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Guest Column: Schools Don’t Need The Web

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Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Dwight Eisenhower warned the country in 1959 that reckless defense spending would create a “military-industrial complex” in which the tail of industry wags the dog of policy. He has been proven devastatingly correct.

Now, starting with No Child Left Behind and pushed wretchedly further by Race to the Top, we find ourselves with an educational-industrial complex. Most recent example: the president’s promise to spend $2 billion of our taxes to bring high-speed Internet access to public classrooms, with the help of corporate sponsors Sprint, Verizon, Apple and Microsoft. These corporations’ ostensible interest in “preparing America’s children to be competitive in the 21st century” just happens to ensure them a permanent flow of our tax revenues—every school district forever tied to an Internet bill and forced to buy the “newest” equipment, which will be made obsolete and incompatible as quickly as possible.

They’d all be annoyed, then, by a U.S. DOE study concluded in 2009 that found that the difference in test scores between the software-using classes in the study and the control group initially “was not statistically different from zero.” In sixth grade, however, math students who used software got lower test scores, and the effect was significantly worse in the second year of use.

So we’re expected to accept the bankrupting of our school budgets to buy their products and services when the results will be, if we’re lucky, no better, and if not, far worse. At least we now know what “being competitive in the 21st century” means: you’re demonstrably less competent, but arrived there using really expensive stuff.

Most problematic of all is the culture of the computer. Scientific American offered a very thoughtful article considering why comprehension and discrete fact retention is poorer when people read from computers. They came to a telling conclusion: “People approach computers and tablets with a state of mind less conducive to learning than the one they bring to paper.” From its earliest days, the computer has been marketed as an entertainment device. The Internet takes “trivial” to a new level—texting, Twitter, Facebook. Children see a computer and think, play time.

What’s sickening here is the assumption that the magic bullet has been found—that, although it may bankrupt us, putting a laptop or an iPad with Internet access in the hand of every kid is somehow, against all evidence, going to work an education miracle.

It’s mind-boggling to consider what better uses $2 billion could be put to, but let’s talk something revolutionary: a commitment to a 15-student classroom across America. If that cost $2 billion, it would be money well spent. There is, however, no corporate profit in hiring more teachers, so, despite how radically it would improve education, it will never happen. It’s not what children need that’s on the table in America. It’s the quarterly profit margins of the corporations that own our political system in its entirety.

So what’s to be done?•

Steve Hussey started Four Winds School in Gill in 2000 to demonstrate what can be done when teachers are the ones put in charge of reform.

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