New York Times article misses the point

Matt Richtel, of the New York Times, has recently written a piece on the use of technology in schools which should be read carefully. He writes:

Since 2005, scores in reading and math have stagnated in Kyrene [emphasis mine], even as statewide scores have risen.

To be sure, test scores can go up or down for many reasons. But to many education experts, something is not adding up — here and across the country. In a nutshell: schools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning.

This conundrum calls into question one of the most significant contemporary educational movements. Advocates for giving schools a major technological upgrade — which include powerful educators, Silicon Valley titans and White House appointees — say 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.

He has assumed that the purpose of education is to improve test scores, or at the very least that these are a good measure of learning. He has also generalized about the use of technology in classrooms across the US from two examples; a single school district, and the state of Maine. He is right that many schools are spending money unwisely on unproven technologies, and have not put into place practices to either support these technologies, or examine their effectiveness.

Aviva Dunsiger has written a response to this article based on the results of a direct reading assessment (DRA) she’s done during the course of the year. She doesn’t attribute the phenomenal gains on the DRAs to the use of technology in her classroom, she attributes it to the change in her teaching practices that resulted from the technology being available in her classroom.

This is my reason for promoting the use of technologies in schools. The introduction of computers in the classroom has the ability to be a disruptive force, and transform the pedagogy that is used in the classroom. This doesn’t mean that it will transform pedagogy, it just has the possibility to do so. In 50 years of attempts to change the classroom, nothing has come as close as this current driving force from technology.

In 1993, Seymour Papert wrote,

"Video games teach children what computers are beginning to teach adults–that some forms of learning are fast-paced, immensely compelling, and rewarding. The fact that they are enormously demanding of one’s time and require new ways of thinking remains a small price to pay (and is perhaps even an advantage) to be vaulted into the future. Not surprisingly, by comparison School strikes many young people as slow, boring, and frankly out of touch."

While it is possible to teach in ways which are compelling and rewarding, many schools do not do so. Technology in the classroom can be a lever through which we effect real change in our schools in a positive and fundamental way.



  • I just finished reading the article you referenced and had the exact same response. Why do people assume that standardized tests measure what is important in education?!

  • from left field wrote:

    David, how can teachers be encouraged to embrace technology fully in the classroom when this very technology may leave this teacher unemployed (outsourcing etc) or a lame bystander or babysitter to the learning process? I remember my school principal arguing that his child should be able to access quality teachers from other provinces. But why just from other provinces? Why not other countries? So you can imagine that may cause some concern for local, community teachers. In some ways, you can imagine that the factory workers were not too pleased to see the machines take over the auto industry etc. Machines cost less, could not unionize, and tended to require fewer bathroom breaks–but you get the point. I despise the thought of school as factories, but many ed experts do draw that connection (Sir Ken Robinson, for one). Although there are attempts to break that model, through an emphasis on 21c skills / personalized learning, even that reform is biased –note that the strategic council members are overwhelmingly tech!–and thus difficult to back fully.

    Schools in Florida are pushing online learning because it’s cheaper, ~33% less per student. That makes politicians and tax payers smile. That also makes tech companies smile. In your article, you say that tech has the possibility to transform schools. I agree. However, from one who is actually in the trenches, please understand that the issue of tech in the classroom is rather complicated, not one of “out of touch” dinosaurs versus “reformers.” As long as computers are trumpeted in some circles as teacher replacements, you can only expect pushback from teachers. I certainly enjoy your blog. And, to be honest, I love tech in the classroom. I just spent the morning creating some rather crisp projects on my iPad, and looking forward to class tomorrow!

    So, how can teachers use tech, promote tech, without the fear that they may be supporting a new system that will eventually overtake the classroom and their own livelihood?

    Thanks again for your blog

  • David Wees wrote:

    This is a huge concern of mine as well, and one of the reasons I had so many questions about flipping the classroom from a previous post. I think that there is strong value in what teachers bring to a classroom setting aside from the role of "content delivery." I’d really hate to see a two-tiered system (as Joe Bower has pointed out is happening) where some children have access to a teacher, and some only have access only to digital content.

    The "33% cheaper argument" assumes that the quality of digital instruction is the same as face to face instruction, and most indicators I’ve seen suggest that this is not the case. Students might be able to "get the same test scores" in an online school, but the important role of educators, to transmit culture & values, does not happen. Further, schools are the only public institution in which everyone in our democracy participates. How do we promote democracy without a public system in which to model it?

  • Technology is a tool, not a replacement for, good quality instruction and facilitation by qualified teachers. In my own education environment, I see technology being used well, used poorly and not used at all. The NYTimes article will provide some limited ammunition to those who promote that technology has little benefit beyond the initial ‘wow’ factor – if they still exist!
    What I would like to see in schools is more of a focus on empowering teachers to use technology as a ‘value-add’ (there’s some business-speak for you!) to their current teaching practices. Students are entering a world that lives and breathes tehnology – pretending that it doesn’t is only doing a disservice to those that we seek to help.

  • Technology has become a very useful tool for helping students increase their knowledge. I’m glad you pointed out in the article from the New York Times the author was only concerned with test scores and also needed to do more research on the effectiveness of computers in classrooms. The information that Matt Richtel used for his argument was based off such a small area where as he pointed out the test scores could have changed because of various factors. This does not mean that the use of money on technology in other places is a waste. The only way we can find out if technology will be beneficial for learning is to get it into our classrooms and see. Computers can offer so much, however, I would hope that the increasing use of technology would not make educators suffer. Instructors play a major role in a students education and should not have to worry about replacement.

    I will be posting a summary of my comments to two of your post along with a summary of the content contained in your post by September 11th on my blog.

    Class Blog: @whitneywatson11

  • […] tech-savvy schools. Scott McLeod’s response was the best that I read, although the responses by David Wees and Clive Thompson are also excellent. Thompson, for instance, does a great job describing three […]

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