Is Our Children Learning (Again)?

The New York Times has an interesting piece on today’s front page about the use of costly technology in classrooms, and how it doesn’t appear to be improving test scores at all. Some suggest standardized tests no longer adequately reflect the kind of skills students are learning in tech-heavy classrooms. Others say there’s no replacing the fundamentals — reading, writing, arithmetic — and that must come before teaching kids how to use PowerPoint.

It’s an important discussion because, as the piece points out, school districts are facing intense budgetary pressure right now, laying off teachers and increasing class sizes, while at the same time investing millions of dollars in classroom computers. Is it worth it?

These discussions interest me, but they also anger me. When I look back on my own elementary education, which was way back in the 1960s, I remember feeling like a lab rat. Back then it seems the country was focused on looking at what and how we were teaching our children, with an eye toward innovation and change. I don’t know why — was it broken? Was there something wrong with the way my mother and father were educated? Was it just the idea that it’s the 1960s and we can do things better just … because?

It seems to me there wasn’t a cockamamie idea that someone didn’t want to try on us kids. For example: I was taught to read using the ITA method — Initial Teaching Alphabet. Any other ITA kids out there? Represent! ITA used a phonetic alphabet which was supposed to be easier for young children to grasp. We were taught to read and write with the phonetic alphabet and later transitioned to the traditional alphabet. (I still have some old “Peter Rabbit” books written in ITA. I wonder if they’re worth something now?)

I’m not sure I was a good ITA test case, since I was always a voracious reader, even as a child. Plus, I come from a family of readers and writers. I highly doubt I would have had problems learning to read and write the old-fashioned way. I can’t speak for any other kids, though, and back in the ’60s ITA was what we were taught. Maybe it was good, I have no idea. I do know that I learned to read and write, and I also developed some really atrocious spelling, which stuck with me until around the 5th grade. In fact, my spelling was so bad that when we moved across country, my parents got letters of concern from my new, non-ITA-drilled teachers.

That’s just one example; there are others. Maybe it’s because of where I grew up, but I remember a parade of graduate students and teaching assistants streaming through our classrooms and pulling selected students out of class for their turn on the hamster wheel. These things were never explained to us, and when in second grade I was asked to paint pictures with one of these graduate students instead of learning the math lesson, I was pissed off. I was quite sure whatever the rest of the class was learning was way more important than what the young woman wanted to learn from me. Guess I was a rebel even then.

So when I read we’re spending millions of dollars investing in computers only to find that test scores haven’t budged, it pushes some buttons. On the one hand, test scores mean … what exactly? Does it really reflect anything significant? On the other hand, I worry that with Bill Gates and Steve Jobs shoving computers at school districts, we’re creating a generation of consumers for Microsoft and Apple, but not necessarily a generation of educated, engaged citizens.

Please, tell me what is the point of this:

CHANDLER, Ariz. — Amy Furman, a seventh-grade English teacher here, roams among 31 students sitting at their desks or in clumps on the floor. They’re studying Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” — but not in any traditional way.

In this technology-centric classroom, students are bent over laptops, some blogging or building Facebook pages from the perspective of Shakespeare’s characters. One student compiles a song list from the Internet, picking a tune by the rapper Kanye West to express the emotions of Shakespeare’s lovelorn Silvius.

Does this make sense to any 7th grade English teacher out there? For one thing, we didn’t study Shakespeare in 7th grade — that came in high school. Regardless, shouldn’t Shakespeare be an entry point to learning about English history, poetry, the English language, the dramatic arts, and literature? Not … how to write a blog or a Facebook page?

Am I being too “offa my lawn” here? I mean, no wonder kids’ test scores aren’t changing if this is how the technology is being used.

Along these lines, the current issue of Harper’s has an essay on education by Garret Keizer, newly returned to the public high school classroom after a 14-year absence. One of the changes he discusses is his students’ new aversion to reading:

It’s nothing new that some kids find reading a chore. What strikes me is the frequent lack of correlation between the ability to read and any inclination to do it. That, and the number of times I hear someone say, “I hate to read.” A girl tells me so in private and sobs so preposterously that I worry I might laugh. After she calms down, I gently suggest that she read a passage aloud. Her fluency is impeccable; she could work for the BBC.

