More computers are not the way to fix our broken schools 

Computer technology is the latest panacea for American students’ mediocre academic performance.

If we can just pump enough interactive whiteboards, iPads and eye-popping video graphics into the classroom, asserts the education establishment, we can overcome the knowledge gap between U.S. students and our leading economic competitors.

Naturally, this faith in a technological education fix has spawned a massive industry of tech companies, consultants, business associations and foundations, all gobbling up billions of dollars’ worth of taxpayer-funded government contracts every year.

Educational software products alone are estimated to generate $2.2 billion in sales to school districts. The Department of Education’s new Digital Promise initiative will only inflate that spending further.

To call the results to date disappointing would be generous. The Kyrene school district in Arizona, which serves kindergarten through eighth grade, has spent $33 million since 2006 on the most cutting-edge computer gimmicks without having the slightest impact on student achievement, reports the New York Times.

Nine of 10 major educational software products on the market have no effect on test scores, the federal Department of Education found in 2009. This lackluster record was utterly predictable.

Educational technology would be the solution to poor academic performance only if the lack of educational technology were the cause of that poor performance.

Somehow, however, generations of students have mastered algebra, geometry and the rudiments of historical knowledge just by reading — wait for it! — books.

Students the world over have even learned about atomic interactions simply by hard mental work. More mysteriously still, computers were invented without computers.

If students are not willing to make an effort, no amount of scintillating “video game graphics” will magically put that knowledge into their head while they are otherwise engaged in Facebook exchanges.

To be sure, all students today need computer skills. That is a different proposition, however, from thinking that using computers to convey knowledge can compensate for a lack of self-discipline, perseverance, and a desire to learn (or, failing such a desire, fear of the consequences for not doing so).

Shanghai’s students lead the world in math and reading skills not because their schools boast the fanciest video game apps (they don’t). Rather, those students outpace all others because they possess the internal motivation to learn and because their classrooms are orderly places where the teacher possesses unquestioned intellectual authority.

The keys to improving Americans’ educational performance are the following: Get back to teaching the basics; restore order and discipline in every classroom; return to a teacher-centered, rather than student-centered, pedagogy; and demand hard work from children and commitment from parents.

Unfortunately, such an agenda promises no big contracts for the education-industrial complex.

Heather MacDonald is a John M. Olin Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal.

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Heather MacDonald

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