Wakeup call for the digital revolution

Yesterday, the New York Times began a series on technology and education (?Grading the Digital School?) on a decidedly downbeat note: the huge investment in digital technology ? nearly $2 billion a year in software alone, according to the paper -- may not be improving student performance.? [pullquote]?We've jumped on bandwagons for different eras without knowing fully what we're doing. This might just be the new bandwagon.?[/pullquote]

The Arizona school district that reporter Matt Richtel uses to illustrate the lengthy discussion (a front-page story in the Times' Sunday print edition) is the 18,000 student, K-8 Kyrene School District, which has invested $33 million in its digital system since 2005. ??Hope and enthusiasm are soaring,? writes Richtel, ?but not test scores.?

Despite the headlong rush to digitize our schools, there is, as Larry Cuban tells Richtel, ?insufficient evidence to spend that kind of money. Period, period, period.? ?Cuban also pooh-pooh's the ?student engagement? argument for computers. ?There is very little valid and reliable research that shows the engagement causes or leads to higher academic achievement,? he says.

Even Kyrene Superintendent David Schauer has his doubts, telling Richtel, ?We've jumped on bandwagons for different eras without knowing fully what we're doing. This might just be the new bandwagon.?

The story covers most of the essential bases, but, tellingly, makes only glancing references to curriculum. ?The familiar buzz phrases are there ? ?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,? writes Richtel ? but it would seem, according to this report, that, as happened to the charter school movement, which spent lots of time and energy debating the chartering process and defending it in the face of frequent lackluster performance numbers, the technological classroom is late to an appreciation of the essential elements of education; mainly, the importance of knowledge.? What should our kids know? ?David Cohen of the University of Michigan told a gathering of education journalists last May (see my Digital Divide post) that all the technology in the world won't help if you don't get the curriculum right.? (And speaking of charters, I once asked KIPP co-founder David Levin how important curriculum was to KIPP's success. ?Very,? he said.)

It can be done.? When Ron Packard was starting his pioneering internet school, K12 Inc., in the late 1990s*, one of the first things he did was to convince Bill Bennett, the education ?czar? under Ronald Reagan and co-author (with Checker Finn) of The Educated Child, to join him.? This was 1999 and a major coup, in no small part because Bennett and Finn had written that there was "no good evidence that most uses of computers significantly improve learning." (They didn't say, ?period, period, period,? but it is remarkable how far we haven't traveled in the last decade.) Equally important ? though less publicized ? was Packard's next move: hiring John Holdren, who had overseen E.D. Hirsch's Core Knowledge K-8 Curriculum Sequence, to design K12's curriculum. ?What Packard appreciated, and too many education technologists still don't get, is that content counts.

There is no doubt that digital learning bears little resemblance to the vast wasteland bust of the TV-in-every-classroom era; computers are here to stay. ?But Richtel's piece should be a cautionary tale for our education policymakers: you ignore curriculum at your own ? more importantly, at our students' ? peril.

--Peter Meyer, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow

----------------------------------

*Full disclosure: I worked on a writing project for Packard several years ago.

More By Author

Related Articles