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A Moron with a Computer Is Still a Moron

September 5th, 2011 - 2:22 pm

In the Classroom of the Future, Stagnant Scores” is the headline of a New York Times account of the uselessness of high-tech education. Since the Clinton administration, liberal “experts” have argued that giving every kid a laptop, “educational” software, and Internet access will produce a generation of geniuses. That has to be the stupidest idea in the history of education. Of course, it hasn’t worked. But that doesn’t discourage the New Age nerds who run the Obama adminstration’s education policy.

The Times reports on the miserable performance of students in Arizona’s Kyrene School District, where taxpayers have spent $33 million to digitize classrooms since 2005.

Since 2005, scores in reading and math have stagnated in Kyrene, 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.

Some backers of this idea say standardized tests, the most widely used measure of student performance, don’t capture the breadth of skills that computers can help develop. But they also concede that for now there is no better way to gauge the educational value of expensive technology investments.

“The data is pretty weak. It’s very difficult when we’re pressed to come up with convincing data,” said Tom Vander Ark, the former executive director for education at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and an investor in educational technology companies. When it comes to showing results, he said, “We better put up or shut up.”

And yet, in virtually the same breath, he said change of a historic magnitude is inevitably coming to classrooms this decade: “It’s one of the three or four biggest things happening in the world today.”

Just what are they doing with their computers?

Amy Furman, a seventh-grade English teacher here, roams among 31 students sitting at their desks or in clumps on the floor. They’re studying Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” — but not in any traditional way.

In this technology-centric classroom, students are bent over laptops, some blogging or building Facebook pages from the perspective of Shakespeare’s characters. One student compiles a song list from the Internet, picking a tune by the rapper Kanye West to express the emotions of Shakespeare’s lovelorn Silvius.

How idiotic is that? What about trying to understand what Shakespeare actually said? At my kids’ Waldorf school, the seventh-graders performed “Twelfth Night” in costume, alternating major roles so that all of them had to memorize a couple of hundred lines of the Bard. They learned about the characters by acting the roles, that is, reading the play through the eyes of its author.

“This is such a dynamic class,” Ms. Furman told the New York Times. “I really hope it works.” She recalls the ethnic joke about the prospective chicken farmer who buries chicks in the soil with a bit of manure and is disappointed when chickens fail to sprout.

But what about the educational foundations, the Silicon Valley sages, and the Obama administration? They bring to mind the second half of the joke; the farmer reports his methods in detail to the Agriculture Ministry, which sends him a telegram: “Send soil samples.” The education gurus at the White House really are that dumb. Obama’s National Education Technology Plan calls for a “transformation of American education” that will be “powered by technology”:

The National Education Technology Plan, Transforming American Education: Learning Powered by Technology, calls for applying the advanced technologies used in our daily personal and professional lives to our entire education system to improve student learning, accelerate and scale up the adoption of effective practices, and use data and information for continuous improvement.

Obama’s report echoes a 1997 Clinton administration plan urging the same thing. There isn’t a lot of research to support the notion that saturating classrooms with high-tech toys improves education, but the American counterparts of the Slobovian Agricultural Ministry don’t have any other ideas.

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