool, not just a toy for entertainment, and they’re seeing that they can be cost effective for the schools instead of having to purchase technology for students.”

Critics believe, however, that allowing these devices will only encourage their non-educational use in school, to the point where they will be a significant distraction for teachers and students – and a potential tool for cheating. A specific concern for parents and educators is that lifting the cell phone ban could foster cyberbullying and sexting during school hours. NYC school officials are already taking steps to combat this, hoping to decrease the amount of sexting and cyberbullying overall.

Educators continue to have mixed opinions about cell phones in the classroom. We recently posed the question on the NEA Today Facebook page and received a wide variety of responses.

cell phones in the classroomAre Students Addicted to Cell Phones?
Concerns about cell phones in the classroom are also grounded in what we know about teenage brains, including the inability to concentrate while multitasking and possibly long-term effects on overall health.

In Becky Dieffenbach’s opinion, bringing their own devices “just becomes a source of distraction for some students, because no matter how many times you repeat the rule that they can only be on technology when the teacher says it’s ok, they choose to ignore the rule and then disciplinary actions have to be enforced.”

“Students persistently use them a great deal for personal interactions via social media when they should be paying attention to what is going on in class,” according to Connie Fawcett, a high school teacher in Oklahoma.

Based on her personal experiences, Fawcett “can see few positives outcomes for cell phones in the classroom, but it is becoming the new norm. Learning is going to suffer even more. What students gain from using them to support instruction will be lost due to the distraction factor, which appears to be much more appealing and fulfilling to many.”

Other teachers disagree and urge educators to accept the inevitability of cell phones in school and learn how to make them work in the classroom.

“We need to stop pushing against the technology and start embracing it,” says Amber Schaefer, an elementary school teacher in Minnesota. “The more we push back, the more we separate ourselves from students. It is time to incorporate and collaborate instead of ban and punish.”

“It would be nice if they weren’t part of the school picture,” adds New York teacher Barbara McConnell, “but they are, so let’s use them to our advantage.”

Beyond the classroom, many educators believe that banning any type of technology can foster inequity. In New York City specifically, the school ban on cell phones was most stringently applied in schools with metal detectors, which also happen to be those with the highest concentrations of low-income and minority students.

José Vilson, a middle school math teacher in New York City and author of This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class and Education, agrees that these bans widen the gap between disadvantaged students and their peers. He believes forbidding cell phones just limits students’ access to technology, especially for those who attend urban schools.

Ending the ban in New York will mean students can “carry their cell phones into the building and not be treated like criminals and have to pay extra to leave it outside at the cellphone truck,” Vilson says.

Vilson, who uses all kinds of devices in his own classroom, doesn’t believe that phones provide “much more of a distraction than kids already have. It depends on how [educators] approach the whole process.”

Once the new policy is in place starting in March, individual schools in New York City will be able to establish their own specific policies regarding cell phone use in the classroom, leaving many teachers to determine how they will react to the devices in hallways and classrooms.

Experts advise a cautious and well-researched approach. Liz Kolb urges schools to “start small.”

“Don’t feel as if because students have the devices they have to be using them all the time,” she explains. “They just really need to be careful and thoughtful and take baby steps, and develop a nice protocol and rules and structures for how students physically handle the device in the classroom.”

Kolb points to some schools in Michigan that adopted new  straightforward rules and guidelines for educators that were designed to meet the needs of students while addressing educators’ concerns. Posted on classroom doors, for example, are signs indicating whether the students can use their devices. A green stoplight means they can use them; red means no.

“This allows students to know the expectations, and it also gives teachers autonomy over whether they’re going to use the cell phones,” Kolb explains. “It gives them a little bit of freedom. It’s a very simple policy, but it’s also very effective.”

Photos: Associated Press

  • Melvin Kaabwe

    Many private schools in South Africa have embraced BYOD and use access to eBooks via mobile devices as a strategic differentiator when marketing to parents. The major municipalities are creating free WiFi zones especially near schools to allow kids to use devices as tools of discovery and research. It occurs to me that if some of the US schools saw fit to grant concessions for device storage, they may conversely gain much more by manipulating access to free connectivity at the school. Switching off the signal at appropriate times will have the consequence of the student incurring data charge costs for violating the rules and no student wants to pay unless they have to.

    • Bob

      I think some US schools are doing that — and I am in complete agreement with your comment — very well-stated

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  • Veronique Elizabeth

    “but Mayor Bill De Blasio championed the policy change, saying that he thought it was important for parents to be able to easily contact their kids.”

    Well, HE is an idiot. Call the OFFICE!! it has worked well for over 50 years!

