Denying the Facts: Investing in Computers and Higher Test Scores

Five years ago, with little evidence that teacher and student use of computers in classroom lessons would raise test scores, Kyrene (AZ) school district voters authorized $33 million in technology expenditures. Since then Kyrene administrators and teachers have offered enthusiastic endorsements, teachers and students have used the technology, and, here is the kicker: test scores have stagnated.*

The tough question that journalist Matt Richtel asks in his report on the Kyrene (AZ) school district’s impressive investment in hardware and software is straightforward: Why have test scores been sluggish?

None of this has surprised those of us who, over the years, have pointed out the lack of cause-and-effect between technology use and student test scores. What did surprise me, however, were the responses of journalists, academics, teachers, CEOs, vendors, and others who read the New York Times piece last month.

After sampling the responses–I confess that the ones I offer here may be unrepresentative–it seems to me that denial is at work. Denying facts is a common psychological defense mechanism that most of us have practiced many times.

“That throbbing pain in the knee for the past three hours will go away and I will feel better.”

“Sure, I weigh ten pounds heavier than I did last month but I don’t have a weight problem.”

“Global climate change is a figment of a few scientists’ imagination”

Denial of unpleasant facts is so common that it shows up repeatedly in comments from smart people to the Richtel article.

Blame the tests. Test scores have plateaued because current standardized tests do not capture the thinking, decision-making, and critical skills that student learn from using classroom software. From a Duke University professor:

“It is not the test scores that are stagnant. It is the tests themselves.   We need a better, more interactive, more comprehensive, and accurate way of testing how kids think, how they learn, how they create, how the browse the Web and find knowledge, how they synthesize it and apply it to the world they live in.   As long as we measure great teaching … by a metric invented for our great grandparents, we give kids not just the limited options of A, B, C, and D in a world where they can Google anything, anytime.”

Blame classroom structure. From the editor of a educational technology journal:

“In the photo that accompanies Richtel’s article, we see students in a traditional classroom, lined up in rows and sitting before notebook computers…. The crux of the problem is we forget that a classroom is a form of technology, too. Thus, we have a case in which a newer technology (computers with internet access) is embedded in an older technology (classroom)….For the 19th century classroom, perhaps the best technology is the 19th century lecture and hardcopy textbook. The point is that the latest technology, confined to a classroom, is like a Pratt & Whitney F100 turbofan jet engine in a 1965 Volkswagen beetle chassis. If the beetle doesn’t fly, no one’s surprised.”

Then there is my favorite example of denial.

What Richtel says is probably true but he reported the wrong story.

From a journalist:

“[M]y real point is that the Times reporter could–and should–have written a different story:

Schools spend billions on technology but use it to do the same old stuff in more entertaining ways!

Why is this happening, the reporter could have asked? Is it because teachers don’t understand the technology’s power, or because they want to make sure the kids learn what the adults have decided they must learn…?”

Finally, most responses denied the complexities in operating tax-supported public schools aimed at serving all students and achieving multiple economic, social, and political purposes. Well-funded reformers championing iPads et. al.  see devices in classrooms and home as the cure-all for inequities (e.g., online instruction available to rich and poor) and uneven teaching (e.g., you cannot get effective teachers in every single classroom but you can get effective teaching online). Were it only that simple.

These examples illustrate different forms of denial at work. Richtel’s report on Kyrene’s expenditures for computer hardware and software for the purpose of improving teaching and learning without showing even a minimal return on investment (ROI)–the magical mantra that current reformers use as the gold standard–challenges the dominant “wisdom” about the worth of instructional technologies. That the Kyrene school district in Arizona might be the grain of sand revealing a larger truth about the value of classroom technology is very hard to face.


*Full disclosure: I am one of the sources cited in the New York Times report and have argued elsewhere many times that “return on investment” insofar as computers in classrooms and test scores are concerned has been minimal.



Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

20 responses to “Denying the Facts: Investing in Computers and Higher Test Scores

  1. Efforts of any kind to raise test scores are simply trying to improve an obsolete and ineffective system. The idea that we need to close gaps based on arbitrary categories is immoral. The only way you can close gaps is to slow down the fast learners, which many schools do very well. If all students learned as fast as they could given their abilities, the gaps would increase. Any gaps that appear to close is probably due to the ceiling effect, which limits how high top students can score. For a look at what a very different system would look like, see my summary of “Inevitable: Mass Customized Learning in the Age of Empowerment” at

  2. Jon Butzon

    As a colleague frequently reminds me, “With an effective teacher in the classroom, almost anything will work to improve student achievement. Without an effective teacher, nothing will work.” The research about the power, positive and negative, of teachers and teaching is crystal clear. Nothing else that schools do comes anywhere close to matching that power, positive or negative. And yet, we delude ourselves into thinking (hoping?) that there is magic in technology, or a given reading program, or an after-school program. We might as well be counting on the alignment of the stars to improve student outcomes or winning the lottery to fund public education. There is no magic. There is really effective teaching and there is everything else. Where you have really effective teaching, the impact of poverty and ignorance and weak parenting is overcome. And everywhere really effective teaching is missing, the outcomes confirm it.,

    • CitizensArrest

      You are obviously in denial about the fact that effective teaching alone can not over come the effects of poverty, which happens to include “weak parenting”. All of the research has shown this time and time again. In school factors account for no more than 20% of a kids success and that has yet to change. Teachers alone cannot and should not be expected to defeat poverty. That is everyone’s job as a nation and saying otherwise is making excuses for societies continued inaction in dealing with it. The great society program was making steady progress but was killed for ideological reasons. That seems to be Americas best argument against success these days, those in power who know nothing but feel entitled to compel those who do know what’s right to do something that isn’t. Poverty is not an excuse, it’s a diagnosis. Education alone is not a cure.

