Back in the day, a prominent education reformer asked me to send him a fax rather than an email. Asked why, he replied, only half jokingly, “if God had wanted us to use email he would not have invented the fax machine!” Reflecting on the remark I always chuckle, but then think: how prophetic. Technology has come slowly to K-12 education. Our schools and classrooms are not all that different from those of fifty years ago or longer. While most every industry has adopted new information technologies and often been transformed in the process, schools really have not.
Some of the pace must be attributed to the perspective unwittingly expressed by my reformer friend. Schools are the way they are for good reason. Students require the attention of caring adults. Students are precious and vulnerable and not to be put at risk by unproven innovations. Schools, classrooms, and teachers perform roles that have evolved over centuries. God, if you will, would not have given us schools in their current form were there not good reason.
But schools are governed by more than prudent traditions. They are governed, at least in the public sector, by school districts. Those, in turn, are run by elected officials. To districts and their authorities, technology represents more than an opportunity—to help students. It represents a threat—to employment in the district and to political support from those employees, principally teachers. As students rely more on technology to learn—at their own pace, aided by interactive multi-media, customized ongoing assessment, and instructors online at a distance—students will require fewer teachers on site in traditional schools. Teachers could benefit greatly from technology, spared some of the drudgery of traditional teaching, able to assist more students individually, and perhaps paid more for their increased productivity.
But right now, districts do not see it that way. They have avoided using digital learning for core instruction, where jobs might be threatened. Instead they use it for instruction where costs are otherwise high or traditional solutions have obviously not been working—dropouts, credit recovery, and some Advanced Placement. Average students have little access.
This will eventually change as districts find economic and educational merit in technology and non-threatening ways to phase it in. But the process will continue to be slow. If policymakers want to increase student access to digital learning, they must recognize that local control over access is a fundamental impediment. The alternative is to govern digital education at the state level. States could establish rules to guarantee student access, both full-time and part-time, to digital learning. My chapter in Fordham’s new book shows how. The point, to be clear, is not to have lots of students being educated through the states. It is to encourage America’s venerable local public schools to adopt technology at a pace governed more by what works for students and less by what is comfortable politically.
Cross-posted on Flypaper blog here.