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.