      • Hugh

        Schools/teachers alone CAN defeat poverty. But not with the factory model. Update the model correctly, which requires significant pedagogy development and multiple years of retraining teachers, and schools can engage kids at a very deep level, even at Title I schools. And it powers up teachers, who are widely disempowered and not a force of change.
        “All the research” is wrong because it was done on an ineffective model. How can we decry the ineffectiveness of our education system and then praise the validity of research done on it? It’s one of the many bad ideas that undergird our schools.

  3. Larry, I suppose ignorance is bliss. You are probably a good friend to have because you would stick with me despite what I might do and frankly your position has been consistent yet uninformed. That’s what I don’t get, folks that think they know technology and then they open their mouth and show that they don’t have any in-depth knowledge. But I digress from my point. So we want to measure achievement through testing. So that ignores the research and the criticisms of NCLB that suggests that tests do not reflect a student’s understanding and ability to apply his/her knowledge. Yet, you seem perfectly willing to accept that part of Richtel’s argument. The second thing you always have ignored, is that achievement is tied to the quality of teacher and the instructional strategies used in the classroom. Research involving technology and achievement suggests that technology does indeed influence achievement when a teacher uses it to extend and enhance classroom learning strategies. So technology in a school system that ignores professional development and leaves a teacher to use technology for low level learning, ie drill and kill, will indeed result in little achievement gains and your ROI. I just returned from North Carolina where I was fortunate to witness a school district that is four years into a laptop program. Every child in that district has their own laptop from grade 12 through grade 4. Did I see every teacher making using the laptops to augment higher level learning, no. But the important thing is that I saw all of them using it and I saw enough of them using the technology in ways that extend higher order learning. I also noted that in the period in which they have implemented the program, performance on those same state tests have risen from an acceptable performance in the 60% level to 92%. No, it was not a rich district but a rather average one ranking next to last in the state in state funding. It student population was rather average too but also show gains in the percentage of kids going on to higher education in some form. This same district has data showing that student behavior has also improved significantly over the same period which shows me that engagement levels have gone up during the same period that the program has been in place. So to stick your head in the sand, and maintain your position in the face of academics who are leaders in their field and achievement data….well I’ll just leave that unsaid.

  4. As always, a thoughtful post. I wonder if you read the response to the NY Times article written by my colleague Jonathan Schorr:

    Jonathan’s thesis may be a slightly different gloss on the same “denial” you charge John Merrow with making, but I think it’s worth pondering whether we — and by we, I mean everyone in the education community, reformers included — are asking the wrong questions when it comes to “technology” in the classroom. There is nothing magical about a shiny new bauble called an iPad, or a new way of communicating called “social networking,” that will radically transform and improve instructional delivery. At the same time, we do have a few examples — not a lot, a few — of new *ideas* about education that are tethered to certain “technologies,” such as School of One, Khan Academy, and Achievement Network. We cannot point to these examples and declare “See, technology good!” any more than we can point to Kyrene and conclude, “See, technology bad!” The better questions to be asking: (1) are these innovative ideas which are tethered to certain technologies worthy of expanding and proving out further? Do they show promise enough to warrant additional investigation? (2) What lessons can we draw from Kyrene and indeed, the long historical legacy of failed “technology” injections into the classroom that never took root? Can we rethink “technology” as a tool for teachers to harnass, rather than as a policy they must implement?

    I’ll just close with an interesting quote from Michael Kirst about what’s changed (and what hasn’t) in the 33 years that have passed since he last served as President of the California State Board of Education:

    Kirst: There are some things that are different, and then some things that surprised me that haven’t changed. Among the things that haven’t changed is that there’s hardly any more technology in the classroom now then there was then. We were at the beginning of the technological age then, and we had a few computers in the back of classrooms. So I go back on the board in 2011, go to the classrooms, and there are (again) a few computers in the back of the room. I would have thought in all these intervening years that there would have been a considerable transformation of the technological delivery of education services, and that has not happened.

    Perhaps it’s time to reverse that trend?

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the comment, Benjamin. Policymakers and practitioners frame problems differently. They ask different questions. Policymakers (and I include non-teacher reformers in this group) because they have more influence and access to media have framed the problems of school improvement and asked what they think are the right questions. But most practitioners, in my opinion, work from different premises than these policymakers/reformers. So, you are correct that we do not ask the right questions and some of the ones you pose are far better ones–and closer to what practitioners would ask.

