Just Another Meaningless Policy Paper

I read so many reports that are utterly moronic from start to finish, with countless foolish assumptions and unfounded premises. Most of the time I can’t be bothered. But I don’t want to grade papers, so I thought I’d fisk this.

Are Schools Getting a Big Enough Bang For Their Education Technology Buck?

Let’s assume they aren’t. But that’s not the point.

Start with the author, Ulrich Boser:

Prior to joining the Center, Boser was a contributing editor for U.S. News & World Report, special projects director for the Washington Post Express, and research director for Education Week newspaper. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, and Smithsonian.

So Ulrich is a reporter. And if google is any guide, Ulrich was not an education reporter. Just exactly the kind of background needed to make recommendations about an insanely ambiguous subject like education technology spending. Well done, Center for American Progress.

On to the paper.

For American companies, leveraging digital solutions has long been a way of doing business, and over the past sixty years, the approach has resulted in average worker productivity climbing by more than 2 percent a year due in large measure to improvements in equipment, computers, and other high-tech solutions.

Educators, however, generally do not take this approach to technology. Far too often, school leaders fail to consider how technology might dramatically improve teaching and learning, and schools frequently acquire digital devices without discrete learning goals and ultimately use these devices in ways that fail to adequately serve students, schools, or taxpayers.

Do we have any idea how technology might dramatically improve teaching? Waiting. Still waiting.

No. We don’t. So how can schools consider this?

Meanwhile, are schools pushed to use technology? Yes. Are they pushed to use technology even though no one knows how to improve teaching with it? Yes. Do schools often get money shoved at them that they must use for technology even if they would rather use the money for other purposes? Again, yes. Report to the President on the Use of Technology to Strengthen K-12 Education in the United States

Oh, and the idea that American companies have a clear-eyed vision of how technology can improve their business, that all their tech investments are made with a hard-eyed assessment of the value the technology brings to the bottom line? Please. I worked in corporate America. Major investments sometimes took decades to pay off, or never did. One thing that wonks and educators have in common: they have no idea how much waste happens in business.

We found, for instance, that more than a third of middle school math students regularly used a computer for drill and practice. In contrast, only 24 percent of middle school students regularly used spreadsheets—a computer application for data analysis—for their math assignments, and just 17 percent regularly used statistical programs in math class.

Yeah, newsflash: Teachers don’t want their kids using Excel for their math homework. You know, there’s this whole other group of people who fulminate about kids and their utter reliance on calculators? Excel is a calculator. Moreover, the primary function of middle school math, assuming the kids are operating at grade level, is understanding proportional thinking. Excel does not do fractions or ratios well for the novice in proportional thinking, who has to start making connections between ratios and fractions, fractions and percentages, fractions and decimals. Excel is useless. Finally, vanishingly few middle school students (or high school students, for that matter) are capable of data analysis. One area in which progressives and reformers think as one is in their wholesale delusion that teachers could teach more challenging material, but simply choose not to.

These data varied widely across the nation. In Louisiana almost 50 percent of middle school math students said that they regularly used a computer for drill and practice. In Oregon that figure was just 25 percent.

Computers are introduced for drill and practice in regions with many, many low-skilled students, particularly in regions that are getting a lot of philanthropic attention. Are there, perhaps, demographic differences that suggest Louisiana students might need more drill and practice than Oregon students?

States are not looking at what sort of outcomes they are getting for their technology spending.

What outcomes would prove that technology spending is leading to better results? Higher test scores? What evidence is there that technology spending leads to higher test scores? Jeez, I dunno. How many articles have you seen like this one? I tried to find conclusive research on computer aided instruction, which is the most likely to have a direct impact on test scores, and I can’t find the knockout punch. And remember, Ulrich and his employers don’t like computer drill.

Lots of criticism, but I can’t see much indication as to what, exactly, we should be looking for in our technology spending that would allow us to say hey, look, it was worth the bucks! And of course, since everyone is looking to close the achievement gap and it almost certainly can’t be closed, education technology is probably doomed to fail.

