I have a wonderful friend for whom I do writing, civil rights and consulting work, and who has asked me to work on drafting an Op-Ed piece for a major southern California newspaper on the issue of educational reform.
And, well, we have a disagreement on how best to cover it. So, I will rewrite for him but publish my version here.
I feel very strongly about pumping in another untold millions of public dollars into computers for schools that is almost certainly entirely wasted and wrong-headed because of the education industry's refusal to require basic computer literacy from teacher ed candidates.
My take is below.
Insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and somehow expecting the outcome to be different.
This recently-seen sig file on a “news for nerds” website is alarmingly apropos with respect to ongoing efforts at educational reform. Doing the same thing over and over... such as dumping untold billions of dollars into computers for schools – been there, done that, in the Clinton Administration, a decade ago. It was a failure then, and, if president-elect Obama's call to have a do-over succeeds, it's likely to be a failure now, at a time in which the public kitty increasingly cannot afford any more ill-conceived failures.
Larry Cuban has written a damning indictment of this entitled “Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom.” His sobering analysis concluded that, among a host of factors, the need for stability trumping badly-needed rapid change and the neglect of politicians to ask why computers were even needed in the classroom contributed substantially to the stunning lack of return on the public's considerable investment. Like the banking and auto industry failures seen recently, the senseless dumping of computers into education without requiring follow-through from educators is a compelling demonstration of what happens when you have an insular body of professionals in a failing industry: power divorced from competence and reality; a power invested heavily in believing that, somehow, this time will be different despite doing nothing different.
Here's why this time probably won't be different. By 1984, as a society, we knew we were at the birth of the personal computer revolution. Certainly by the 1990s we knew it was a force to be reckoned with, especially in the field of education. But, in 2009, those who educate the educators will continue to fail to recognize the need to incorporate meaningful technology training in teacher preparation programs, meaning that all those shiny new computers in K-12 classrooms will continue to go largely unused -- at a price tag in the billions of public dollars, making them one heck of an expensive and utterly useless educational bailout package.
As an industry, education is incredibly insular – it recognizes little that is not internally validated. This is the industry which gave us our current constructivist approach to education in which, when taken literally, a central pillar of faith is that there is no such thing as objective truth or reality. Tell that to the programmer who needs his program to compile and later not unintentionally blow up a manned spacecraft; tell that to the engineer whose building needs to withstand an earthquake, or the doctor who needs to be able to figure out whether you've got cancer or merely indigestion. The real world and its problems are are based in objective reality and require that, when one “solution” isn't producing the desired results, you need to find another solution, and not drag your feet with your head in the sand.
The quality of our public education system is the predictor of whether or not the next generation will succeed or fail in taking charge of this country; whether we will continue to be a major world power or slide intellectually behind third-world countries. If we wish to be a competitor in the 21st century's global arena, our teaching and learning practices need to embrace 21st century tools and make dramatic changes to those practices in a timeframe which doesn't exceed a decade or more.
Education's insularity betrays our considerable investment in what is perhaps our greatest national product, namely, the human and social capital potentially produced by our schools. With respect to computers in the schools, that betrayal comes in the form of teacher education programs that comfortably ignore the personal computer revolution. Study after study pointedly documents that educators, both K-12 and in higher education, are, at best, casual, timid users of computer technologies: most only use those software programs pre-installed on their computers, namely, an office suite, email and web browser programs.
As a result, today's teacher preparation programs encourage a belief system that turns computers into incredibly expensive digital typewriters. Like the craftsman with only a hammer in his toolbox, educators tend to to define educational computer technology implementation in terms of the few, mostly inappropriate, software programs they already know how to use. This leads to such classroom insanity as making third-grade students input their vocabulary words into PowerPoint presentations or using a word processing program to type up stories or math word problems (by the way, these are actual examples of how computer technologies have been implemented in K-12; just how many billions of dollars would you estimate that is worth?).
Would we accept the bailout of the banks if they continued making the same risky loans? Are we in favor of funding a 'get out of bankruptcy court free' pass to automakers if they insist on not doing anything different than the same practices that got them into the financial morass they're in? Of course not – so why should education be any different?
Here's why we might as well be smoking the dollars we're insensibly burning: Thomas Alva Edison – not normally known as an imbecile – once famously predicted that the motion picture would lead to the death of the textbook. Dead Wrong. Radio, too, was predicted to become the airwaves of education. Didn't happen. Television (and, now, computer technologies used for distance learning) was supposed to largely eliminate the need for local classrooms and, well, that hasn't happened either.
Each novel technology has come with claims of revolutionizing education, claims that never quite translate into reality due at least in part to the inability of educators to critically examine the new technology, understand it, and learn how to effectively utilize it. It seems a remarkably lazy assumption that a radically new technology doesn't require the adoption of a new set of educational practices, and yet that has been education's response to the government's largesse. This intransigence to implement meaningful change ignores the wealth of literature which shows the educational benefits of computer technologies which utilize multiple media, interactivity, and customized tasks – the creation of such things by teachers which empowers both teacher and student. It is bafflingly unclear why, nearly a quarter century after the birth of the personal computer revolution, our nation's teachers still cannot fully realize the computer's benefits that were possible in 1987.
Like Barbie of old, ivory towers of teacher preparation programs cry that “programming's hard” and not something educators should have to learn. And however much we may want to sympathize that some of life's duties are, indeed, difficult, we need to realize that the reality of teachers being unable to create their own meaningful technology solutions means that the untold billions of dollars that have been – and will continue to be – spent on computers for the classroom is money we'd be better off spending on more janitors, nurses, teacher's aids, English language acquisition, and health, lunch and parenting programs.
And, of course, another factor frequently overlooked when reciting the 'we need more computers in the schools' mantra is that computer technologies are financial black holes that just keep growing. It's not sufficient to simply buy the machines – using and maintaining them requires the hiring of entire IT departments; additionally, there's software to purchase, training to provide (which, in the case of teachers, rarely happens), repair and replacement costs to shoulder. Technology is a hungry beast that requires constant and costly feeding.
Technology thus constitutes an entirely new set of budgetary requirements that unfortunately do not come with concommitant new sources of funding. As schools increasingly push their students to sell, sell, sell stuff that mostly nobody really wants to buy anyway, just to maintain basic services, and, at the same time, considerably increases homework loads just to make the No Child Left Behind folks happy with test scores, one wonders when exactly it is that a child gets to simply be a child. Just how many programs in the arts and vocational areas have been sacrificed to feed the federally-mandated technology beast? And at what cost to society? In this era of educational reform, have we forgotten the value of such things as creativity, play and imagination – three very important skill sets that helped some really innovative people born a half century or more ago to develop the personal computer, or take us to the moon, the solar system and beyond?
Social critic Neil Postman has observed that technological change is never value-free, nor are its effects additive – new technologies completely transform the social landscape with hidden value shifts that aren't well understood (or, indeed, are altogether ignored) in society's head-long rush to embrace the new technology as an unqualified a priori good. Were he alive today, Postman might well admonish us that, when gigabytes of storage, high bandwidth capacities, and megaherz processor clock speeds became the objects of desire, we unwittingly choose to value those things above the things that previously mattered to us -- helping children understand the process of negotiation by which we avoid nasty bullying to get what we want; fostering an environment which supports the creative and collaborative process by which we invent new things; nurturing good citizenship and an understanding of fair play and the civic principles for which this country stands.
And for what exactly???