Smart, Dumb, and Fraudulent School Technology Spending

As we enter the season in which many towns are voting on their budgets, more schools than ever are asking for increases to cover school technology spending.

Some parents are delighted by the prospect of turning classrooms into “high tech” learning facilities, but not all experts are convinced. As far back as 2000, Stanford University education professor Larry Cuban compared the value of technology spending to “buying stocks that lose money year after year.”

Dr. Armand Fusco, a former Connecticut school superintendent, believes that lax oversight negates any benefit from wiring classrooms. “Few districts,” he says, “track assets, with the result that computers and related items rapidly disappear.”

In fact, the phrase “school technology” is an imprecise expression used to reference two distinct – and in many ways contradictory – trends.

The first, described by Dell Computer founder Michael Dell as “expediting old methods of teaching,” creates devices like electronic note pads, mouse-sized clickers for multiple choice tests, high definition projectors, and programmable whiteboards. School officials like this kind of gadgetry, because it holds out the promise of academic improvement without fundamentally changing education.

Support also comes from a growing army of consultants, providers, and service professionals, some with questionable links to the schools. In May of 2006, a $13 million technology bond issue for the Katy, Texas, school system featured a lesson planning program developed by four of the district’s own administrators.

More seriously, the Los Angeles Unified School District has come under investigation for misspending nearly $175 million in consulting contracts, much of it for technology related expenditures.

Less enthusiastic are the many educators who have to cope with the time-consuming implementation of technology they believe is irrelevant to student achievement. Jerry Graham, a remedial skills instructor at Chemeketa Community College in Oregon, says the under reported downside of electrifying the traditional classroom is broken machinery, the continuous installation of upgrades, and a lack of immediate support.

The alternative, and truly innovative approach to school technology, is the development of economical online courses, which take curricula developed by the best teachers in America and make them available over the Internet.

One obvious advantage of what some call “virtual schooling” is that the burden for upgrading to a newer version of any course and making it run smoothly is born by the provider. Schools with older computers and modest budgets can benefit from an Internet-based curriculum just as much as the wealthiest suburban districts. Another advantage is access to coursework from almost any location. In Birmingham, England, where high crime rates and disciplinary problems interfere with regular attendance, the 24-hour availability of online instruction has boosted students’ performance in math and reading tests.

Here in the U.S., according to a recent issue of Harvard’s Education Next, the quality of online instruction has fueled a dramatic increase in home schooling, which surged 29 percent between 1999 and 2003. Florida has passed legislation to require virtual learning programs for all students in kindergarten through the eighth grade.

Unfortunately, most states and localities still interpret “going high-tech” to mean spending on electronic enhancements to old pedagogies – and on the personnel costs that follow. According to Frederick Hess, director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute, public schools expenditures on technology went from virtually zero in 1970 to more than $100 per student in 2004, while U.S. students continued to lag behind those in other industrialized countries in math and science achievement.

by Dr. Lewis Andrews, Senior Policy Analyst at the Yankee Institute for Public Policy. This article ran on May 1, 2009 in the Connecticut Post, and on May 3, 2009, in The Day (New London).

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