Friday, September 24, 2004

(Last of a five-part series)

My dad used to threaten us kids that he was going to take action to stop us from wasting so many hours watching The Beverly Hillbillies and other mind-numbing TV shows: he was going to take an ax to the set.

With all we know about the negative impact of injudicious use of technology on children, that might not be such a bad idea today. But of course, you’d have to go around smashing just about everything if you intended to get rid of all the potentially harmful technology that’s around. And nobody wants that. What we do want, however, is smart, positive, constructive use of the educational technology we’ve already bought for our public schools, and will buy in the future.

Over the past week, we’ve seen how Omaha’s Westside Community Schools, a prominent public-school district, has just spent $3.3 million to give its high-school students Apple iBook laptop computers, $1,000 machines which they will check out for the year, for free, like a library book. The move is controversial not only because of its unknown effect on learning, because also because district officials first said they could afford the laptops without raising property taxes and kind of pushed the momentous decision on the school board with newly-elected members still wet behind the ears. They then turned around and raised taxes to cover the project, anyway, when valuations didn’t rise as much as projected and the money wasn’t quite there.

But the laptops are in place, and that’s all water under the dam. Now the point is to figure out how to make the best of them where they already are, and whether to add them in places where they haven’t yet come.

Laptops are already in a few public schools around the country in places like Maine, where competition for enrollment is fierce from private schools, and that’s apparently a lot of the impetus behind Westside’s move. Two of its key private competitors, Brownell-Talbot and Duchesne, have structured their program around student laptops. The difference is that the parents of those students purchase the machines themselves, and at Westside, taxpayers give them to the kids.

The point is, ed tech is already ‘way out of the barn, and it’s past time for parents and taxpayers to give sharply-focused input to educators on how we want it used.

We’ve seen in this series how the use and abuse of TV, video games and computers can shape a child’s brain, personality and habits of mind in ways we don’t like. The potential is there for ed tech to reshape our whole society, when you consider everything from embedded Political Correctness in the computer curriculum that parents don’t see, to the data collection and cross-referencing that’s already going on among school, governmental and industrial bureaucracies with regard to the constant assessments and surveys the kids take in school, and the growing complexity of computer networking among schools, colleges, governmental agencies and employers exchanging that data.

Each one of us has a job to do, to manage all this. And here are just a few suggestions:

Parents: Read up on ed tech, and resolve to keep your child to no more than one hour a day of time on a TV or computer. Make sure to read to your child daily, spend lots of time talking with your child, and give your child lots of real-world experiences and interaction. Don’t let your child get on a computer until at least age 7, or risk having your child become a ‘’reluctant reader’’ who prefers colorful screen images to printed text. Don’t let your child use a computer to write assignments until the high-school years, because it’s been shown that kids who write only with a keyboard and screen become ‘way too linear and disconnected in their writing, compared to those who compose with a paper and pencil and have the mental advantages such as concentration that come with mastery of penmanship.

Taxpayers: Demand a freeze on additional ed tech purchases until your district can supply you with a clear accounting of ed tech expenditures to date, including how many of those computers are used by staff vs. how many are used by students, number of additional staff members, increased utility bills, etc. Also ask for these four figures from the past year and 10 years ago: total annual cost per pupil, then and now; the total staff-to-child ratio (include all nonteaching staff and all enrollment, including pre-K and special ed) . . . the total computers-to-child ratio . . . and ACT and SAT scores, then and now. If you don’t like what you see, write letters to the editor and discuss how adding more ed tech might not be the right answer. Also demand convincing evidence that there is a significant payoff academically from the computers you already have in place, and convincing evidence that additional expenditures will pay off, too. (Hint: there isn’t any, so watch their answers carefully.)

Voters: Tell your elected officials that you would like to see the computers they’ve authorized for public schools to be put to good use informing you about how well those resources are being employed, with lots more data for the public on per-pupil expenditures in all categories including special education and technology; salaries of various categories of school staff; cost and types of fringe benefits paid out, including retirement costs; attendance rates of students and teachers; standardized test scores compared to other districts around the country with student demographics like yours, and be sure to find out what percentage of total enrollment took the standardized test, not just what percentage of college-bound enrollment; dropout rates; percentage of enrollment which is non-English speaking or economically disadvantaged and what the family income level is for the latter designation; number of students who took the various Advanced Placement courses over the past few years and how many of them received college credit after taking the year-end exams; and so on and so forth.

School Board Members: Do all of the above, and ask yourself how come you don’t already have this information in clear, concise form.

Legislators: Look in to the apparent connection between nationalized standards, nationalized assessments, computerized curriculum, data collection and political control. If you see what I see, then take the necessary steps to ‘’sunset’’ Nebraska’s statewide standards and assessments, pull out of federal funding of all kinds, refuse to fund participation in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (the NAEP, the de facto national exam) and other components of nationalizing schools, and encourage a return to local control of our public schools and a hands-off attitude among state and federal educrats.

Will any of that ever happen?

I don’t know. I’m not saying we should pull all the plugs . . . just make sure that what we do with ed tech and our kids really, really computes.

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