Computer illogic

Despite great promise, technology is dumbing down the classroom
Todd Oppenheimer
Sunday, November 30, 2003

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URL: sfgate.com/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2003/11/30/ING8L39SIP1.DTL


This past year, as San Francisco school officials were dealing with budget cuts by laying off teachers and librarians and closing school libraries, spending on city schools was increasing in another area: classroom computers. To keep up with the digital age, federal authorities gave city schools just short of $1 million this year to buy 450 new desktop computers. Their goal is to make sure there is at least one computer for every 10 students in fourth through eighth grades. Meanwhile, the state is contributing another $500,000 to high-tech education in San Francisco .

These subsidies come on top of the many millions spent in recent years on computer technology in Bay Area schools -- and in every city in the United States . No one knows the exact amount of spending on computers in San Francisco but, according to national estimates, U.S. schools have spent roughly $80 billion on school computing just in the last decade. This, at a time when activities that aren't available outside school the way computers are -- programs such as art and music classes, shop and physical education - - were being cut back or eliminated. Across the bay, for example, Union City 's school district spent $37 million in 1996 on computer gear for just 11 schools. To sustain this investment, the district cut back on expenditures for science equipment, field trips and several other academic mainstays.

Shifts of this sort have made for a drastic and worrisome change in today's classrooms. Throughout the country, computer technology is dumbing down the academic experience, corrupting schools' financial integrity, cheating the poor, fooling people about the job skills youngsters need for the future and furthering the illusions of state and federal education policy.

Yes, computers can open up valuable new learning opportunities. But this mostly involves older students, who should have the maturity to navigate the vagaries of the Internet and take advantage of sophisticated technology classes. (These classes involve activities such as advanced scientific and mathematical modeling, or electronic projects, in which students make circuit boards and their own software programs.) Unfortunately, classes of this sort are the great exception.

In San Francisco schools celebrated for their use of technology, I repeatedly ran across teachers caught in a fog of delusion about what their students were actually accomplishing with this machinery. In the younger grades, students in class after class are spending days, to their teachers' great delight, mastering children's versions of PowerPoint, the ubiquitous business presentation product sold by Microsoft. Yet the work the students produce with these products is stunningly superficial. It's usually far less creative than what students used to do with crayons, colored paper, scissors and glue -- materials that obviously cost a fraction of what computers do.

During a visit to Bryant Elementary School in the Mission , a group of second-graders had recently done some paper-and-scissors projects before graduating to the computer versions of this exercise. When I asked a handful of students which activity they preferred, many chose the old-fashioned version. "Because you can make it the way you want it," one boy told me. "And sometimes, the computers don't work."

Indeed they don't. As any adult knows, system crashes are a fact of high- tech life. That's why nearly every professional analysis tells organizations to reserve the bulk of their technology budgets for maintenance, future upgrades and training. Schools obviously don't have that kind of money; only 10 to 15 percent of their technology budgets is typically devoted to these nettlesome demands.

But technical hassles are just the beginning of the schools' troubles. Take the much vaunted effort to close the "digital divide." Popularized by the Clinton administration, this initiative was aimed at the poor, who were supposedly being shut out of social and economic opportunities because they had fewer computers than wealthy families do. This campaign has been so appealing that, according to a recent U.S. Department of Education report, computers are now more prevalent in poor schools than in wealthy ones. Yet political and education leaders haven't stopped crying about this terrible "divide." Meanwhile, the schools' new technology riches took the real divide between rich and poor children -- the educational divide -- and widened it.

In Harlem , for example, teachers have their hands full just trying to maintain order and pass on a basic level of knowledge. Now, they have to spend much of their time managing technical hassles the schools can't afford to fix and watching for cheating, instant messaging tricks and illicit material on screens that teachers cannot control or even see.

At Congress' behest, schools have been rapidly installing "filtering" software to block offensive Internet sites. Unfortunately, filtering technology is inherently flawed and extremely costly, and students regularly hack through it anyway. When the computers do work, fancy software programs automate design and math functions so beautifully that students don't have to think through much of their work anymore. School papers are so dominated by computer graphics these days that students often spend only a fraction of their time on the intellectual content of the report. Strangely, instead of bemoaning developments like these, nearly everyone -- teachers and parents, principals and politicians -- applauds them.

In both poor and wealthy schools, educators have invested millions in costly software packages (often called "courseware"), now pitched as the answer to President Bush's call for education initiatives that are proven, through "scientific research," to increase achievement. Unfortunately, the research behind many, if not most, of these claims is questionable.

Consider one popular software package for reading -- the president's top priority for education, if not for domestic policy in general -- called Accelerated Reader, or AR, which is used in more than half the nation's public schools. AR is made by Renaissance Learning Inc., an aggressive Wisconsin company that stakes its educational reputation on the volumes of research suggesting that its products raise academic achievement.

But the quality of that research is another matter. "This is not an honest picture of what this program is doing," Cathleen Kennedy, a researcher at UC Berkeley's Evaluation and Assessment Research Center, told me after reviewing several Renaissance studies. "It's a typical dog-and-pony show used on administrators who don't know about statistics."

