Several years ago when I was serving as a mentor to a middle-school girl in Brooklyn, her teacher told her mother that the family needed to get a computer, that it was necessary to improve the girl's schoolwork. She was 11 at the time and was not very good at reading or writing. When the girl's mother told me how she was saving up so she could buy her kids a computer and make sure they succeeded in school, I was infuriated. There were so many problems with the school and no evidence at all that doing work on a computer was going to improve her ability to read or write or do math. Unfortunately, most of the educational establishment has bought into this nonsense. The New York Times ran a story the other day about how a school district in Indiana had given up on traditional textbooks and was now having students do all of their reading and writing and math on computer. The excitement at the school is palpable:
Angela Bartolomeo’s sixth graders spent a recent Wednesday rearranging terms of equations on an interactive Smart Board and dragging-and-dropping answers in ways that chalkboards never could. (In between, a cartoon character exclaimed that “Multiplying by 1 does not change the value of a number!” in his best superhero baritone.)
When the children followed up the lesson with exercises on their laptops, the curriculum,Pearson Education’s “Digits,” not only allowed them to advance at individual rates, but also alerted Ms. Bartolomeo via her iPad when they were stuck on a particular concept and needed help.
Software wirelessly recorded the children’s performance in a file that the teacher would review that night. “Last year I’d have to walk around and ask every kid how it’s going, and I’d be grading sheets, that kind of thing,” Ms. Bartolomeo said. “This way I can give my time to the kids who really need it. And it’s a lot more engaging for the kids. They’re actually doing their homework now.”
There is little to no evidence that any of this technology is actually improving student outcomes, but it sure does look neat. And this district is one of many heading in this direction. Interestingly, there are some people who realize just how little giving a fifth grader an iPad will do for his academic performance. Surprisingly, they turn out to be folks who work for tech companies in Silicon Valley. The front page story of the New York Times today is about a Waldorf school in Los Altos, California, where the chief technology officer of eBay sends his children. So do employees of Google, Apple, Yahoo and Hewlett-Packard. There is not a single computer to be found in the building (or at any of the more than 100 Waldorf schools that exist in the country). No multimedia science projects, no PowerPoint book reports. The students read books, they write things with pencils on paper. They recite multiplication tables. Oh, and they also knit. Here is one parent, Alan Eagle, an executive at Google, who has a degree in computer science from Dartmouth:
I fundamentally reject the notion you need technology aids in grammar school... The idea that an app on an iPad can better teach my kids to read or do arithmetic, that’s ridiculous.
Indeed, it is. Alas, it costs about $18,000 to send your child to kindergarten at the Waldorf School. I have no idea how much they pay the teachers but if they can manage to teach students and engage them without having any screens flashing around, they are probably worth their weight in gold. There are plenty of affluent parents who place too much faith in the power of technology to teach their children too, plopping them down in front of a lot of PBS cartoons or buying them an iPad so they can ask it questions about the solar system. But I don't feel as bad for them. They can easily find out how ineffective technology is. And most of them already tend to at least try to limit "screen time." They know their children need a good night's sleep and do their best to make sure that computers are in central locations that teenagers aren't spending all night on Facebook. And they see how difficult it is to get kids' attention with sports or family trips to museums when they are used to spending all their time online. And when the affluent children can't read or write well, someone is going to fix the problem. Poor parents, though, the ones who are told they just need the latest gadgets in order to help their children succeed are being duped. By teachers, by school administrators, by politicians. When you hear people go on about the technology gap among the races, remember that black kids are not failing because they do not have enough internet access. They are failing because they don't have enough access to good education.