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Will Technology Save Public Education?

America doesn't have a public education crisis. Rather, it has a poverty crisis that manifests itself in the self-perpetuating educational vicious cycle in which most poor children, that is to say, black and Hispanic children, are caught and can't escape.
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There's no doubt that technology is the new "panacea du jour" for public education in America today. Hundreds of millions of dollars (and much more on the way) are being spent on getting iPads and other tablets into the hands of teachers and students all over the country in classes as early as kindergarten. This nationwide effort was described in detail in a recent New York Times Magazine article. Many parents are clamoring for it, the U.S. Department of Education is supporting it, and, of course, many of the so-called education technology companies are profiting handsomely from it.

As I read the article, two questions came to mind. First, is there really a public education crisis in America? The answer to this question seems to be an emphatic "YES!" given the popular interpretation of the results of two international achievement tests (PISA and TIMSS). American students, after being at the top for years, have been in a tailspin and now finish in the middle of the pack in tests of math and science when compared to students in other countries.

But when these data are placed under real scrutiny, their conclusions don't stand up to the definition of "crisis," at least not in the way it is usually presented by the many Chicken Littles in public education these days. When the test scores of American students are separated by income level, the true differences and the real problems with public education in the U.S. become clear.

When the scores of American students are broken down by the percentage of students who receive free or reduced lunches, a generally accepted measure of poverty, a very different picture emerges. In schools with less than 10 percent of students dependent on subsidized lunch programs, American students placed in the top five in both math and science. By contrast, and not surprisingly, in schools with a student body in which 50 percent of the students receive free or reduced lunches, their scores are far down in the international rankings.

Anyone who has ever spent time in affluent public schools knows that there is no public education crisis in their schools because they are, in fact, semi-private schools with district foundations that raise upwards of several million dollars a year that go to enrichment programs. A visit to a school that serves disadvantaged students is an entirely different story.

Here are some inconvenient truths. The poor results on the international achievement tests are due to several factors that some people don't like to admit. For example, America has some of the highest poverty rates, far more income inequity, and poorer health care than most of the other developed countries that participate in the testing.

The U.S. also has far more diversity than other countries, with fully 25 percent of public school students as English as Second Language speakers. Additionally, many other countries engage in cherry-picking, where the best students are selected early and channeled into competitive educational programs who take the international tests while those who don't perform well are placed in trade schools.

So, America doesn't have a public education crisis. Rather, it has a poverty crisis that manifests itself in the self-perpetuating educational vicious cycle in which most poor children, that is to say, black and Hispanic children, are caught and can't escape.

Which brings me to the second question that I think of when the issue of technology as the new, big thing in public education comes up. What makes people think that technology is the solution to our public education woes? Despite all the talk about how technology can transform education by better engaging students and enabling them to go at their own pace, there is no clear scientific evidence that technology produces better educational outcomes such as improved grades, higher graduation rates, or better preparedness for higher education.

What the data do show in the U.S. is that well-trained teachers are the single greatest school-related contributor to academic success. This finding is affirmed in top-ranked countries such as Finland and South Korea, where the best college graduates become teachers and the profession is well-respected and well-compensated. Yet, we are pouring millions upon millions of dollars into an unproven remedy rather than into a solution that has been verified empirically many times over.

By the way, I hope you saw my distinction above of the "single greatest school-related contributor" because the single most influential factor in the success of students in school is their experiences before they arrive at school. As the University of Chicago and Nobel Laureate economist James Heckman has described, children who are raised in disadvantaged homes arrive at elementary school already behind their more affluent peers in academic, cognitive, emotional, and social skill sets and most are unable to catch up. Yet, the amount of money devoted to early childhood education is a pittance compared to what is being thrown at elementary and secondary education by the U.S. Department of Education's Race to the Top program.

Yet, the "faith-based" technology approach to public education reform is moving full steam ahead, particularly for disadvantaged students. There is this fantastical notion that giving poor kids iPads just the rich kids will somehow magically transform them into great students. So, while their schools are crumbling around them, they will have shiny new tablets that will reverse years of physical, psychological, cognitive, and economic neglect.

Speaking of having technology in the lives of children, did you know that young people 8 to 18 years old spend, on average, more than 7.5 hours of their non-school day in front of screens? Moreover, that number is substantially higher for black and Hispanic kids (about 13 hours a day) who, because there isn't affordable child care in America, are often placed in front of a TV or video game console to act as babysitter. Has anyone considered what another, say, five hours of the school day spent in front of a screen is going to do to the development of children's interpersonal, creative, and cognitive skills? Gosh, perhaps the solution to our public education crisis is to remove technology rather than increase its use in children's lives at home and in school.

So who benefits from this rush to get on the technology school bus? Well, the education-technological complex, of course. It is, after all, a $17 billion industry and will only get bigger. Who else? The politicians who push for these "photo-op" solutions because they give the appearance of caring for children and doing something to solve the problem while not actually doing anything to solve the real problem, which is about poverty and income inequity, not public education.

And who loses from this knee-jerk, "technology is the answer to all of public education's problems" reaction? As usual, it's those who deserve it the least, the children who are already behind and are just waiting for someone to come up with a solution to America's education problems that actually works.

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