The Education Reform Racket

Decades ago the longshoreman-turned-philosopher Eric Hoffer asserted, "Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket." Nowhere does this observation apply more forcefully than in American public education. From the second half of the 19th century until perhaps the 1950s, reformers such as Horace Mann helped to improve U.S. public education. Alas, decades of progress have come to a standstill. Nevertheless, sensing the public craving for progress, thousands of would-be reformers happily peddle iffy but costly nostrums. Tiny exceptions aside, much of "reforming education" is now a lavishly funded racket.

The poster child for this profligate fantasy is distributing: gratis fancy new computers to millions of indifferent, often intellectually challenged students. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, Americans schools in 2013 are expected to spend some $9.7 billion on technological fixes. It does sound alluring -- older Americans surely remember writing term papers on typewriters (or by now antiquated cursive) and trekking to libraries to look things up.

Unfortunately, the personal computer is not a miracle drug and nowhere is the boondoggle more obvious than in Detroit. That city's schools have long been plagued by rock-bottom test scores and a well-deserved reputation for chaotic violence. Even prior to the city seeking bankruptcy protection, the state of Michigan in 1991 was forced to take over its daily administration.

The hoped-for computer-generated academic miracle began in the Fall of 2012 when roughly 19,000 Netbooks were distributed to students while school officials worked with Comcast to provide poor families with low-cost Internet access. According to school officials "Access to Netbooks will enable students to complete homework assignments, explore thousands of libraries, databases, and bulletin boards while exchanging messages with Internet users throughout the world in the comfort of their own homes."

Free hardware was just the beginning. A special pre-loaded software packaged called Gaggle included a student e-mail system, Digital Lockers, Discussion Boards, Chat Rooms, Blogs, Profile Pages, Assignment Drop Boxes, Calendars, a Social Wall, GaggleTube, Zoho Docs and filtered texting. Moreover, each student received an Individualized Learning Plan while every parent got an Academic Blueprint linking the family to the school. Wow!
Nevertheless, from the get-go it was possible to discern that more was involved than just boosting test scores among seriously deficient students. Paralleling the glittering technology handout was the emphasis on increasing school attendance, no small matter since attendance drives school funding -- no students, no money. So, it was hardly accidental that the free computers were distributed on "Count Day" when attendance that day determined state funding. Attendance enticements also included a full-school pizza party and then prizes for students who made it to school for the following ten days. Those
showing up also received free Nike running shoes! Happily, attendance rose over the previous year.

Much can be learned from this venture. First, this is an employment windfall for the tech industry at a time when Detroit and other cities struggle to pay for police and fire protection. Are Netbook programmers really more essential than cops? What about teachers upgrading their computer skills instead of tutoring slow learners?
Moreover, these jobs will be forever. Every computer user knows the inevitability of glitches and these require expensive technical assistance. Imagine when thousand of parents call the school complaining of broken Internet service? Further add millions to train teachers in all this software, including the inevitable fixes and upgrades? And what about technophobic teachers who just refuse "to get it"? And how does an illiterate third-grader (or a non-English speaker) navigate all the text instructions or use e-mail? Just wait until Washington demands schools translate computerized lessons into multiple languages so that immigrant children do not fall behind. Guaranteed, each classroom will soon have computer assistants along with all the other non-teachers who populate today's bureaucratically bloated schools.

All the predictable nightmares are hardly hypothetical and may even rival the Obamacare rollout. Los Angeles voters approved a $1 billion bond to provide computers (currently 31,000) to the system's 651,000 K-12 polyglot students. But, according to the LA Times, some 300 students overrode the security filters of their school-given laptops to access Facebook, Twitter, and who knows what else (though it could be argued that here the students learned an occupationally relevant skill). Equally predictable is that some of these notebooks have vanished and rest assured, the trick to defeating safeguards will quickly disseminate through the tech-savvy youth culture (but Apple promises a software fix to reduce thievery). Nor does the school board have much of an idea regarding content of these computerized lessons. That's still in the works.

Ironically, as thousands of LA students struggle with basics, the school district is allocating classroom time to teach a "cyber security awareness program" to promote "digital citizenship" "... to ensure consistent and effective practices for intervening when a student is found violating the basic principles of digital citizenship." John Deasy, the LA school superintendent, even called the laptop hand-out a "civil rights issue."

The Detroit and Los Angeles experiences are true more generally. In Guilford County, North Carolina, the distribution of tablets was halted thanks to broken screens and overheated batteries among other hitches. In Texas the Fort Bend school district scraped their $16 million "free" iPad program due to multiple administrative breakdowns and poor outcomes.

Yes, some districts have not yet experienced these roll-out problems but even if everything goes as planned, the opportunity costs are sizable -- thousands of hours of administrative planning, millions in purchases and support services and countless hours of classroom time spent learning the software (and the upgrades), not English or math.

Will this ambitious magic bullet investment pay-off? Frankly, nobody yet knows and the scraps of empirical evidence hardly counsel optimism. Even an organization dedicated to this mission worldwide -- One Laptop Per Child -- fails to offer a scintilla of evidence that laptops actually promote learning. It may take decades of careful analysis (while tens of billions are spent) to reach a firm conclusion and the educational stakes are huge. Other than promoting computer skill by turning the classroom into a video arcade, America may well go backwards as mastering computer skills soaks up time better devoted to old-fashioned but guaranteed classroom learning.

There's an awkward explanation for this billion-dollar technological deus ex machina: having failed to move the needle despite intense public pressure for miracles, educators are desperate and thus readily embrace glittering technological fixes (and in the case of Detroit, free Nikes). All cheered on by financial beneficiaries such as Apple, software firms, and unemployed techies. But, less obvious though more relevant, handing out free iPads outshines cracking the whip -- let alone corporal punishment -- over apathetic students with terrible work habits. Better to squander tens of millions than agitate students and their parents who care little about education. Today's learning must be painless, what could be more fun than playing with a fancy computer? No more boring memorizing vocabulary words, endless drill to master long division or untold hours spent deciphering Shakespeare. Perhaps some future computers will have a command called "Save in my brain."