Classroom Technology Will Not Fix Our Schools

Students work on laptop computers at the Monarch School in San Diego, Calif., in 2013. (Mike Blake/Reuters)
More money for technology has not been the answer to increased student achievement.

First, let’s get something straight: You cannot buy an education. You can buy books and materials, construct a building, and pay teachers, but no amount of money has ever bought anyone an education. An education comes in small pieces, one or two at a time, as students read and reread books, take notes, practice skills, memorize facts, and engage in specific activities that create more knowledge and hone skills. It takes work, and it takes time. There are no short cuts or “magic bullets.” Sometimes it can be mentally and emotionally draining as students attempt to overcome challenges. Tears may flow when something just doesn’t come the first time, or the second time, or even the third. Some students need to try a fourth time, take a break, and go for a fifth or even a sixth try.

I apologize for having to tell you all this, but now you know. And you must know. You must also tell your children. One more thing: Education is rarely fun, but it is always rewarding. The suppression of these truths is part of the reason so many students can go through twelve years of public school and emerge almost illiterate.

Over the years, educational “experts” have offered lots of “solutions” to overcome these truths. They’ve all failed. Even though the experts have made a lot of money off of this failure, we’ve been too distracted by their promises of success to notice. So we keep listening, now more intently than ever, since we’ve been assured that classroom technology will save the day.

I taught public school for nearly three decades in a district just outside Detroit, so I’ve witnessed the passing fads and the failing students. We were assured for years by those learned sages that basal readers — grade-level story anthologies accompanied by workbooks in which students practice specific skills — were no good. Instead, we had to adopt the “workshop” model for literacy, in which basals and whole-class instruction are eschewed in favor of students picking their own texts based on reading level, with skills being embedded in “mini-lessons” rather than being explicitly taught. Now we are assured that basals are in fact the way to go.

This is how it works. Basal readers will be the current truth for a few years, and then it will return to trade books and workshop — and then back to basals. This whole cycle takes 20 to 30 years, a generation. The teachers who were young at the beginning are now old and will take that institutional memory with them when they retire.

This generation of basal-based programs, however, is different from previous generations. As basal readers have evolved over the years, teachers’ editions, in an effort to make them idiot-proof, have gotten longer and more detailed. The current edition, adopted by my former district this past year, covers six large volumes, which are filled with the student texts, annotated and with questions for the teacher to ask the class, teacher read-aloud passages (also annotated), daily and weekly lesson plans for the story, further lesson plans for vocabulary, spelling, and grammar instruction, suggestions for effective teaching, answer keys, and suggested supplemental student activities. For the students, there are hardcover books and sets of small paperbacks written at various reading levels, including one for “English-language learners,” to accompany each story in the hardcover. There are workbooks for grammar, spelling, standardized-test practice, and additional reading.

More Technology, More Spending

Thanks to the current embrace of technology, students can also participate in activities, do assignments, read stories, and take tests on the publisher’s website. They are fully connected. To ensure that all students can access the online resources, all district classrooms in grades 3 and up were given a class set of student laptops. K–2 teachers have been promised that their class laptops are coming, and all teachers have desktop computers and Promethean Boards. In addition, the district pays for subscriptions to a number of educational websites. The students all have login names and passwords. They can access these sites from any computer or their phone.

While all of this technology is new, the use of classroom technology is not. At the beginning of the computer era, there was the classroom computer: a Mac IIGS. It was primarily used for rewarding students by allowing them to play games — that may or may not have been educational. Then came the school’s computer lab, stocked with 32 iMac G4s and scheduled times for each class. In addition, each classroom now had three iMacs.

Eventually our schools were wired for the Internet, and teachers were supplied with desktops so that we could function online. Macs had become too expensive, so teacher desktops and student computers (still three) were PCs. The media center (library) along with the computer lab now each had 32 PCs. The computer lab even had, and still has, a teacher to teach computer skills. Teachers were supposed to create our own lesson plans for our media-center computer time.

For a few years, our school also had Barnes & Noble–supplied Nooks. There was a classroom set for each grade level, and they were full of student-friendly apps and reading material, including clever tools that allowed students to take notes, highlight, and look up unfamiliar words in their Nook books.

Now, with laptops, the students are technologically up to date. At first, students were excited. Then the luster wore off. We know that kids are easily bored, especially when it comes to using the district-permitted computer programs. They want the fun ones that they play at home. They want their phone apps. They also know how to do things when the teacher isn’t looking that they aren’t supposed to do.

Not yet trained on all of the new technology, I found out only in May that I could monitor student laptops from my desktop once I set up my class on my computer. Now retired, I know. I also know that the tech giants are expected to earn $21 billion a year by 2020 from their “educational” support equipment and programs.

Technology is great when it works, but we’ve all had that experience when it doesn’t. And we know that when children are involved, there will be an increased need for repair, because things “just happen.” And at the end of every school year, all of the teacher and student computers have to be wiped clean and updated — one by one. I don’t know how many techs the district has on staff to keep up with repairs during the school year and then get needed updates over the summer, but I do know that, just like you and me, they expect to be paid.

Another issue, which I hadn’t considered while students were using and misusing their laptops, is “data mining.” As Michelle Malkin recently noted, “23 parent and watchdog groups filed a complaint with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission alleging that Google is violating child-protection laws by collecting personal data of and advertising to those aged under 13.”