Modern technology requires a minimal level of literacy, and as our communication moves more toward electronic devices, blogs, etc. the ability to read and write in English is crucial. But just because you can write a text message or update your Facebook wall, that doesn’t mean you can write a novel or a play. And I think writing a novel or play are important skills to have, even if our technology now only requires a literacy level of 140 characters or less. Because you don’t enlighten the world with a Tweet. You don’t create an educated citizenry capable of challenging the status quo in 140 characters, or in a text message. Revolutions may be Tweeted but their genesis is elsewhere. Does it surprise anyone to learn that Thomas Jefferson was a fan of Shakespeare? I daresay he was never asked to create a mixtape for his favorite Shakespearean character.

What I fear we have here is another example of our current emphasis on math, science and technology over the humanities. I’ve written about this before (notably in 2009 in my post, “The Business Of Dehumanization”), but it bears repeating: we’re creating a generation of worker bees and consumers, but not necessarily a generation of citizens with the critical thinking skills necessary to challenge the establishment when necessary.

Ask yourself who this serves? Microsoft, sure: but does it serve America?

I suspect our standardized tests haven’t evolved apace with this change. So pardon me for being concerned when I read this in the New York Times:

Advocates for giving schools a major technological upgrade — which include powerful educators, Silicon Valley titans and White House appointees — say digital devices let students learn at their own pace, teach skills needed in a modern economy and hold the attention of a generation weaned on gadgets.

Some backers of this idea say standardized tests, the most widely used measure of student performance, don’t capture the breadth of skills that computers can help develop. But they also concede that for now there is no better way to gauge the educational value of expensive technology investments.

For now. Yes, of course. But wait for the day when a new barometer of achievement comes to our schools. One that reflects this shift in priorities. One that better reflects the needs and wants of Microsoft and Apple and Google and Coca-Cola. What then?

I don’t have any answers. I’m not saying don’t use computers in schools, don’t teach technology. But I do think we need to go into this with our eyes open. As we embrace the new, let’s not ditch the old. Think about what we could lose in the process.


To those who don’t make it all the way through the Times article, I leave you with this chilling excerpt:

“Let’s hope the fiscal crisis doesn’t get better too soon. It’ll slow down reform,” said Tom Watkins, the former superintendent for the Michigan schools, and now a consultant to businesses in the education sector.

Clearly, the push for technology is to the benefit of one group: technology companies.

The Sellers

It is 4:30 a.m. on a Tuesday. Mr. Share, the director of technology at Kyrene and often an early riser, awakens to the hard sell. Awaiting him at his home computer are six pitches from technology companies.

It’s just another day for the man with the checkbook.

“I get one pitch an hour,” he said. He finds most of them useless and sometimes galling: “They’re mostly car salesmen. I think they believe in the product they’re selling, but they don’t have a leg to stand on as to why the product is good or bad.”


This is big business. Sales of computer software to schools for classroom use were $1.89 billion in 2010. Spending on hardware is more difficult to measure, researchers say, but some put the figure at five times that amount.

The vendors relish their relationship with Kyrene.

“I joke I should have an office here, I’m here so often,” said Will Dunham, a salesman for CCS Presentation Systems, a leading reseller of Smart Boards in Arizona.

Last summer, the district paid $500,000 to CCS to replace ceiling-hung projectors in 400 classrooms. The alternative was to spend $100,000 to replace their aging bulbs, which Mr. Share said were growing dimmer, causing teachers to sometimes have to turn down the lights to see a crisp image.

Mr. Dunham said the purchase made sense because new was better. “I could take a used car down to the mechanic and get it all fixed up and still have a used car.”

But Ms. Kirchoff, the president of the teachers’ association, is furious. “My projector works just fine,” she said. “Give me Kleenex, Kleenex, Kleenex!”

“New is better.” There’s an axiom for the 21st Century classroom.


Filed under education

25 responses to “Is Our Children Learning (Again)?

  1. Ellie

    Well, I wasn’t subjected to ITA, but I was subjected to “new math” – sort of. I have distinct memories of the new math debacle….it was an approach to math that made NO SENSE, so, utterly confused, I asked my parents for help. They took one look, said “forget this; here’s the correct way to do it”, and taught me math the way they were taught back in the dark ages. Within a week, I became the only kid in the classroom who could quickly and consistently answer all of the questions correctly – and it stayed that way for quite some time. The teacher would teach nonsense to a room of frustrated kids; at home, mom and dad would teach math. I remember the other kids getting warned away from doing it my way (“never mind what she’s doing; focus on what WE’RE doing”), but by and large, the teacher just left me alone. In retrospect, I think she probably didn’t want to get into an argument with pissed off parents saying something along the lines of “if you won’t teach her math in a sensible fashion then we will, and by the way, what the HELL is this crap your pushing anyway?”.

