OTHER ONLINE COURSES
Despite great promise, technology is dumbing down the classroom
Sunday, November 30, 2003
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This past year, as
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
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.
During a visit to
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
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
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
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
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.
Unfortunately, schools that follow these truths, rather than the lure of novelty, are rare. Most school technology stories play out the way
To make matters worse, when schools set out to buy computer gear, the technology industry often takes advantage of them. In
less than $18 million.
How could this be? It turns out that if
NEC was selling
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.