    • @Kaabwe

      Typewriters still work well too but that doesn’t equip our kids with the world of work that they are heading into.

    • fsgsgrrtsg

      really your an idiot

  • FormCritic

    One major issue not discussed is what happens when an electronic device is lost, stolen or damaged. Parents can expect schools to handle this problem as if the schools are somehow responsible.

    Some parents also expect schools to act on student behavior that takes place outside of school – and beyond school control.

    Our district’s solution is to allow cell phone use, but only outside of the school building. We will not look at a student’s phone and we will not respond to any report of student use of phones. Parents are encouraged to refer criminal use of phones to the police.

    We will not investigate any loss or theft involving an electronic device. We make it clear to parents that we discourage phones at school and will not take responsibility for anything that happens to a phone.

    Use of electronic devices in class probably sounds really clever in wealthier communities. Here in the real world there are wide economic differences between our families. Incorporating privately owned electronic devices into instruction immediately spawns issues of equity. There is the strong possibility that incorporating smart phones into instruction will burden our district with the responsibility to provide these devices to all students.

    • Justin

      It doesnt mean equality for everybody, it just means that some students will have to deal with doing paper, the administration would not be responsible for the damaging or loss of phones as the student brings it to class

  • Phil Grafft

    I wonder about all the other 1st World Countries in the world. What is the policy in their schools? Already, the U.S. suffers by comparison with many countries as concerns our public education performance. By giving in to yet another societal demand, are we going to be further weakening our school systems, and hence, our student performance? Why must we allow phones in the schools. If it is so important, can’t parents call the school offices. It seemed to work just fine before cell phones.
    Glad I’m retired….but alarmed at what we are doing to our educational process. My argument is not a case of being outdated or old-fashioned. I am pleading the case that we need to get back to what is important in the daily life of a school

    • MarineBob

      You sir, are quite correct. Hit the nail on the head, very squarely I might add

    • @Kaabwe

      I visit European countries annually for meetings and the price of an entry level smartphone is sub $50 so this puts it in the price region of a textbook or an advanced calculator which often costs more. I think the focus should be less on the “phone” and more on the “smart”. Consider it as a pocket computer. If we expect kids to contribute meaningfully to the economy and society, they should be armed with access to information in a way that the latest technology allows or else they will be less competitive on the global workforce scale.

      • Phil Grafft

        In concept, I do not oppose the advantages that technology can create in the education process. But, there are issues that I believe must be resolved.
        The price of the smartphone is only the beginning. The cost begins to spiral once you start adding the programs that enhance the phone’s ability to provide information. None of that is free, and indeed, can be quite expensive. And the fact remains, many at the bottom of the economic ladder will not be able to afford even entry-level equipment, leaving those students at a distinct and inequitable disadvantage. Finally, my question remains – do you know what the public school cell phone policy is in the schools of these European countries?

    • wolfy

      some parents may not have access to a school directory online or in a book at the time of an emergency so if they wanted to contact them to tell them they were in a fatal state they’d have no other way

      • BajanTommy

        Come on @wolfy, all that has to be done is to get the school’s telephone number on the first day of term, store it in your phone book and presto, no need to be hunting around in an emergency.

    • Seth Stephenson

      There was way more kidnappings back then too.

    • Janine

      I am a Middle school teacher and my school recently lifted the ban of cell phones. Students are allowed to use them in between classes and at lunch and recess. You would be appalled at the amount of parents that call their children throughout the day even though they know they are in class. Then those same parents wonder why their child had their phone confiscated. Usually the call is not important at all. It’s very frustrating. I’ve also had parents come up to the school in a frantic because their child texted them something that “upset” them. It’s so distracting. Education is important.

      • BUSYMOM4

        You are correct. Our large middle school in NC just got rid of the cell phones (after 3 years) because is was a constant distraction in the classroom, teachers constantly having to manage what students were doing on cell phones. And, as you mentioned, constant contact with parents. Another BIG problem at our school was social media, taking nude photos (in bathrooms) and inappropriate use of phones on School buses. What a mess, so glad they got rid of cell phones in the class. Total waste of everyone’s time, and did not help learning.

    • Jonathan

      When they first introduced books into society, people thought that they would weaken society. Now, reading books is looked at as commendable, or if anything slightly old fashioned, and books take up a huge part in school. I think we should embrace the future. One of the reasons are education system is weaker than other 1st world country is because we are AFRAID to embrace advances in technology, AFRAID of change. I think what are important are the students, not the selfish refusal to change, to advance. I mean no offense by this argument, I just state what the facts and opinions to back up my claims, and I appoligize for any offense I may cause by this.