    I also remember getting in trouble for “reading too far ahead” of the rest of the class, which was considered wrong because – I don’t know. It was rude? Inappropriate (how)?. I never quite got that one either.

    So those are my anecdotes. But yeah, I agree with the rest of the post.

    • I’m trying to remember if I was taught “new math” or not? I’m thinking … no. But you know, I was a horrible math student. Math never made sense to me, and if you think about it, nothing is more logical than math. So I’d love to blame some newfangled, messed up teaching method for my inability to do math.

      Thanks for sharing your experience. You’re lucky your parents were able to teach you the right way. And I’m interested that the school administrators didn’t make a big deal out of it, call you a troublemaker or whatever for going with an “unauthorized curriculum.”

      • Ellie

        Yes, I suppose I am lucky that my parents were able to teach me math. Know where they learned it? In a big-city public school system in the 1930s – where they did just fine, despite the fact that one of them came from an immigrant/ESL home. Did the public schools work better back then, and if so, why? Or were they just exceptional? I honestly don’t know – but I wonder about it.

      • Ellie

        Oh, yeah – as for the administrators not making a big deal of it, I think it was one of those “pick your fights” things. I was generally a good student, and I had older parents who – despite being fairly blue-collar – were also worldly, no-nonsense, and suprisingly well-educated by the afore-mentioned public school system. I know the teacher didn’t approve, but my guess that she looked at the reality of the good-student-getting-right-answers-the-wrong-way, taught by parents who would probably argue back, and decided that a blind eye was her best bet. Such are the benefits of a certain kind of…well, I don’t know. What kind of privelelge would you call it?

      • BTW, you’ve reminded me of something my mother-in-law (a retired schoolteacher) told me: a lot of her Republican friends say the country started going downhill when we started buying books for students, which I think was around the 1940s. Prior to that students had to pay for their own books.

    • Proud Socialist

      New Math… better known as SMSG, the most confusing crock of shit to ever be taught in schools and which singlehandedly utterly destroyed my interest in mathematics.

  2. Like you, I can’t do math – new, old or indifferent. In my case, it doesn’t have anything to do with the method used to try to teach it to me. I just don’t get it.

    This is a superb article. I’ve been arguing the same thing for decades but it seems people lack the “necessary critical skills” to analyze and reject most, if not all, of these “new” theories as they come down the pike. Maybe it’s because I can’t state it as well as you do. Maybe it’s because I can’t add two plus two..

    Am sharing on FB and would like very much to cross-post it on my blog – full-text and full credit, of course.

  3. Chris V

    Finland schools lead the world when it comes to reading, math, and science. Here’s a good article regarding them:

    What are the listed reasons for their success? Teachers control the national curriculum which acts as a guideline, not a requirement. Equal distribution of resources. High expectations of students (for example, starting learning of Finnish, Swedish, and a third language by age 9). High expectations for teachers by requiring and public funding of masters degrees for all teachers.

    From the article:

    “Practically speaking—and Finns are nothing if not practical—the decision meant that goal would not be allowed to dissipate into rhetoric. Lawmakers landed on a deceptively simple plan that formed the foundation for everything to come. Public schools would be organized into one system of comprehensive schools, or peruskoulu, for ages 7 through 16. Teachers from all over the nation contributed to a national curriculum that provided guidelines, not prescriptions. Besides Finnish and Swedish (the country’s second official language), children would learn a third language (English is a favorite) usually beginning at age 9. Resources were distributed equally. As the comprehensive schools improved, so did the upper secondary schools (grades 10 through 12). The second critical decision came in 1979, when reformers required that every teacher earn a fifth-year master’s degree in theory and practice at one of eight state universities—at state expense. From then on, teachers were effectively granted equal status with doctors and lawyers. Applicants began flooding teaching programs, not because the salaries were so high but because autonomy and respect made the job attractive. In 2010, some 6,600 applicants vied for 660 primary school training slots, according to Sahlberg. By the mid-1980s, a final set of initiatives shook the classrooms free from the last vestiges of top-down regulation. Control over policies shifted to town councils. The national curriculum was distilled into broad guidelines. National math goals for grades one through nine, for example, were reduced to a neat ten pages. Sifting and sorting children into so-called ability groupings was eliminated. All children—clever or less so—were to be taught in the same classrooms, with lots of special teacher help available to make sure no child really would be left behind. The inspectorate closed its doors in the early ’90s, turning accountability and inspection over to teachers and principals. “We have our own motivation to succeed because we love the work,” said Louhivuori. “Our incentives come from inside.”

