The featured article on the front page of the Sunday New York Times a couple of years ago was entitled “In Classroom of Future, Stagnant Scores: An Arizona School District Embraces Technology, to Uncertain Effect.” The premise of the article was that a particular district that had spent significant sums on increasing their technology and placed great emphasis on integrating technology into the classroom, experienced flat test scores on the state standardized tests. Various educators weighed in on why this might be so – that teaching technology has taken away valuable time from math and language arts, that this is a very high performing district and that their scores predictably should have had incremental increases at best. Some saw it as remarkable that the scores stayed flat rather than declining. The most vocal detractors felt that the enormous expenditures for technology was premature since there was no adequate data to support this effort.
Advocates argued that the investment in technology has allowed greater classroom differentiation as children could work at an individual pace. They also note that the technological skills that the students are acquiring are needed in a modern economy and that teaching with technology is far more engaging for students than traditional methods of teaching. Not noted, but something that I considered is that the very characteristic that allows for creativity and innovation means taking some risks where the results are not yet fully known.
The main point in the article about increased technology use and flattened test scores presents a logical fallacy that would have been laughable had it not tapped into a fundamental disconnect in our society. The correlation of these two items (high technology and flattened basic skills) should not be mistaken for causality (that the former created the latter). Assuming that use of technology would improve basic skills in the classic standardized tests is equivalent to arguing in the nineteen fifties that the wide scale adoption of the ballpoint pen (instead of the fountain pen) led to declines in spelling test scores.
Fallacy aside, the article really highlights two different groups who have very different understandings of the purpose of education. The advocates for technology are a proxy for those who believe in innovation and twenty-first century skill development against those who argue for primacy of basic skills. Each group makes meaning out of all of this in such different ways that they speak essentially different languages. The advocates raise compelling reasons for the wide use of technology; however, they acknowledge that there are no measurements to support their use. I do question why they haven't created the measurements that would support their contentions for use. It is possible, though not excusable, that the detractors might not accept their data as it would likely not be data about basic skills that they believe is the core of education.
Therein lies the crux of the issue – what is the purpose of education and of testing and/or data collection? What would be compelling data for all involved? In the case of this school district, it was to decide about the cost effectiveness of the technology initiative in the school. The problem with trying to understand this in a public school setting, is that not all participants in the system share the same purpose of education. If one believes that basic skills is the sum total of an excellent education, than the way in which technology is being used in these schools will not produce the data to support its use. If technology were only used in the service of basic skills, than the outcomes on the standardized tests should show some growth. If on the other hand, one believes that basic skills are a given at a particular level and that twenty-first century skills are of equal or greater value, then measurements need to be developed that show this.
The problem is that the article, and it would appear the players in this drama, see all of this as a zero sum game. It is not, and both must be considered. I am so proud that our school has taken the initiative to test a variety of technological innovations and to pilot a new type of assessment to measure the critical thinking. Our first set of tests in fifth and eighth grade will be administered in the coming weeks, and we look forward to sharing with you what we’ve learned from these assessments. We know that we've struck a responsive chord in the field as so many independent schools are looking for the right measurements to track progress on these different dimensions of learning.