My District Spent $33 Million on Technology and All I Got Are These Lousy Test Scores

by Robert Pondiscio
September 7th, 2011

Maybe the medium is not the message.

Voters in the Kyrene school district, which serves students in Tempe, Phoenix and Chandler, Arizona approved spending $33 million on education technology, and are being asked to fork over another $46.5 million in November. The funds have purchased a lot of laptops, interactive whiteboards and software. What it hasn’t bought is higher test scores. The New York Times reports reading and math scores have stagnated in Kyrene since 2005 while rising statewide. “To many education experts, something is not adding up — here and across the country. In a nutshell: schools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning,” the paper reports.

“This conundrum calls into question one of the most significant contemporary educational movements. Advocates for giving schools a major technological upgrade — which include powerful educators, Silicon Valley titans and White House appointees — say digital devices let students learn at their own pace, teach skills needed in a modern economy and hold the attention of a generation weaned on gadgets.”

Anyone shocked? Regular readers of this blog will note we have regularly questioned the rush to fill classrooms with technology without asking how–how exactly–it improves outcomes or what we expect kids to learn. Breathless pronouncements about the needs and preferences of “digital natives,” and the imperative of endlessly individualized curriculum and instruction, elevate tools over their use. It’s magical thinking and overlooks that every piece of educational technology—from a piece of slate on a child’s lap and bound books in a one-room schoolhouse to Smartboards and Twitter—is a delivery mechanism, a means of displaying, transmitting, or manipulating ideas and information. The bottle is not the wine.

There is a broad tendency among edtechnophiles to conflate student engagement with achievement, and the Times is particularly strong in puncturing that myth. “The research, what little there is of it, does not establish a clear link between computer-inspired engagement and learning,” notes the Times, citing Randy Yerrick, associate dean of educational technology at the University of Buffalo:

“For him, the best educational uses of computers are those that have no good digital equivalent. As examples, he suggests using digital sensors in a science class to help students observe chemical or physical changes, or using multimedia tools to reach disabled children.

“But he says engagement is a “fluffy term” that can slide past critical analysis. And Professor [Larry] Cuban at Stanford argues that keeping children engaged requires an environment of constant novelty, which cannot be sustained. ‘There is very little valid and reliable research that shows the engagement causes or leads to higher academic achievement,’ he said.”

The Times is as guilty as any news organization of mooning over the need for “digital-age upgrades” and to liberate schools from their 19th century mindset. Thus it’s gratifying to see the Grey Lady take a clear-eyed look at what exactly we get when we fill our classrooms up with tech toys. The answer needn’t be “not much.” But that will always be the answer unless we make an equal effort to thoughtfully design a content-rich curriculum and stop assuming that mere “skill” with technology is a meaningful goal for schooling.

Every trade celebrates its tools, but education has made a fetish of it, too often treating technology as an end, not a means. It is hard to imagine a chef saying, “it’s not the meal that matters but the ingredients”; or an architect declaring, “Buildings aren’t important. Building materials are important.”  But when someone says what we learn doesn’t matter, but that we learn to learn–that skills and tools are what really matter, not content and products–we nod knowingly as if we have heard something profound.

12 Comments »

  1. Kyrene’s test scores are down, admittedly. But facebook friends have risen by 35%.

    Comment by MG — September 7, 2011 @ 12:16 pm

  2. @MG. And it’s not what you know, but who you know…

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — September 7, 2011 @ 12:17 pm

  3. Robert,

    Great topic.

    Had this very discussion last week with two colleagues who are still in the classroom. My district just approved another (at least the 4th or 5th) capital expenditure for additional computers for the schools last April.

    So I asked these two technology specialists if the percent of use of technology by classroom teachers had increased since I retired five years ago. Their answer was an unequivocal, “No.”

    They were most disappointed that the district continues to spend, with little to no regard to providing professional development/training or incentives for teachers to learn how to incorporate all this technology into their day.

    What would be nice would be to finally see the further development and purchase of software that teachers could actually use in their classrooms specific to state standards, even to the recently adopted Common Core Standards.

    Computer programmers; start your flow charts.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — September 7, 2011 @ 12:46 pm

  4. Buying more technology is not going to boost test scores or magically improve student learning. Teachers must have the required knowledge in order to use these technologies effectively. Money should be spent training and re-training teacher on the technology.

    I am an senior undergrad student in Curriculum and Instruction at ISU (Iowa State University). It is truly disheartening to think that my future school district would not provide the professional development needed to be a great teacher.

    I am receiving an endorsement in Instruction Technology. I would like to work for an AEA (Area Education Association) and provide support to classroom teachers.

    Comment by Andrew — September 7, 2011 @ 1:19 pm

  5. Many questions remain. Was the district trying to raise test scores or using the technology to achieve other outcomes. 21st century business skills come to mind. It is quite feasible that technology is being used to foster creativity, problem-solving, curiosity, inquiry, etc., and thus, would not necessarily result in higher test scores. I doubt this is the case but we mustn’t knee-jerkingly assume that technology is only useful for raising test scores or that a district is using the technology as a means of raising scores on a few assessments. When employers hire they don’t ask for test scores, they want to know how well you work with others and whether you can manage technology.