  4. “… teachers were effectively granted equal status with doctors and lawyers …

    Ah. There’s a major difference right there. Here in America we still treat teaching as a catch-basin for losers: “those who can’t do, teach.” We don’t respect the profession, and the current crop of Teahadist governors (Scott Walker, for example) treat teachers like janitors.

    If we don’t value education and educators is it any wonder Johnny can’t read, write or add?

  5. “Ah. There’s a major difference right there. Here in America we still treat teaching as a catch-basin for losers: “those who can’t do, teach.” We don’t respect the profession, and the current crop of Teahadist governors (Scott Walker, for example) treat teachers like janitors.”.

    Meanwhile, the one profession for which indignorance is a plus if not outright requirement is POLITCS.

    Do any of the “self-made” doctors, lawyers, etc., ever wonder if they received their knowledge of anatomy, the law or other arcana of their chosen profession by osmosis? It’s fairly obvious that Scott Walker didn’t get an education.

  6. arala

    Well, I don’t know… I’m a very good speller, and I learned phonics (as we called it). My husband isn’t a great speller, and he learned the old “look-see” method. I actually think spelling ability has more to do with being able to see the letters’ combined shape on the page/screen and recognizing when it looks wrong.

    Anyway, I suspect good spelling is more about a particular form of visual processing than anything verbal (phonetics is more “sound” oriented, and worked well for me with that).

    Good writers, btw, are often very poor readers out loud, as they tend to mentally edit as they read. Those who are going to have to give readings at bookstores often have to train themselves to read aloud as singers train themselves to sing. Fluency in reading aloud doesn’t always have much to do with fluency in reading silently, as most of us can read much faster silently. The eyes can move faster than the mouth.

    With Shakespeare… absolutely no substitute for seeing a play performed, as S meant. And with DVDs, there’s no excuse for us not to see S in performance, maybe read along with it.

    • Good writers, btw, are often very poor readers out loud, as they tend to mentally edit as they read.

      I think that’s hogwash, personally. I’m an excellent writer, and I read out loud perfectly well. I don’t mentally edit as I read, unless I’m reading something I’ve written. I don’t know many writers who would read, say, James Joyce and mentally edit as they go along.


      And I’m not the only ITA product who had problems with spelling. I seem to recall reading somewhere that this was one reason it fell out of favor. Again, your experience might have been different. There’s a reason they don’t use ITA anymore, though.

      Also, from what I’ve read working on this post, it seems ITA was more popular in the UK? Does that sound right to anyone else? You know, the British already have all that funny spelling … 🙂

  7. merciless

    Trying out new and sometimes ridiculous teaching methods has been going on for decades now, and the push toward technology is just the next desperate attempt. I work in the education technology business, and believe me, no one has any idea what they’re doing. No one. So it’s the same as it ever was.

    My guess is that, within a generation or so, we won’t be using teachers at all, but only the occasional proctor. Everything else will be online. Of course, the rich will continue to send their children to fine private schools where they will receive an excellent education in preparation for running the world.

    But let’s get real here. Americans as a species could care less about educating their kids. They never have cared. In fact, since education can be dangerous and lead to nonconformity, lots and lots of people go out of their way to avoid teaching their children anything having to do with science or literature or history. As our pilgrim fathers advocated, teach enough reading to read the Bible, enough writing to correspond, and enough ciphering to keep the books. Anything more is a slippery slope.

    • Chris V

      I think we’re far more likely to see flipped classrooms rather than classrooms without teachers. Students watch instructional videos at home instead of doing homework. And that homework is instead done at school under the guidance of the teacher.

      It makes sense for children to watch instructional videos. Most content simply doesn’t change from year to year. Further, children can watch these videos at their own pace. They can stop, rewind, and rewatch confusing parts.

      The need for teachers in this model come in when students attempt to apply their work. How do you really solve the question? What does that answer really mean? That’s where the teacher is useful to step in and help the student.

