Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Returns to technology in education 

Joanne Jacobs highlights an excellent question: With the rapid expansion of technology in classrooms, have we gotten any better at educating students? Frederick Hess thinks not.

A competitive enterprise adopts new technologies when these enable workers to tackle new problems or to do the same thing as before, but in a cheaper and more efficient fashion.

...Public schools, by contrast, have steadily added to the ranks of teachers and reduced class sizes even as they make ever-larger investments in new technologies. Spending on technology in public schools increased from essentially zero in 1970 to $118 per student in 2002 and $89 per student in 2003, according to Education Week. In 1998 there were 12.1 students for every computer connected to the Internet; by 2002, the ratio had dropped to 4.8 students per computer, according to the Department of Education. 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 with little to show for it in the way of instructional changes or improved outcomes. Meanwhile, despite these huge new investments in technology (see Figure 1), massive increases in the workforce of teachers drove the student-teacher ratio from 22 students per teacher to 16 students per teacher between 1970 and 2001.

One example:
When asked if he could pull some data on teacher absenteeism or staff training costs, one veteran principal in a well-regarded district spluttered, "Do you know what I do if I want substitute teacher data? I have [my secretary] go through the files and tally it up. She keeps a running total on a piece of graph paper for me. . . . If I want to check on a supply order, I call the deputy [superintendent] for services because we're old friends, and I know he'll actually have someone pull it for me."
Hostility to technology as a labor-saving device is cited as the chief problem.