Is Technology the Saving Grace of Education After All?

During a speech at a 2010 conference in Austin, then-Texas Governor Rick Perry praised the move to e-Readers, asserting: "I don't see any reason in the world why we need to have textbooks in Texas in the next four years." His complaint? Paper textbooks become quickly outdated. In fact, since the governor took office in 2000, some schools still used textbooks proclaiming the late Ann Richards as governor.

Although some might call that wishful thinking, Perry had a point. Heck, he probably had three, but could only remember one. Fast forward to 2015: school districts across the nation are adopting one-to-one tablet initiatives and Bring Your Own Device programs. It appears the former governor was right. For once.

Still, the question remains: should he be right?

Worldwide, K-12 spending on tablets has increased by 60 percent from 2013 to 2014. Yet, there appears to be little proof that these technology initiatives totaling in the billions are actually improving basic learning.

To understand where this technological push is headed, we must first look back at where it comes from. The movement is evident as far back as 1997 when a science and technology committee assembled by President Clinton called for an across-the-board technological embrace. The group admitted there was a lack of research to support the transition. The final sentence of the committee report read: "The panel does not, however, recommend that the deployment of technology within America's schools be deferred pending the completion of such research."

In fact, research conducted by Duke University economists Jacob Vigdor and Helen Ladd in the early 2000s yielded unexpected results. After tracking the academic progress of nearly one million disadvantaged middle-school students following their receipt of networked computers for home use, the researchers found a persistent decline in reading and math scores. Speculation is that a lack of adult supervision at home allowed kids to play online games and peruse social media in lieu of completing coursework. That phenomenon is exacerbated in low-income families where babies experience twice as much screen time as those born into middle-class households.

Home is not the only battleground between technology and student attention. We should be just as concerned during the school day if not more. Michael Rich, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and executive director of the Center on Media and Child Health in Boston, fears that "[student] brains are rewarded not for staying on task but for jumping to the next thing."

Perhaps the greatest signal that technology could be doing more harm to students than we realize comes from the most unlikely of sources: tech giants. At Waldorf School in Silicon Valley, three-quarters of the students have parents connected to the high-tech world. Yet, there is no computer or tablet to be found in any of the classrooms. That's because the school still believes teaching to be a human experience.

Of course, there is some pushback from the business side of the tech world. Lia De Cicco Remu, the director of Partners in Learning at Microsoft Canada, has a message for teachers still clinging to traditional teaching methods: "Shift or get off the pot." How eloquent. Of course, she goes on to suggest several Microsoft products to aid in the shift. De Cicco Remu is knocking a method that shaped the minds of thinkers like Plato and Steve Jobs, the latter of which severely limited his own children's technology use at home.

In the fitness world, experts will tell you there are no shortcuts to weight loss. There is only one formula: diet plus exercise. Studies prove it. Common sense dictates it. Yet, when it comes to education, we fail to see the cross-application. We continue digging deep into taxpayers' pockets in search of the magical fix: Is it standardized testing? No. NCLB? Guess not. Common Core? Not a chance. We've got it: technology!

With the wave of a magic wand, the next big thing is shoved into classrooms across the country. Chances are that a few years down the road, we'll figure out that we were bippity-boppity...wrong. Again.

The group least likely to be surveyed when crafting education legislation is teachers themselves. The four companies that dominate the U.S. standardized testing market collectively spent more than $20 million lobbying for pro-testing policies over the last five years. Tech companies are fueling the hype around ed-tech as they envision their wallets padded with money from slashed school budgets and hard-fought-for grants.

The education technology movement is indicative of a larger crisis in our country, one where we rally around the next solution to come down the industry pipeline without meaningful research or a workable implementation plan. We force-feed educators with buzzwords and acronyms. We tell them what isn't working rather than celebrating what is. Ultimately, we don't treat teachers like the professionals they are.

Teachers could tell you that tablets are unfriendly for coding and are mostly geared toward entertainment. They are less cost-efficient than alternatives like laptops that are better designed to develop usable skill sets while tablets are little more than a replacement for paper and Perry's ever-feared textbooks. Also, a well-executed lesson can be more engaging than an app. The problem is policymakers and industry leaders would have to step into the classroom to know that.

As we move closer to the start of another school year, please do not have blind faith in technology or overemphasize a need for 21st-century skills, whatever that means. Technology has a time and a place, but we need to strike a balance. I encourage policymakers like Perry to consult the teachers in the trenches, not just those who stand to profit from legislation. After all, if you want history to remember you kindly...well, we're the ones teaching it.