We found that students from high-poverty backgrounds were far less likely to have rigorous learning opportunities when it comes to technology. Forty-one percent of eighth-grade math students from high-poverty backgrounds, for instance, regularly used computers for drill and practice. In contrast, just 29 percent of middle school students from wealthier backgrounds used the computers for the same purpose. We also found that black students were more than 20 percentage points more likely to use computers for drill and practice than white students.

In Geometry, for reasons passing understanding, we teach the Law of Syllogism. If x, then y. If y, then z. Ergo, if x, then z. Blacks and high poverty students are more likely by huge percentages to have weak skills. Weak skills are hoped to be improved by drilling with computers. Ergo…..

We found similar issues at the high school level here as well. We further noted racial disparities when it comes to computer use. Sixty-eight percent of white students regularly used computers for science class, compared to sixty percent of Hispanic students. Students of color were also less likely to have access to hands-on science projects, and just 37 percent of black students had experienced hands-on activities with simple machines in their science class over the past year. In contrast, 40 percent of white students and 45 percent of Asian students reported having such experiences.

Oh, come on. 68 vs 60? 37 vs. 40 vs. 45? Seriously?

Computers, tablets, and other devices can help boost the reach of highly effective teachers, allowing more students to study with the best math and reading teachers, for instance. Several schools have successfully experimented with such reforms, and in various forms, the schools will allow highly effective teachers to focus less on administrative duties and more on teaching. Under this approach, schools will often use support staff to take over noninstructional activities for highly effective teachers such as their lunch and recess duties, while more effective teachers take on responsibility for more students.

Cite? What schools have “successfully experimented” with these reforms? Is Ulrich talking about Rocketship? Because if he is, does he know that Rocketship Academy is all about putting Hispanic children on computers and drilling them on math facts? Which elsewhere in this article Ulrich implies is a Very Bad Thing?

In a way these findings are not surprising. We know that students of color and students in high-poverty schools are allocated less money per student, and they are far less likely to be taught by effective teachers. These factors all contribute to the nation’s large achievement gap where, on average, black and Latino students are academically about two years behind white students of the same age.

hahahahahaa. Yes, it’s bad teachers that lead blacks and Latinos to have lower achievement. Bad teachers are so pervasive that high income blacks and Hispanics do worse or tie with low income whites.

We are certainly not arguing for the nation to stop or slow funding for education technology.

Why aren’t you? We have no idea whether educational technology improves outcomes, or what goals we have. So why should we be spending billions on technology if we don’t know whether or works or what we want it to do?

It is imperative that students graduate from high school knowing how to effectively use technology. At minimum, high school graduates should have the skills to create a spreadsheet and calculate simple formulas such as averages and percentages.

All high school graduates can create a spreadsheet. Most high school graduates do not really understand percentages, with or without a spreadsheet. That’s because we’re too busy pretending to teach them second year algebra, trigonometry and pre-calculus. And if we stopped pretending and only taught the kids who could actually learn those subjects, whilst teaching the kids who didn’t understand percentages how to work with proportions, Ulrich would be at the front of the line of people castigating schools for their racist attitudes and simplistic education for children of color.

Equally crucial is the need to increase access to technology for all students, particularly ones from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Hard to see why, really. We don’t have jobs for low ability kids, technology or no.

Technology is clearly fulfilling some of its promises. Virtual schools, for example, are offering students more course and curriculum options than conventional schools. Many virtual schools also appear to serve students relatively well. When the U.S. Department of Education conducted a detailed review of virtual education studies of both K-12 and higher education efforts, they found that students in online education actually performed slightly better than students who received face-to-face education. As the Department of Education report concluded, “[t]he meta-analysis found that, on average, students in online-learning conditions performed modestly better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.” But the report also cautioned that the increased achievement that is “associated with blended learning should not be attributed to the media, per se,” because of methodological issues.

So he starts by saying that technology is fulfilling its promise, cites a report that he says supports such a claim. Then he admits that the study actively warns against drawing any such conclusion. Does he then cite another report? No. So technology is NOT clearly fulfilling some of its promise.

