Monday, April 03, 2006

Technically Foolish: Why technology has made our public schools less efficient

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 America's schools.

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 efficiently.

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 reengineer educational delivery, America's schools will remain ill-equipped for the rigors of the 21st century. Michigan's bad idea is evidence of that.



"You've got to be kidding." That was the reaction of CBS sportscaster Billy Packer when George Mason University was invited to play in this year's NCAA men's basketball tournament. Mason has since defeated Michigan State, the University of North Carolina, Wichita State and the top-seeded University of Connecticut to advance to the Final Four this weekend. The Patriots basketball team is finding out what the rest of the university has long known. George Mason is the Rodney Dangerfield of universities--it just can't get any respect. The school has attracted Nobel economists, developed a top-notch law school and, through the writings of its scholars, affected public policy in major ways. But it is continually dismissed as a no-name state school--a mere convenience for commuters from northern Virginia.

Allow me to take offense. When I enrolled at Mason in 1993, a condescending friend described the school to me as a "glorified community college with pretensions of being an elite university." At that point, young and naive, I worried he might be right. By the time I graduated I knew better. With some 28,000 students, GMU resembles many large state schools in that it provides an affordable education to a broad range of people. For state residents, tuition is about $3,000 a semester; for those out of state, $8,500. (These amounts roughly correspond to a few weeks of classroom time at nearby Georgetown.) The education it offers is intellectually rigorous--I can attest to the rigor, having suffered through plenty of annoyingly demanding tests, paper-writing assignments and required courses. But George Mason has no intentions of being an "elite" institution, and a good thing too.

Mason began as an extension of the University of Virginia in 1957 and became independent 15 years later. Such relative youth is a clear advantage. The school came into its own after the 1960s generation passed through the halls of higher education. Student protest, and the effort to appease it, never became part of its culture. George W. Johnson, GMU's president from 1978 to 1996, exploited this advantage. He grounded the school in technology, computer science and economics, leaving to elite institutions the competition for hot (read: postmodern) humanities scholars. He also exploited the school's proximity to Washington, using it as a selling point to bring professors to the area and also pulling into the professorial ranks various policy analysts, intellectuals and former government officials.

The recruited professors included James Buchanan, who joined the university in 1983 and soon after won a Nobel Prize in economics for his groundbreaking research, with Gordon Tullock, on what drives government bureaucracies to make seemingly irrational decisions. The economists showed that government, no less than private enterprise, responds to economic incentives (e.g., bigger budgets) more than high-minded legislative goals. This idea--known as "Public Choice Theory"--became part of the intellectual framework of the Reagan Revolution.

Mr. Johnson also brought to George Mason the Institute for Humane Studies, a constellation of scholars devoted to teaching undergrads (both at GMU and elsewhere) classical economics. Soon after Mr. Johnson stepped down, the economist Vernon Smith and six colleagues migrated to Mason from the University of Arizona. Mr. Smith won a Nobel Prize for developing standards to "lab test" economic theories with small groups, often using real money.

Mason's law school isn't even three decades old, but it has already climbed into the first tier of the U.S. News & World Report rankings and is a leader in the field of intellectual property. It is also home to the National Center for Technology and Law, which studies how existing laws--e.g., patents and copyrights--will need to adapt to the information economy. Even the law school's legal-aid program has a novel slant. As John Miller has noted in National Review, George Mason's law students, rather than suing police departments or petitioning for access to government programs, volunteer their time to help, among others, members of the military and their families.

Even the school's name cuts against the grain of conventional pieties. George Mason is the Founding Father most Americans have never heard of. He was a key architect of the Constitution (he had written the influential Virginia Bill of Rights more than a decade before) but doomed himself to obscurity by becoming one of the three delegates to the Constitutional Convention who refused to sign the final document. It bothered him that it lacked a bill of rights. Whether or not George Mason University wins on the basketball court this weekend, it is still a great school. And no, Mr. Packer, I'm not kidding.



For greatest efficiency, lowest cost and maximum choice, ALL schools should be privately owned and run -- with government-paid vouchers for the poor and minimal regulation.

The NEA and similar unions worldwide believe that children should be thoroughly indoctrinated with Green/Left, feminist/homosexual ideology but the "3 R's" are something that kids should just be allowed to "discover"

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