Friday, January 6, 2012


A January 3, 2012 article in the New York Times is entitled "Teachers Resist High-Tech Push in Idaho Schools."  In only partial jest, this will resonate with many of our citizens who believe our ascension as a nation depends on retreating to the 19th or 20th century, using social Darwinism to resolve national vectors, and replicating the destructive feats and dogmatism of England's 19th century Luddites.

Rather than brand the resistance of Idaho's public K-12 teachers as unfortunate, they have a point, indeed, many points.   One of the key points in 2012 is that technology is being pushed into Idaho's public schools by private sector lobbying and corporate piecemeal technology marketing, with little to no attention to how it needs to be integrated into classrooms' learning models and rubrics.

But the story of integrating technology into America’s schools goes a lot deeper than the thrust of the above article.

A Nation Blind-Sided

This SQUINTS post started in good faith as an attempt to survey the recent research, both original and subsequent meta-studies of existing research on the effects of upgrading K-12 classroom technology.  A tacit assumption was that most of that research must be of relatively recent origin, because of both the recency of neural research on learning, and many digital developments, including the US finally beginning to catch up with some of the rest-of-the-world in Internet coverage and bandwidth.

Churned up in a fourth or fifth pass at "Googling" phrases conveying the question was a post by “PBS Teachers,” entitled “Technology Integration,” linked here.  The find, then subsequently working through the online sources referenced, was mind-boggling.

Rather than the expected finding that the US has been a day late and a dollar short in seeking answers to how to use technology to improve learning, canvassing the PBS sources suggests miscalculation or malfeasance in the actions of both the latter Bush and Obama administrations, of the US Department of Education, and in the politics of corporate reform via standardized testing.

Even discounting alleged suppression of studies by the USDOE, and likely other sources under duress from that agency, the search found a large array of studies of technology for the classroom.  But most date to the period of the first Bush Administration, 2001-2005, dwindling beyond that point, presumably sidetracked by the aggression of NCLB’s steamroller of high stakes standardized testing.  The Internet is littered with original studies in that period, most, and their subsequent meta analyses inferring that digital technologies can improve classroom learning if they are properly integrated into school administration and teaching.

One discovery was that the archives of USDOE, which have faithfully preserved every utterance of its then Secretary, have been magically purged of a number of important studies including those required under NCLB.  Indeed, that mandate within NCLB, to assess technology for improving K-12, virtually disappeared from the game in the second Bush term, and in Obama’s acquiescence or even advocacy of the “corporate reform” mentality installed in USDOE under Arne Duncan.  Providentially, the Internet with open source values and wisdom, preserved in some form virtually all of these prior studies, suggesting that America can still be highly resistant to attempted demagoguery and despotism.

The bottom line is that our national educational leadership, ignorantly, or by intent, with marginal ethical values to downright dysfunction for America’s children, hijacked legitimate K-12 reform and technology adoption with the present standardized test scams and overkill.  Digging even a little deeper, there is the dark underbelly to NCLB, both pre-Obama and since, suggesting that its purpose was only incidentally to improve learning, but was primarily to stress, manipulate, up to crudely bulldozing public K-12 schools into a minority position in US education, as well disabling its unions, via creating rationalizations for charters and vouchers.

If any of the present tactics observable are deliberately steeped in those intentions, the US has virtually sacked effective K-12 education in this decade, and intelligent integration of mushrooming digital technology for the foreseeable future.  There is a strong a priori case for sacking the perpetrators.

What of the Substance?

Digital technologies, essentially the evolutionary sequela to the foundational ideas that preceded them – binary arithmetic, computing evolution, the Internet's technology, fiber propagation, modern chemistry, most mathematics, probability theory, Einsteinian physics, quantum mechanics, neural and genetic biology, just about every topic that supports present societies and economies – are the necessary intellectual lingua francas and the analytical and methods portals to most of what we have yet to discover about our cosmic pebble, its societies, and the rest of the universe.  

The issue isn't whether digital technologies need to be in our K-12 schools, or whether their students need to be digitally literate, but how to get there.  The perspective still eluding many US schools is that those technologies are not separate from other learning contents, but the additional language and literacy that will dominate future society. Technology needs to be seen as integral to contemporary learning, as natural as mastery of English, essential to mastery of math that works to accomplish things, essential to finding meaning in data doubling every 18 months or more frequently, and the logical companion to scientific method as the mechanism of discovery of natural and social truths.

Public Education Off the Hook?

The diversion of effort from actually improving K-12 learning by the integration of neural research findings, and via proper integration of digital technologies in the classroom, seems antithetical to American ingenuity and values.  Yet, when the cloaking of denial is breached, that is precisely what both the Obama Administration and the “corporate reform” movement out of ignorance and/or ideology have perpetrated.

Does that leave the US public K-12 establishment and its unions off the hook?  Hardly.

In the first decade of this century there have been somewhere in excess of a couple thousand empirical studies of grass roots technology applications in overall education.  No total number is easily visible because there has never been sufficient research funded to do that needed assessment. 

In one sector of educational technology, online learning and blended learning, the USDOE did evaluate 1,100 empirical studies between 1996 and 2008.  Critically, only 46 of those studies had sufficient data to properly estimate effects.  Even more critically, only five of those 1,100 studies involved K-12 students. 

