Technically Foolish

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This column was written by Frederick M. Hess.
Michigan education officials are championing a new regulation that would require every high school student's education to include a substantial "online experience" of some kind, with the assumption being that most would complete an online class. To fulfill this vague new mandate, district technology officials in Detroit and elsewhere argue that extensive, unspecified expenditures will be necessary. This proposal is drawing national attention as visionary, though it is more remarkable for the manner in which it neatly illustrates the problems with how we think about technology and schooling.

Absent in Michigan, and often elsewhere, is serious thought about how technology might help cut costs or modernize educational delivery. The Michigan department of education's chief academic officer explains the idea's genesis in the same vague manner that a sophomore might describe a class project: "We thought of this as a skill that people would need to have to continue to be lifelong learners." The Michigan proposal finds a way to turn the sensible adoption of new technology into a boondoggle that promises to expand bureaucracy, increase costs, and turn a blind eye to pursuing new efficiencies.

Even as public schools have made ever-larger investments in new technologies, they have steadily added to the ranks of teachers and staff. Spending on technology in public schools increased from essentially zero in 1970 to over $100 per student in 2004, according to Education Week. In the past five years alone, the nation has spent more than $20 billion linking schools and classrooms to the Internet through the federal E-rate program. Between 1997 and 2004, the federal government appropriated more than $4 billion to help states purchase educational technology.

Meanwhile, these huge new investments in technology were coupled with a massive increase in the teacher workforce that drove the student-teacher ratio from 22 students per teacher in 1970 to 16 per teacher in 2001. There is no reputable analysis suggesting that the billions invested in technology have enhanced the productivity or performance of America's schools.

This state of affairs contrasts sharply with how technology is used by enterprises that face meaningful competition from alternative manufacturers and service providers. For these businesses, technology is not an end — it is a tool for self-improvement. New technologies are adopted when they enable workers to tackle new problems or do the same things cheaper and more efficiently.

Even the oft-maligned Postal Service understands this. It found ways to trim its workforce by more than 40,000 in the past four years — when sufficiently squeezed by competitors such as UPS and Federal Express. The USPS substituted technology as it identified routine tasks where automation was cheaper and more efficient than human labor.

Why do inviolable laws about the productive benefits of technology seem to stop at the schoolhouse door? Organizations like the Postal Service make effective use of technology because they must keep up with the competition. Knowing their competitors are constantly seeking ways to boost productivity, hold down costs, and develop new products, for-profit enterprises are always on the lookout for similar advantages. It's not that any executive likes painful measures such as downsizing; they take these steps because survival requires it.

Insulated from such pressures, school boards and superintendents have little incentive to view technology as a tool for trimming jobs or rethinking educational delivery — especially given union hostility and public skepticism. Meanwhile, existing collective-bargaining agreements between school districts and employees have made using technology to displace workers or reinvent processes extraordinarily difficult.

If anything, there is a bias in education against ideas deemed too "businesslike." Indeed, the very words "efficiency" and "cost-effectiveness" can set the teeth of parents and educators on edge. Proposals to use technology to downsize the workforce, alter instructional delivery, or improve managerial efficiency are inevitably attacked by education authorities like the wildly influential Henry Giroux, a professor at Canada's McMaster University, as part of an effort to, "Transform public education … [in order] to expand the profits of investors, educate students as consumers, and train young people for the low-paying jobs of the new global marketplace."

Ultimately, if leaders lack the incentives to pursue new efficiencies, they won't. So long as technology serves as an easy applause line and an excuse to demand ever more school spending rather than an opportunity to reengineer educational delivery, America's schools will remain ill-equipped for the rigors of the 21st century. Michigan's bad idea is evidence of that.

Frederick M. Hess is the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of "Tough Love for Schools" (AEI Press, 2006).

By Frederick M. Hess ©
  • Jaclyn Schiff

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