The multimillion-dollar pandemic mistake schools are reluctant to fix

Schools invested millions in new technology during the pandemic. It almost never improves outcomes

Five months behind on math and four months behind on reading. That was the average learning loss in the country after this past school year. But the losses were much larger among students in majority-Black districts and low income ones, where students were behind more than six and seven months, respectively.

Of course, those schools were also the ones that saw the most “remote learning.”

If there’s one thing most parents recognize entering this new school year, it’s that online learning is not what it was cracked up to be. And that is a lesson everyone should take back to their school districts this fall.

For decades now, administrators and teachers have been in a mad rush to get the most advanced computers and tablets into classrooms. Parents have been fooled by these shiny new toys into thinking that their kids’ schools are teaching better and more efficiently. In fact, this is almost never the case. 

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A few years ago, when I was working on a book about parenting and technology, I interviewed Larry Cuban, Stanford University education professor, who has been looking at the question of technology in the classroom for more than three decades. He told me, “I can say pretty categorically that there is no evidence that use of devices and software will improve academic achievement of students.” 

In his book “Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice,” Cuban attributes two factors to the hype for technology despite its poor results.

“First,” he told me, “there is the novelty effect to explain student engagement with high-tech. New devices — think clickers in an algebra class or iPads for kindergartners — motivate students initially, but as time passes, the effects wear off.

“Second,” he continues, “major studies have repeatedly shown weak to no linkage between these devices or software and substantial changes in teaching practices or improved test scores.”

The decisions about classroom technology are generally made by school boards and superintendents — without much input from teachers, says Cuban. But teachers are the ones who are going to have to integrate the technology into their classrooms. 

A parent at local private school told me that her school invested more than $2 million in the fall of 2020 to improve its remote learning for students. Over time it became clear that the teachers were not on board and were barely making use of the new software. So they went back to Zoom, instead. When the parent confronted the headmaster about why her school hadn’t invested the money in making more room for kids to return in person, she was told that the school had a lot of confidence in the technology and there was nothing they could do now. 

Technology seems like an easy solution for what are complicated problems. Before the pandemic when underprivileged students were falling behind, administrators and policymakers liked to cite the digital divide as the reason. But if anything the digital divide works the other way. Teens in poor households with single parents spend many more hours on screens than their peers in higher-income, two-parent households. And frankly those hours are taking away from other things — reading, time with family, time outside, sleeping — that would be much more beneficial for the intellectual and emotional development. 

Moreover there is reason to believe that offering kids technology in the classrooms hurts the lowest performers most. “The phone could be a great equalizer, in terms of giving children from all sorts of socioeconomic backgrounds the same devices, with the same advantages,” Paul Barnwell, an English teacher in Louisville, Kentucky, wrote in an essay for The Atlantic. “But using phones for learning requires students to synthesize information and stay focused on a lesson or a discussion. For students with low literacy skills and the frequent urge to multitask on social media or entertainment, incorporating purposeful smartphone use into classroom activity can be especially challenging.”

A study by the London School of Economics found that “banning mobile phones improves outcomes for the low-achieving students ... the most, and has no significant impact on high achievers.”

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In 2013, the Los Angeles Unified Public School District began handing out iPads as part of a $1.3 billion digital learning program. By 2015, it had become clear that the program had failed, and the FBI started investigating the preferential treatment that both Apple and Pearson (a curriculum company) received from district administrators in the process. Michael Horn, executive director of the education program at the Christensen Institute, told Wired magazine that the Los Angeles fiasco is a case of a school district getting caught up in the educational technology frenzy. “A lot of schools get into trouble when the conversation starts with the vendor,” Horn says. 

In other words, what schools know is that they want to buy something. But they are not clear on what they want the technology to do for their kids. 

Which brings us back to this fall. Many schools invested in technology during the pandemic and they will be reluctant to put it aside even with everyone (fingers crossed) back in person. But as parents, we have to ask some questions. Why does my 3rd-grader need access to a laptop in school? Aren’t middle schoolers going to be distracted by that technology? What is the evidence that it will improve anyone’s education? Until parents get satisfactory answers to these questions, they should demand that their districts unplug.

Naomi Schaefer Riley is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a Deseret News contributor. The paperback version of her book “The New Trail of Tears: How Washington Is Destroying American Indians” will be out this fall.

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