One of the most common selling points for computers in schools, even in first and second grades, is to prepare youngsters for tomorrow's increasingly high-tech jobs. Strangely, this may be the computer evangels' greatest hoax. When business leaders talk about what they need from new recruits, they hardly mention computer skills, which they find they can teach employees relatively easily on their own. Employers are most interested in what are sometimes called "soft" skills: a deep knowledge base and the ability to listen and communicate; to think critically and imaginatively; to read, write and figure, and other capabilities that schools are increasingly neglecting.

A report from the Information Technology Association of America, which represents a range of companies that use technology, put it this way: "Want to get a job using information technology to solve problems? Know something about the problems that need to be solved."

Despite these sobering realities, schools are rushing into computing as if it were Nirvana. In Napa , New Technology High School puts a computer on every student's desk and orients nearly every academic project around the computer screen. The school has been widely held up as a national scholastic model, by both state and federal education authorities.

Yet the academic work in New Tech classrooms is shockingly thin. In class after class, students are encouraged to conduct almost all their research online, which means that books, magazines and other in-depth sources play a minimal role in their bibliographies.

An indication of the school's academic culture is revealed by one instructor's oft-repeated advice to his students: "It doesn't matter what you know. It matters what you show." Ironically, one of New Tech's biggest weak spots is in math skills, perhaps the primary prerequisite for advanced high- tech jobs.

All this frenzy about computing was fanned by the Clinton administration, whose vice president, Al Gore, was giddy about anything high tech. While Bush has not been nearly so enthusiastic, he has encouraged the computer mania by emphasizing standardized testing and school accountability. Nothing reassures people today like numerical data, and computers generate data magnificently. Unfortunately, standardized data distorts, and thus further dumbs down, the art of student evaluation, which is a quintessentially human and idiosyncratic challenge.

Consider the "diagnostic" functions in an increasing number of today's courseware programs. These purport to give teachers automated custom assessments of individual students. In truth, the assessments are something of a fraud. As an example, one of the Renaissance's assessment programs confidently says, "These scores indicate that Sarah has a firm grasp of whole number concepts and operations. She has a basic understanding of fractions and decimals." There is little evidence, though, that Sarah has any such understanding. The assessment -- an automated, canned statement -- is based on a national sample, not on Sarah's work.

In fairness to San Francisco , it should be noted that not every school has fallen for the techno-evangels' utopian visions. Thanks in part to superintendent Arlene Ackerman, each school now has some local control over its own budget. Some have chosen to embrace technology; some have returned to the basics.

McKinley Elementary, a poor, struggling school in the Mission District, just made a 100-point jump on state test scores simply by practicing the 3 Rs. It was relentless work, using many different creative techniques. Perhaps more importantly, McKinley parents point primarily to the individual attention the school's students now get, including a prodigious amount of after-school tutoring.

Aptos Middle School is another example. Largely because of a parent campaign, the school chose to cut technology spending in favor of band and orchestra programs. The implications of that choice go far beyond the cause of fun and curricular variety. The scientific literature includes robust evidence on the value of real music lessons (as opposed to just listening to music -- the famed but spurious "Mozart effect"). Learning to actually play a musical instrument seems to consistently foster sophisticated intellectual skills -- a finding that is glaringly missing from studies of the computer's effect on achievement. One well-regarded music study produced physical evidence that mastering an instrument expands an important quadrant of the brain.

Unfortunately, schools that follow these truths, rather than the lure of novelty, are rare. Most school technology stories play out the way Union City 's has. In 2001, five years after its $37-million spending spree on school computers, the district discovered that a lot of its fancy new gear was becoming obsolete. The district then had to spend another $5 million to upgrade its system when budgets were tight. This is at a time when district enrollment was falling, a turn that in itself cost the district $6 million in state funding. "It is killing us, and we are not alone," says Pat Gibbons, Union City 's deputy superintendent. "We started having teachers saying, 'This is too slow. We won't use it.' "

To make matters worse, when schools set out to buy computer gear, the technology industry often takes advantage of them. In San Francisco , federal authorities approved a $50 million grant in 2000 to finance the lion's share of a massive school networking project (the total cost of which would be $68 million). Surprisingly, the district later turned down the $50 million grant. After examining the contract, district technicians discovered they could build the system themselves for less than their tiny share of the costs -- that is,

less than $18 million.

How could this be? It turns out that if San Francisco had accepted the grant, that $50 million would have gone to computer industry giant NEC, whose bid marked up prices on computer hardware by 300 to 400 percent. One small Internet switch in the bid retailed on the open market for about $4,000 apiece.

NEC was selling San Francisco 130 of these switches at approximately $10,000 apiece. This would have yielded a profit margin to NEC of $780,000 -- on just one item.

Fortunately, deals like this are finally coming to the attention of federal investigators. In fact, the House Energy and Commerce Committee expects to hold hearings on the issue early next year.

In the meantime, individual schools are left with a mess to clean up. Maybe, the discovery of a few corrupt school network contractors will ultimately provoke an appetite for correction and control in technology spending -- similar to what the Enron scandals produced in the financial world.

If so, tomorrow's students will be the clear beneficiaries. They might even get some real job skills for the future.


Todd Oppenheimer is author of "The Flickering Mind: The False Promise of Technology in the Classroom and How Learning Can Be Saved". His Web site is www.flickeringmind.net.