High-Tech Overkill

(From Memoirs of a Public School Substitute Teacher, by Blog author.)

No sooner had the first computers come on the market than I.T. companies began o hawk their product to public schools. Computers could teach students every subject they needed to learn. Some CEO’s even predicted that their machines would eventually replace teachers. Public school officials back then had no reason to doubt the sales pitch. The computer, after all, was the invention of the century. If computers had enabled rocket scientists to put men on moon, then computers could surely be used to educated children.

So sight unseen, public schools began investing heavily on computer products and altering their curriculum around them. Today, every public school in America worth its name has at least one computer in every classroom and a state-of-the-art computer lab. In elementary schools, physical education and recess have been scaled down to accommodate computer instruction. In the upper-grades, computer technology is included in some state-mandated tests, along with math, language arts, science and social studies; while traditional subjects like foreign languages, music and art, despite their proven educational value, are left out.

At $536 billion and rising, (2004 dollars) the collective budget of public schools in America is greater than that of the GNP of most foreign countries. Needless to say, selling IT hardware and software to such a deep-pockets customer is huge business. But how have public school students profited from it? From what I’ve seen first hand and heard from the better educated teachers in the profession, not at all.

Take the flashy Breakthrough to Literacy program used in many kindergartens throughout America, in which a cartoon elephant taught kids how to splash colors and match words with pictures. Though used extensively by public school kindergartens throughout America, this costly program, as test scores clearly showed, did not rendered kids better readers or writers than those of generations past. Teachers required to use the program tell me that once the novelty wore off, their students found it boring. The McGuffey primer used in the nineteenth century, with its scant black white lithographs and emphasis on the written word, was probably more interesting to kids and produced better results.

In the upper grades, when the Internet was first introduced, students lined up for a turn at their classroom computer, not to conduct research as intended, but to cruise pop entertainment sites. Now that the sites are restricted, they have pretty much lost interested in computers, except to access their e-mail, or play video games. Most of the information they need for their assignments can be easier gathered from books and journals, the old-fashioned way.

Kids have learned to click on icons and get responses, but not much else. That awesome education that computers supposedly are giving them is as illusory as the emperor’s fancy duds in the Hans Christian Andersen’s tale. The argument that being around computers makes one high-tech savvy doesn’t wash either. One can no more learn about computer science by merely using computers than a motorist can learn mechanical engineering by driving a car.
Then there’s the unsettling impact computers are having on the teaching profession. Teachers who have been on the job for 20 years now are told that they can’t pass muster unless they master the latest educational software. Most teachers I know find the standard features on their computers--e-mail, word processing, grading and attendance programs, Internet access—extremely useful. Few, however, appreciate having to spend so much of their valuable time in staff-development workshops learning programs for which they have no use and, moreover, become obsolete as soon as they learn them. Those who happen to be technologically disadvantaged or disaffected should consider retiring or finding another line or work. As Washington Post Columnist Marc Fisher noted about the trend in general, “computer training has become the living hell of the American workplace.” (2/6/03) So why do public schools continue to invest so much on high Tech equipment? Conspicuous consumption? Ignorance?

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