      • Phil Grafft

        Jonathan, rather than just throwing words out there, I would like to see you quantify your “facts and opinions.” And, what is your experience in the classroom as a teacher?
        Finally, because we disagree, my stance is “selfish refusal?” I am not offended by your words, but must admit, they sound like the passionate yet untested theories of a person who has not “walked the walk.” My positions are based on 28 years experience as a teacher. During that time I saw a tremendous amount of change. I embraced much of it, I struggled with some of it, and I disagreed with some of it. For instance, from the get-go, I was absolutely convinced that NCLB was doomed to failure. And, it certainly was a massive failure.

  • MiddleSchoolMom

    My daughter attends. middle school with a bring your own device policy. On the plus side, she used the calculator for adv. math and used it for research in adv. History. On the negative side, there was a huge problem with watching pornography at lunch, between classes and on the bus.

  • MarineBob

    When the first administrator is video’d doing/saying something they wish hadn’t, phone – device use will be eliminated in that school. No reason to have phones in schools. Pure distraction. Of course when half the teachers are constantly on their phones…….

  • Phil Grafft

    None of the comments substantially address the problem of text communication between students during testing periods. I think we all have to expect students can be stealthy enough to pull this off without detection. I have no doubt whatsoever that it has already impacted test performance and results. Anyone out there who can bear me out on this?
    I agree with the comments about less-advantaged students being less able to compete with their classmates who have access to smart phones when they do not.
    If I am the parent of one of the less-advantaged students who is competing with classmates for scholarships, what is my response supposed to be? Seems to me this is fodder for legal issues.
    At least within the walls of the schools, I believe it is the responsibility of the faculty and administration to keep an “even playing field” as much as is possible.

    • Tanya Lee

      This depends on the testing enviroment. In Hawaii, we had teachers who gave test answers to students during the test! At my intermediate school, one teacher coodinated with the high school to see what text messages they got from our students during a specific class time. Cell phones were not permitted in class. There were text messages from almost all the students at some point during the class. I did catch one student using a cell phone by putting her hand in a backpack on her lap. Trying to teach a math class and monitor 30 students for cell phone use is pretty much impossible.

    • Martin

      Hell, we had cell phones in my HS, but even before that we got away with passing ACTUAL notes during tests. Text? Too easy…and the amount of information you could share…well…

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  • aj

    i use my cell phone in class all the time

  • thepancakeman456

    Do you want some pancakes?

  • Sweet Clover Honey

    Before educators allow cell phones in school they need to have a plan to protect the privacy rights of all students. Students have a right not to have their picture taken by the cell-phone camera in school and uploaded to the internet against their will. How will school administrators prevent students from using their smart phone to hack into the school’s databases and uploading personal information on classmates? I don’t see any problem with cell phones if schools can control their use in the classroom, but they can’t. The duty of teens is to grow up and test boundaries.

  • Lisa Ables-johnson

    Can’t speak for other states, but here in Texas we’re going to allow open carry on college campuses.. so, well need our cellphones handy. 911 should be on speed dial :-/


    YOU ARE CORRECT! I’m baffled that educators and school administrators would think this is a good idea. What a mess at our schools, they finally got rid of cell phones last school year at our large NC middle school bc all of the problems it caused in, and out, of the classroom (and on the bus). Teachers couldn’t manage it, kids couldn’t control themselves and lots of kids got into big trouble.


    How about kids get a break from using cell phones at school! Don’t they get enough screen time already, can we teach them to think on their own. Very little has changed….text books still work. Newton’s Laws are the same, math is the same, Geography is the same, Spanish class is the same….you get my drift. If a teacher wants to enhance learning by using technology in the class, great. But there is NO need for kids to have the constant distraction of a cell phone in class. Our MS has had nothing but problems since kids started bringing cell phones to class. Very bad idea!

  • Wally


  • Messi

    The thing is why did this all happen because no one in school did anything with their phone. In Thomas Norman high school they had to pay a dollar for them to store their phones in a van before school started.

  • Martin

    A simple case of treating the symptom and not the disease. A cell phone is simply an outlet for distraction, not the cause. When I was in school it was games on a graphing calculator, and then when we all got phones it was texting. Before that it was doodling in my notebook instead of paying attention. The outlet was irrelevant and simply evolved with the times. And guess what, I still did my homework and got my A’s because I took pride in my achievements, be able to keep up with my peers, wanted to make my parents proud, get into college, get paid alot, etc etc.

    The real question is why are these students distracted in the first place? They’re not engaged? they’re not accountable? They don’t care about learning? etc etc.

  • ryan blackman


  • ryan blackman

    sup fam

  • R

    Red but blue