Why Districts Buy New Technologies, Part 2: Political and Psychological Explanations

How easy it is to forget that in the U.S., nearly all state and local funding schools depends upon property, sales, and other taxes. Federal money only accounts for less than a dime out of every dollar spent on schools. Local voters and their state representatives approve tax levies, bond referenda, and changes in school funding. Except for Hawaii, states authorize local school boards to make policy except in those cities where elected mayors run schools.

I repeat all of these Government 101 facts to make the simple point that public schools are political entities. Those who make policy for schools are utterly dependent upon voters who pay taxes (most of whom do not have children in school), upon parents who send their children to public schools, and upon those interest groups that have a stake  in schools. Without the financial and political support of the community, kiss public schools goodbye.

To secure that external support, schools must be responsive to voters and external organizations (state legislatures, PTAs, city officials, Chambers of Commerce, unions, etc.).  When the U.S. lags in global competition, for example, business and civic leaders worry about the skills that high school graduates have to enter the labor market. Those concerns get translated into lobbying district and state decisionmakers to raise graduation requirements and insure graduates’ academic proficiency. In an interest-driven democracy, the power of groups outside schools shapes much of what schools do.

Scholars call this relationship between schools, voters, and interest groups “resource dependence.”   And “resource dependence” explains why schools are awash in high tech hardware and software. Districts buy technology to reassure taxpayers and policy that schools are up-to-date and innovative. The latest high tech classroom computers means that schools are modern, with-it, and fully able to get students ready for the work world. The computer–like past mechanical marvels such as the steam engine, the railroad locomotive and the airplane–had become a high-status symbol of power and modernity. Even the term “high tech”–like high fashion, high church, high class, high society–projects an aura of superiority relative to “low tech” machines. The political symbolism of a school having 1:1 laptops or iPads signals the community that teachers and students are working on 21st century skills.

This political explanation helps to make sense of why policymakers effortlessly skip over the lack of evidence to support major high tech expenditures. They figure that media photos of students happily clicking away on laptops–visible symbols–will trump the few research studies or critics who question purchases.

Turning from a political to a psychological explanation, districts buy technology because they suffer from “inattentional blindness: They are too focused on a specific problem and lose sight of the big picture.

Examples of this blindness might help. One example has occured often when I have been cycling. I approached an intersection and saw a car driver to my right waiting for traffic to clear so he can enter the flow. To avoid being hit, I made eye contact with the driver; he looked directly at me and then as I am almost in front of his car, he accelerated and entered the stream of traffic almost hitting me. Once, I was still shaking from the near-hit and the car had stopped at a red light. I was about to yell at the driver when he apologized. He said that he was so intent upon getting home and the traffic was so heavy that he had not seen me. I mentioned that he looked right at me and we had made eye contact. He said that he had no memory of seeing me.

Another example is a flight in 1972 preparing to land in Miami when a particular control panel light failed. The three-member crew in the cockpit concentrated so much on figuring out why the light didn’t come on that they neglected to shift from autopilot to manual controls for the approaching landing until a few seconds before the plane crashed and killed 99 people.

Finally, there is a study done by psychologists who asked viewers of a video to count the times that college students in white shirts (other students wore colored shirts) passed the basketball to one another. During the minute long video, a person dressed in a gorilla costume enters, watches the students pass the basketball, and exits. Between one-third to half of the viewers counting the times white-shirted students passed the basketball (the experiment was repeated many times with different groups) did not see the gorilla. Yep, they did not see the gorilla.

What’s the connection of inattentional blindness to districts buying high tech machines? Policymakers (and vendors as well) are so focused on the specific hardware and visions of students learning more, faster, and better while being equipped to enter the high tech job market that they are blind to the big picture of how paltry the evidence is that high tech access and use produces these outcomes.  

The next post will examine the limits of these explanations and the consequences of policymakers’ non-rational behavior.


Filed under school reform policies

3 responses to “Why Districts Buy New Technologies, Part 2: Political and Psychological Explanations

  1. The most important decision any school or school leader can make, in what I believe is a new techno-sceptical climate (certainly here in the UK) is to understand that the purchase, installation or training on any ICT solution or service, is highly unlikely to have any discernible impact on educational outcomes measured by any standard means, e.g. exam results.

    Just making that shift in thinking will free people from the resource dependence and inattentional blindness they currently wilt under.

    The second key step is to truly believe, that what you know as a teacher is much more important and valuable than what you know about any technology, whether it’s a pencil or a multi-user virtual environment.

  2. jerihurd

    Except, except, except….

    I would really like to know, in all those studies of technology’s lack of impact on educational goals, how the technology was being used. Too many teachers use it to do the same old thing, but in a different way, instead of truly grasping how it can transform pedagogy.

    And the point, of course, is that we need to transform pedagogy. This article from yesterday’s ReadWriteWeb is a great example both of the type of work students need to be doing, and how technology facilitates that.


  3. You have offered 2 very valid explanations of why technology is adopted. As the director of technology I can attest that both are alive and well. I would add that there are other explanations – some more well thought out and reasoned. There are administrators and teachers who carefully place technology in the hands of students with learning as the impetus of their purchase. This is fantastic when it happens. Some technology is adopted to manage the mountains of data that we are expected to decipher, while other technology is adopted to create more data. This is done in the name of survival I am told.

    We have much to learn about putting learning objectives in front of the technological horse. It is all so very shiny and new and we are easily bought.

    Thanks once again for poking us to keep our eye on the ball Larry.

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