It's common for us baby boomers to laugh that our children (and elementary-age grandchildren) instinctively understand computers better than we do. So it only makes sense that the more classrooms stocked with the latest digital technology, the better. It's the new way to learn.
But does smart use of electronics equal smart kids? A New York Times article from early this month drops a few clues. "In Classroom of Future, Stagnant Scores" is a head-scratching piece about the Kyrene School District of Chandler, Ariz., which has been a pioneer in technological education. The trouble is, standardized reading and math scores are showing no improvement among students, even as overall test scores in the state are rising. "[T]o many education experts, something is not adding up-here and across the country," the article reports. "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."
Since 2005, the district has spent $33 million on laptops, interactive screens, educational software, and teacher training in how to use it all. We're not talking about rows of computers in the library to help kids with their research projects; this is a restricting of the whole system, in which students learn at their own pace and teachers act as facilitators rather than instructors. It's a reasonable approach, with the inevitable downside: More money for technology means less for teachers, sports, music, and art.
Still, it might all seem justified if it weren't for those flatlined scores. Advocates of the digital classroom say that standardized tests can't measure the breadth of learning represented by technology. I understand the frustration with "test scores" being the measure of all things, but here's one thing they do measure: reading comprehension. Outside of the math sections, it's not necessary to know any particular content in order to do well on a standardized test, but you do have to know how to understand what you're reading. At least two-thirds of most standardized tests involve reading a paragraph or two and choosing the best multiple-choice answer to the questions.
No innovation has changed the fact that reading is fundamental to education, not just for learning new content, but also for thinking itself-organizing, categorizing, making inferences. Several years ago a school librarian told me that the greatest hindrance to reading among middle-schoolers is not TV or video but computers, and since then other librarians have concurred. The very interactiveness that makes digital learning so attractive may actually be more detrimental than the mind-numbing boob tube. It makes students think they're learning when they are only repackaging. It emphasizes polish and presentation over substance. And it creates a money pit that only gets deeper: In November, the Kyrene School District plans to ask voters to approve $46.3 million more in taxes to keep investing in newer technology. Technology is always newer: Every PC owner knows that his brand-new system is going to be obsolete in five years. If a school district is committed to state-of-the-art equipment, the demands on voters will never end.
"My gut is telling me that we've had growth [in student achievement]," district Superintendent David Schauer told the Times. My gut tells me that children should not go near a computer until they are at least 12 and have learned to read at grade level. Only until then will they have the necessary foundation to get real educational benefit from technology. Otherwise, the glitzy programs and games are a costly distraction.