      As a side note, this model works wonders at preventing cheating and plagiarism. With students doing their work in class, they don’t have easy access to other people’s work which allows them to cheat.

  8. The greatest gift we can impart to a child is to make sure the little one can listen. After thirty+ years in the classtoom, I truly appreciate your post. Teach listening as an ongoing endeavor and we will revolutionize our society. Lots of positives flow from listening effectively with, perhaps, discernment at the top. This was a really interesting topic for me. Thanks for taking the time to write it.

  9. PurpleGirl

    Don’t have time right now to read the whole post… but in junior high school (grades 7, 8, and 9) the school had an annual school trip to Stratford, Ct. to see a Shakespearean play. We read the play before hand. I saw Hamlet, Taming of the Shrew and Julius Ceasar there. There was something magical about reading the play and then seeing it performed. I missed those trips in high school. I guess that they stopped the spring ritual at some point since — I was in junior high school 1963-66 — but it made reading plays come alive. (I think reading a play is a different skill than reading a novel or textbook.)

  10. Merciless….IS :0(

    But, right, damnit!

    If we valued the hard, dirty and dangerous work done by those who do it–and paid them accordingly we would be better off a society and we would see many people who are willing to work hard at a menial job–as long as the pay is not an insult. Yeah, like that’s gonna happen.

    • merciless

      Sorry about that…(shuffles feet). Maybe we who read and comment on fine blogs such as this forget that hardly anyone in America is as educated or as well-read as we are. Last statistics I read, only about 30% of Americans have a Bachelor’s degree or higher. And about the same percentage never graduate from high school. Hence the pictures on the Denny’s menu.

      Hey, the kids love online classes, truly they do. Maybe it will help. Couldn’t hurt.

      • Yeah yeah Johnny can’t read and Susie can’t find India on a map and Jay Leno has a lot of fun stumping the Average American on his stupid “Jaywalking” segments, so the rest of us at home can point and laugh at the schlub who doesn’t know the Panama Canal is in Panama.

        But seriously, is this any different from how things have ever been? Didn’t the average person once think the earth was flat? We survived.

        What’s different now is that we have a class of politicians who hold up such ignorance and lack of education as some kind of admirable quality. You know, like to be anything else is “elitist” and whatnot. That’s even worse than the fact that this ignorance exists to begin with. It’s that “soft bigotry of low expectations” stuff all over again.

        Once upon a time we valued education in this country. Being the first in your family to finish high school or college was something to be proud of. Parents worked 2 and 3 jobs to help their kids afford college. And getting in to an Ivy League school was a dream. Now if you go to an Ivy League school the Republican candidate for vice president can mock you on national television for not being a “real American.”

  11. I no it’s hard too tale, but I don’t got me no batchelor decree.

    I think that education and graduation are not tied together so much as they used to be. Getting a degree is an expensive process so the schools are not discouraging people who have no business being teachers, lawyers, etc., as long as they have the money.

    About 38 years ago I knew a guy who was an Industrial Arts teacher at a school in NH. He had no degree of any sort, but knew the how and why of everything to do with that level of wood and metalworking that was required to teach HS kids how to run equipment, do workaday math and retain all of their digits and eyes in the process.

    He wouldn’t be able to get a job there, today.

    • Yes of course there are plenty of extremely successful people with no college degree. Bill Gates, I believe, is a college drop out. So is Mark Zuckerberg, I believe. One of my best friends has no college degree and had a very successful career in the record business. That said, such people tend to be the exception not the rule. And we live in an achievement-dominated culture, where having a college degree is kind of considered mandatory for most jobs, especially a job in politics. I wonder, Democommie: if you decided to run for governor of your fair state, how far would you get before the RWNJs threw up your lack of a college degree as an automatic disqualifier? And all of the news media and editorials would soberly agree that yes, in this day and age, the governor of the state should have a college degree. Remember when they threw out lack of military service as an automatic disqualifier? Remember when Bill Clinton’s lack of Vietnam service was considered a bad thing? Right .. until George W Bush and “5 deferments” Dick Cheney came along, of course. It’s always OK if you’re a Republican. I eagerly await the first Republican atheist candidate for president. These things are always a problem until a Republican does them. Why is that?

      Republicans are very adept at grasping cultural norms and reshaping them for their own political gain.