While I fault no one for wanting to make extra cash, I do fault the tech giants for doing so under a false pretense and then surreptitiously collecting information that may enable them to make even more shady profits. “Over the past four years,” Malkin continued, “Google has admitted ‘scanning and indexing’ student email messages sent using GAFE and data mining student users for commercial gain when they use their accounts for noneducational purposes.”

Students in Michigan are required to take the state’s M-Step standardized test online. This online-testing requirement works in the tech giants’ favor as elementary students, even as they become less comfortable with pencil and paper, are forced to increase their computer comfort level in order to remove one small roadblock to test success. In spite of the state-supported gradual increase in classroom technology, student literacy has not improved.

As poorly as Michigan schools have been doing on standardized tests, my former district’s schools have been doing even worse. Since 2010, the rate of high-school students demonstrating proficiency on these tests floated between 8 and 14 percent. Elementaryschool scores sunk from the mid 20s in 2010 to single digits in 2017. When asked to account for this drop, Michigan Department of Education spokesperson Bill DiSessa claimed in an email that the Department had “identified no exact cause” for the decline.

The Department’s answer is not comforting, especially when, as observed by the Center for Michigan, the state “is one of only five states with declines in fourth-grade reading from 2003 to 2015. In that span, the state’s rank in fourth-grade reading plummeted from 28th to 41st.” What we do know is that more money for technology has not been the answer to increased student achievement.

Teachers Must Turn to Phonetic Teaching Methods

With failure being so profitable — with so much money to be made in remedial education, tutoring, technology, medication, and the creation of new destined-to-fail literacy programs — the question of a vast conspiracy must come up. Such a conspiracy would have to involve teachers’ colleges, textbook companies, the government, school districts, and the medical profession. Yet there is no conscious conspiracy to fail.

Everyone involved honestly believes that they’re doing the right thing. Or at least that’s what they’ve convinced themselves. The constant failure must be due to factors outside of their control.

To be fair, that is partially true. We know that children living in poverty, in single-parent homes, and in dysfunctional situations have a harder time learning than children who live in better, more stable situations. I also know, after many years of teaching elementary school in my “urban” school district, and after teaching and tutoring literacy phonetically, that nothing is going to change and reading skills will not improve until teachers are taught to teach phonetically. And I wonder how administrators and teacher trainers who have been in this profession for as many years as I have or even longer, expect things to improve when we’re expected to implement the same techniques that have always failed, even when they’re presented under a different name. For example, what is now called “balanced literacy” used to be “whole language.”

I assume there are people making a good living creating these new literacy programs based on the remains of old, failed programs. Anyone who can market his program well enough to be the current literacy guru, the one whose method is adopted by school districts and taught to new teachers who will soon make their first entrance into a classroom, probably does pretty well.

Teachers were not supposed to talk about the old reality, the discarded guru who had teachers’ colleges and administrators believing in the old method. Rather, we were to look ahead to the glorious successes our teachers and students would achieve under the new method, which came with expensive training manuals, teachers’ manuals, student materials, and now new technology — and which teachers would adhere to faithfully, until this one became old and would be dumped in favor of the next new thing.

Sometimes, though, we did discuss the old reality. In my first year of teaching, I was talking to an aged veteran. She asked me what I learned about teaching reading. The method was called Essential Elements of Effective Instruction. I explained the basics. She said that was exactly what she had learned 25 years previously but under a different name. We laughed. Nobody’s laughing anymore.

Parents are also shelling out cash to compensate for public schools’ shortcomings. The failure of public education has increased the market for remedial and tutorial services and programs. I am part of that market. While I don’t make very much, I do make a few extra dollars tutoring students in a strictly low-tech, pencil-and-paper, phonetic manner. It is labor intensive — because (yes, it does need repeating) education is hard work.

Over the years, even though it would have cut into my own meager tutoring earnings, I tried to encourage my district to adopt the phonetic language-arts method (created by the Riggs Institute) that I use. In the early days before complete regimentation was adopted, some teachers were trained in using the Riggs method to teach reading phonetically and had excellent results. I was able to read Shakespeare with fourth- and fifth-graders.

Then the federal government began waving huge grants in the faces of poorer school districts to adopt “No Child Left Behind requirements.” Money talks. Phonics walked.

Over the years, I debated my school’s Title I teacher on the effectiveness of phonetic reading instruction. He favored the previously mentioned “workshop” model. His standard argument was always, “the data show . . .” But he was never able to produce any data.

I however, do have the data. I have a copy of the Report of the National Reading Panel, which was released in 2000. The section on phonics instruction begins on page 89 of Chapter 2. Here is a summary of the executive summary: systematic phonics instruction works.

Of all the reasons for not adopting a low-tech phonics programs, the main reason just might be the lack of financial incentive. There are minimal profits in pencils and paper. Rather than putting out real cash on the latest in expensive technology and child-calming medication, a few boxes of sturdy writing implements, some lined paper, and vast amounts of challenging literature (not the usual trivial fare fed to kids who are struggling because they haven’t been taught correctly) is all that students need to learn to read, write, and spell.

If public-school officials decided to stop spending money on failure, I’m confident that American entrepreneurs would be able to develop ways to make money creating and promoting educational success. Changes would have to be made, but if someone is clever enough, there is always a way.

Until the decision is made to stop subsidizing failure, the cost of that failure will continue to rise.



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