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This magic bullet is a dud

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Esther Cepeda
September 26, 2011
— If it weren’t so tragic, it might be amusing.

Last week, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan had an op-ed article in The Wall Street Journal, co-authored with Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, pushing “Digital Promise,” a new program to use technology to “revolutionize” K-12 education.


It was published the day after Hastings sent an email to Netflix customers informing them that, in addition to having just ticked them off by both limiting their choices and hiking rates, he also planned to split the company into two separate and unrelated entertainment services.


Hastings’ business choice caused customers to flock to social media sites to complain, triggered an avalanche of passionate cancellations and caused Netflix’s once-skyrocketing stock to plummet further.


And by week’s end, Duncan’s harebrained idea to ease the burden on states by simply waiving No Child Left Behind’s academic achievement requirements, hoping that fewer “failures” would yield more successes, was affirmed by President Obama.


Duncan-Hastings is not the pair you want devising any part of your 21st-century education strategy.


The first paragraph of their essay “A Digital Promise to Our Nation’s Children” is devastatingly astute:


“Student achievement and educational attainment have stagnated in the U.S., and a host of our leading economic competitors are now out-educating us. In a knowledge economy, such stagnation is a slow-acting recipe for obsolescence.”


But read further and you’re stunned that anyone could believe that China’s, Korea’s or Finland’s students are eating our lunch, academically, because they have more computers.


“Even Uruguay, a small country not known for leadership in technology, provides a computer for every student,” they wrote.


Gentlemen, who cares?


No offense to Uruguay, but it isn’t exactly a star of international academic supremacy. According to the 2009 results of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), Uruguay scored lower than the United States, and lower than the average of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, in every measure of reading, mathematics and science literacy.


Let’s be real: Getting more high-tech equipment into public schools won’t be the magic bullet that fixes our educational system’s woes.


Even if efforts were limited to just improving classroom learning by creating more technologically savvy learners, it would still be smarter to focus what Duncan and Hastings describe as a “bipartisan initiative that will be sustained primarily by the private sector” on familiarizing teachers with current technology and training them how to model its use to their students.


But what Duncan and Hastings are talking about is “building a more efficient market for education technology, (providing) good information about the effectiveness of various educational technology products … and (avoiding) prospective product developers’ difficulties reaching customers on an economically valuable scale.”


If this sounds like gobbledygook that will profit the education-industrial complex, and maybe get a laptop or tablet device into the hands of students who can’t read at grade level or have a poor sense of numbers, you are correct.


Our schools desperately need to teach students the appropriate use of technology, but let’s not allow business-minded educational advocates to romance us out of reality. Myriad factors keep students from learning in school and, unfortunately, no multimedia technology tool will magically stop those children from getting left behind.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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