    Comment by Kronosaurus — September 7, 2011 @ 1:31 pm

  6. They must have been trying to raise the 21st century skills of the students, Kronosaurus – I think that is a fair statement. But seven years later, when a pricey tax override was up to vote in Kyrene to pay for the folly, perhaps people had realized that students were not any better prepared for business in the 21st century, despite initial claims to the contrary.

    Fads like these usually last about seven years.

    And the gentle people of Kyrene were not the only ones fooled. According to the NYTimes:

    “…In 1997, a science and technology committee assembled by President Clinton issued an urgent call about the need to equip schools with technology.

    “If such spending was not increased by billions of dollars, American competitiveness could suffer, according to the committee, whose members included educators like Charles M. Vest, then president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and business executives like John A. Young, the former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard.

    “To support its conclusion, the committee’s report cited the successes of individual schools that embraced computers and saw test scores rise or dropout rates fall. But while acknowledging that the research on technology’s impact was inadequate, the committee urged schools to adopt it anyhow.

    “The report’s final sentence read: “The panel does not, however, recommend that the deployment of technology within America’s schools be deferred pending the completion of such research.” ”

    Seems to me these esteemed scientists and business leaders were indeed promoting a very valuable 21st Century skill: namely, feel free to jump to conclusion whenever lack of research or of facts permits.

    Comment by andrei radulescu-banu — September 7, 2011 @ 5:10 pm

  7. @Andrew:

    I’ve been teaching for fifteen years. My county and district offer scads of technology training; in fact it often seems that, for them, technology training is synonymous with professional development. But I’ve found that deep study of my content area is a much more fruitful mode of professional development. It, not tech training, has yielded my best lessons and units. My county and district offer little encouragement for this type of development. Student computers in my classroom sit idle, and I am not ashamed by this. Why does everyone seem to assume that technology ought to have an important role in education? Kids are feasting on technology, but they’re starving for a liberal arts education that will free their minds from groupthink.

    Comment by Ben F — September 8, 2011 @ 1:37 am

  8. Amen, Robert. I have yet to see a computer teach a child how to read – though in many districts that is exactly where struggling readers are parked.

    Comment by Paula Coyner — September 8, 2011 @ 11:36 am

  9. This is an excellent article, Robert.
    Spokane Public Schools has spent a great deal of money on technology – SMART boards, laptops, calculators, and it also appears to want a new $4 million data system …
    Last spring, just 38.9% of our students passed the state math test, a “basic skills” test. A majority of our graduates needs remedial math in college. Many of our students never make it to college. We have a large dropout problem, even in our middle schools.
    Meanwhile, the district says it’s short on funds and has cut remedial programs and also instructional assistants who work with the children. It’s also put on hold the adoption of a math program that was supported by a majority of the teachers surveyed.
    Data doesn’t teach a child. A SMART board doesn’t teach a child. Unproved, unnecessary technology appears to be the district priority.

    Comment by Laurie Rogers — September 8, 2011 @ 12:46 pm

  10. I second this…. As a technology teacher, I have seen all to often teachers rushing to use the latest gadgets, devices and software without really having a pedological reason for doing so. It’s like playing with a new toy, just because it’s there to play with. I wholeheartedly agree that technology is simply a tool, that teachers should use, but not at the expense of the providing sound instructional reasons for using the technology. Teachers must look at the overall objective for the lesson they are teaching, perhaps, technology wouldn’t be the best strategy to use… it depends…
    Reminds me of a cup that belonged to a dear friend who taught in the classroom for 40 years… it read, “There is no substitute for a good teacher.”

    Comment by TDanyel — September 8, 2011 @ 4:10 pm

  11. One thing we must remember during this discussion is that students are more than test scores. If all you are doing is worrying about the test results, then are you really teaching the children? Or are you teaching the test? If the money spent on the testing was used to support students in the classrooms then I am sure that students learning would improve.

    Comment by Surge — September 10, 2011 @ 7:39 am

  12. Jesus God thank you for this post.

    One thing chronically left out of these conversations is that the teachers themselves tend to be very poorly educated, not to mention incurious, about computing, networks, and the social effects of the explosion in networks. These are all absolutely fascinating things and well worth studying, certainly more worthwhile than whatever lame ed software’s just come down the pike. But the teachers…don’t even get me started. Suffice to say that I still, chronically, have to demonstrate to teachers who’re enthusiastic about student blogging that it’s a bad idea to have their students splay personal info all over the internet, that secure is not so secure, etc. I do it by wandering around for an hour collecting google-served info on the enthusiast and then presenting it in some public forum. Unfortunately the pendulum tends to swing too far the other way, then, with the teacher shocked and deciding this internet thing is dangerous.

    Comment by writer — September 20, 2011 @ 11:05 am

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