Michigan education officials are championing a new regulation
that would require every high school student’s education to include a
substantial "online experience" of some kind, with the assumption being that
most would complete an online class. To fulfill this vague new mandate, district
technology officials in Detroit and elsewhere argue that extensive, unspecified
expenditures will be necessary. This proposal is drawing national attention as
visionary, though it is more remarkable for the manner in which it neatly
illustrates the problems with how we think about technology and schooling.
Absent in Michigan, and often elsewhere, is serious thought
about how technology might help cut costs or modernize educational delivery. The
Michigan Department of Education’s chief academic officer explains the idea’s
genesis in the same vague manner that a sophomore might describe a class
project: "We thought of this as a skill that people would need to have to
continue to be lifelong learners." The Michigan proposal finds a way to turn the
sensible adoption of new technology into a boondoggle that promises to expand
bureaucracy, increase costs, and turn a blind eye to pursuing new efficiencies.
Even as public schools have made ever-larger investments in
new technologies, they have steadily added to the ranks of teachers and staff.
Spending on technology in public schools increased from essentially zero in 1970
to over $100 per student in 2004, according to Education Week. In the past five
years alone, the nation has spent more than $20 billion linking schools and
classrooms to the Internet through the federal E-rate program. Between 1997 and
2004, the federal government appropriated more than $4 billion to help states
purchase educational technology. Meanwhile, these huge new investments in
technology were coupled with a massive increase in the teacher workforce that
drove the student-teacher ratio from 22 students per teacher in 1970 to 16 per
teacher in 2001. There is no reputable analysis suggesting that the billions
invested in technology have enhanced the productivity or performance of
This state of affairs contrasts sharply with how technology
is used by enterprises that face meaningful competition from alternative
manufacturers and service providers. For these businesses, technology is not an
end — it is a tool for self-improvement. New technologies are adopted when they
enable workers to tackle new problems or do the same things cheaper and more
Even the oft-maligned Postal Service understands this. It
found ways to trim its workforce by more than 40,000 in the past four years —
when sufficiently squeezed by competitors such as UPS and Federal Express. The
USPS substituted technology as it identified routine tasks where automation was
cheaper and more efficient than human labor.
Why do inviolable laws about the productive benefits of
technology seem to stop at the schoolhouse door? Organizations like the Postal
Service make effective use of technology because they must keep up with the
competition. Knowing their competitors are constantly seeking ways to boost
productivity, hold down costs, and develop new products, for-profit enterprises
are always on the lookout for similar advantages. It’s not that any executive
likes painful measures such as downsizing; they take these steps because
survival requires it.
Insulated from such pressures, school boards and
superintendents have little incentive to view technology as a tool for trimming
jobs or rethinking educational delivery — especially given union hostility and
public skepticism. Meanwhile, existing collective-bargaining agreements between
school districts and employees have made using technology to displace workers or
reinvent processes extraordinarily difficult.
If anything, there is a bias in education against ideas
deemed too "businesslike." Indeed, the very words "efficiency" and
"cost-effectiveness" can set the teeth of parents and educators on edge.
Proposals to use technology to downsize the workforce, alter instructional
delivery, or improve managerial efficiency are inevitably attacked by education
authorities like the wildly influential Henry Giroux, a professor at Canada’s
McMaster University, as part of an effort to, "Transform public education . . .
[in order] to expand the profits of investors, educate students as consumers,
and train young people for the low-paying jobs of the new global marketplace."
Ultimately, if leaders lack the incentives to pursue new
efficiencies, they won’t. So long as technology serves as an easy applause line
and an excuse to demand ever more school spending, rather than an opportunity to
re-engineer educational delivery, America’s schools will remain ill-equipped for
the rigors of the 21st century. Michigan’s bad idea is evidence of that.
Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the
American Enterprise Institute.