So then Ulrich points out three apparently obvious recommendations:

  1. Policymakers must do more to make sure that technology promotes key learning goals. But we already know that the link between technology and educational outcomes is practically non-existent. I very much doubt that there’d be a lot of takers for a technology project that didn’t promise to improve educational outcomes. So based on past experience, policymakers should not support technology at all. The reason they support technology projects is the same one driving this idiotic report: happythink.
  2. Schools must address the digital divide. So schools MUST spend more money on technology for poor kids, even though they have no idea what they want and little in the way of evidence that increased technology spending improves scores or technology competence. And they definitely shouldn’t use computers for drilling.
  3. Advocates must push for studies of the cost-effectiveness of technology. In order to judge effectiveness, we’d need to have goals. And if the goal is “improve outcomes” then there’s little evidence now that technology does this, so perhaps we should ratchet back until we either have different goals or have evidence that technology spending improves achievement. But Ulrich and his people don’t want us to ratchet back on spending.

As I said, I have no larger point with this. I just had the motivation to write up my complaints, the better to avoid grading.

But what creates this nonsense? I assume these places have to generate meaningless position papers so their owning philanthropists think their money is well-spent? But who is evaluating their investments for effectiveness?

On ed tech itself, I would quote Larry Cuban, Does Online Instruction Work?:

These policymakers are not irrational [for pushing technology]. There is a political logic in mandating online courses for every student as a graduation requirement, starting pilot tablet and laptop programs, and encouraging a principal and cadre of teachers to create a technological innovation tailored to their school They consult with key stakeholders in the community before inviting charter management organizations like Rocketship Schools to establish blended learning programs in their schools. These decision-makers do not need researchers to tell them that these new technologies “work.” They believe in their heart that they will work. Push-and-pull conflicting urges pit solid research studies against strong beliefs and leave unanswered the question of what kinds of evidence matter. Too often beliefs trump facts. (emphasis mine)

So Ulrich and company aren’t going to get their policy recommendations any time soon.

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About educationrealist


6 responses to “Just Another Meaningless Policy Paper

  • Hattie

    My reading of the self styled education wonks is limited to what a few bloggers say about them, but it seems like you’d have to really try to remain as ignorant of teaching realities as they appear to be. My “teaching” experience is limited to some volunteer work in disadvantaged schools, but even that set me on the road to realising that you have to adapt to realities – that not everyone can do college level work, and we’re bettwe off adapting to that rather than wasting time, upsetting people and generally being counterproductive. Some people really need to get their Dead Poets’ Society/Stand and Deliver fantasies OUT of their systems.

  • Thea Nelson

    A journalist writes an article on how students “need” to learn more technology. He ignores how rapid technological changes quickly make much of the old knowledge obsolete. He also apparently doesn’t have the ability to find and search a few data bases to cite peer reviewed research. Perhaps he didn’t learn how to do that in journalism school.

    It is a waste of a teacher’s time and brain power to do drills that a computer can do. It is a waste of money for schools to constantly attempt to keep up with the latest dog and pony show. It is just plain sad when parents demand more technology be taught a child who doesn’t read, write, or compute on his/her grade level.

    Many students quickly learn how to use the tools (either in school or out) but they, like the journalist, aren’t quite sure what to do with them. If they can post on facebook or send a text they’re happy.

  • Roger Sweeny

    “I read so many reports that are utterly moronic …”

    You do so we don’t have to 🙂

    Now if only people would stop writing them.

  • Labropotes

    Get back to work, Ed, and dismantle the feature on educational technology in today’s Economist Newspaper. You know that back in 1780’s Edward Gibbon said that there are so many books on every subject that we can expect professors to be fired in short order? Waiting. Still waiting.

  • surfer

    This tech pushing has been stupid for at least 30 years now. If anything “tech” damages number sense. And you sure don’t need it. Only thing you need calculators for are scientific calculators for detailed arithmetic in chemistry and physics. They damage math understanding and are not needed because kids are learning algebraic manipulations, not doing detailed arithmetic as in chemistry.

    If a kid takes computer science (not a required HS course), a computer is required. If a kid takes statistics (not a required course) a scientific calculator or even a computer may be helpful.

    I think the more technically and scientifically and mathematically stupid someone is the more he pushes “giving the kids tech”.

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