Review of a couple dozen meta analyses of the last decade’s research suggests that other efforts on technology effects for K-12, no matter how well intended, have overwhelmingly lacked necessary randomized treatments and controls to be able to infer anything reliably about technology’s effects in the classroom.  This is directly traceable to the disinterest or inability of the majority our public school systems and their personnel to conduct or facilitate the needed studies.

But Why?

Why has US public K-12 in particular, clung so fiercely to century-old classroom rubrics that are arguably at least half obsolete in light of 21st century neural biological research and exploding digital technologies?

The less egregious answer parallels the old cliché from marketing.  Attributed to the soap-powder magnate Lord Leverhulme, it goes:  Half of all his advertising spending was wasted, he maintained, but he never knew which half that was.   The K-12 parallel, half of what passes as K-12 teaching is likely now obsolete, but the discipline has never figured out which half.  The sequel, of course, is that the public K-12 education establishment has never seriously bothered to research the issue.

Another part of the explanation is both hazy and speculative, because there have been few legitimate studies of why there has been such resistance in our public schools.  But it seems inescapable that our public K-12 educators generally have lacked either the knowledge, or courage, or tools, or training, or – and genuine cause for concern – the intellect and spirit to try to save their own bacon as an institution by reforming public K-12 internally and preemptively, rather than acquiescing to present brute force and simplistic initiatives.  Failure of local school oversight is also a contributor.

Lastly, the US demonstrably harbors some public K-12 school systems -- too many and nestled in places that offer seemingly benign environments -- tuned to an America that has ceased to exist; dug-in, inbred, self-righteous, bereft of intellectually competent administrators and teachers, and oblivious to anything that doesn’t exist within a three-mile radius or has a planning horizon exceeding the next levy.  They are schools on tracks, teaching to the tests, adopting technology for display, and desecrating the concept of genuine learning.  Frequently enabled by school boards that are myopic and believe in magic, the genre will lionize sports, block transparency, and are setting up an area’s children for post-secondary challenges or even failure.  Polar opposites of the US' urban and socioeconomically-challenged schools, they are still the other K-12 structural deficit that is a roadblock to elevating America's K-12 educational achievement.

There are, except for a community epiphany or meltdown, few real fixes for this other US school deficit; such schools are usually surrounded by layers of adults and parents who were indoctrinated by the same systems.  Adult education might be a fix, but the US has generally eschewed that investment.

A really scary postscript is, for example in a corrupted Ohio K-12 educational environment, that such schools are presently being joined by allegedly state-of-art “charters” that quickly acquire many of the same attributes, and are served up with even less oversight.


The virtual cessation of broadly applicable research on technology integration in America’s K-12 classrooms is a tragedy in the making.  The reasons are hardly obtuse:  The need for a new wave of work and a generation committed to creativity and innovation in both the US economy, in its social infrastructure, and in its governance; the inevitable exponential growth of technology-based products and services as the nation’s future basis for world leadership; and the reality that digital technologies go way beyond present hardware and entertainment applications, becoming de facto a nation’s second language.  As some of the world is already pummeling the US in primary and secondary education, learning the language seems an imperative.

The good news may be that the marginally scientific trial runs of last decade are the necessary precursor to better hypotheses about how to incorporate technology in America’s classrooms, and the object lessons that could prompt next rounds of such research to incorporate more robust and specific questions, and randomized experiments in the real classroom to create digital learning rubrics that work.

There needs to be a new and better orchestrated round of interest in and funding of research on best digital applications and their integration.  There also needs to be a major reform effort at the level of US schools of education to recognize the potential of technology in K-12 education, to research those applications, and to incorporate the best into teachers’ training. 

One survivor and springboard for change comes from one of the best and brightest of US research advocates, NSF (the National Science Foundation).  Last decade it launched a grant program to fund research and ideas about the “21st century classroom.”  What resulted has transcended attempts to shut down technology reform that doesn’t fit the rigid corporate reform and testing mantras.  The offspring of the NSF initiative will be one subject of the next SQUINTS.

The present course of US K-12 education reform isn’t reform at all, but a highly orchestrated and ideologically-driven attempt to force public K-12 by threat of punishment to either change teaching and teachers to increase standardized test scores, or get out of the way for private sector-style US education presently defined as “charter schools” – with few controls, able to discriminate among children, and in many cases operated to maximize profit rather than learning – but fed by public funds.  That constitutes a bizarre and corrupted twist to America’s love affair with education of its children, and you likely won’t like the sequels and their strategic products.


Part two of this adventure will be review of the measured insightful studies of how technology fits into traditional classroom learning, relating the constituents of classroom learning – for example, using Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning as a scaffold – to the functional capacities of the various technologies available and in the wings.  Not about laptops, or whiteboards, or video, or any of the other “stuff” misrepresented to circumscribe technology, the questions to be addressed concern how the language of digital technology becomes integral to K-12 learning and even measuring its outcomes.

For a simple, elegant preview of the thinking out there that needs to find a national foothold, here’s a link to thoughts by Alfie Kohn, former teacher, author of ten books related to education, and a provocative and recognized national critic of the traditional K-12 classroom model.

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