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  6. Gary Ravani

    Re: Butzon

    Yes, a highly qualified and experienced teacher is the most important factor in a school impacting student achievement. Of course that “In school” factor is about 33% of total achievement and the teacher part some share of that. Let’s be generous and say 15%. Technology, testing, accountability measures, whatever, are all part of the continuing effort to find that “silver bullet.” that one (typically inexpensive) element that make the 33% tail wag the 66% dog. Has not worked yet after decades of trying. The reality is that the 66% of family and community issues need to be remedied and that will be time consuming, complicated, and very, very expensive. Most of the resources, of a scale approaching the Marshall Plan (in today’s dollars), would have to be directed to communities of poverty andf color. I wonder what the Tea Party would think about that?

  7. As my friend Diana Laurillard writes in “Opening Up Education”

    “Improving education with technology is not rocket science… is much more complex than that”

  8. Anna

    Countries that outperform us do not have anywhere near the amount of technology many of our poorest schools take for granted. You will not find SmartBoards, iPads, laptops for every student and teacher, or even a computer in every classroom in the public school systems that outperform us – even those in wealthier areas.

    Our schools continue to fail – despite the fact that our per-student expenditures greatly exceed those of the countries that outperform us – because Americans would rather pump money into technological frills than confront our culture’s beliefs about teaching – primarily, the belief that anyone who wants to become a teacher should be able to, and that the key qualifications are a “good heart” and the patience to work with children. The fact is, good teaching also requires intellectual prowess, and only those who have achieved academic excellence themselves are qualified to lead America’s children to achieving excellence. Recruiting, training, and retaining highly competent teachers needs to be the primary focus of our policies AND our budget.

    Unfortunately, though it is often criticized and denied, the idea that “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” is so deeply ingrained in American attitudes toward education that the necessary overhaul of the teaching profession will never be politically popular. “iPads for All” is an expensive but politically easy alternative.

    • CitizensArrest

      I agree with all you say, but the real question here is how we raise the level of respect for teachers and in so doing, defend their profession from the attack’s it now endures. There are far too many who wish to impose a so called business model on this effort, a model that is well known to have little relevance to what is required, instead being a subterfuge for the extraction of as much money as possible from the tax dollars spent on education at all levels and as a vehicle for ideological warfare by an assortment of misguided entities. It is important to note that is is not “our schools” that are failing as only some of them have the serious problems that false reformers wish to paint the whole system with. The true problem is our nations failure in dealing with the societal problems that impede the ability of some of America’s kids to benefit from education by showing up at school ready, willing and able to learn. Poverty is a diagnosis, not an excuse. Failing to address this and keeping an irrational focus on teachers alone is a guarantee of failure. Wasting today’s increasingly scarce funds on profit based ideas like VAM , an evaluation system that cannot contribute anything at all to teachers continuing professional development is another big disincentive to improving teaching by recruiting the best and brightest. Why would anyone enter a profession where they will be judged by such a highly flawed, unfair method? What other place in the private or public sectors would judge key employees with a system that is never more than 75% accurate, especially when much better systems are being used here that have great success in all the areas we wish to improve in teaching, not just evaluations? Then there are programs like TFA who think that just because someone is good at math or engineering they can take a 5 week course and learn all they need to be an excellent teacher? The real problem with education in America is our failure to hold accountable those who knowingly refuse to acknowledge the true nature of the problem and yet seek to impose their cynically misguided solutions on us as a way to further their personal agendas and wealth at the expense of our children’s and therefore our nations future. Those who are best positioned to make the changes actually needed lack the moral and ethical will to do what’s right because it’s right.

      • Anna

        A few points in response:

        1. Research has shown that even our best schools and our wealthiest schools are under-performing. The problem is as pervasive as the mindsets which aggravate them.

        2. Poverty IS a huge obstacle to improving academic performance, but it is not the job of education reformers to address it. Yes, it is important to recognize the effects of poverty on achievement and advocate measures that alleviate those effects, but the job of education professionals – teachers, administrators, superintendents, education commissioners, etc. – is to achieve the highest possible outcomes for the students with whose learning they have been entrusted. Unfortunately, the widespread trend of blaming poverty for poor educational performance IS being used as an excuse by inadequate schools and school systems. When a poor child spends his entire school day with educators who graduated at the bottom of their high school class, barely made it through college, and got their teaching credentials from our nation’s least competitive and least rigorous universities (and the even less rigorous education programs at those universities), blaming poverty for that child’s inability to read by the end of 4th grade is nothing but a blatant cop-out. This type of situation is far more widespread than you think – just take a tour of a public school in a low-income inner-city neighborhood and you will find teachers who have barely mastered (or not even mastered) the skills they are supposed to be imparting to their students. I’ve seen it myself in numerous classrooms in numerous schools.

        3. We must be careful not to confuse the effort to defend the teaching profession from the effort to defend teachers. Far too many in the education reform scene today are warring over whether teachers are good people or bad people; whether we should uphold them or chastise them. The problem is that there are many who should be defended and upheld (and supported in their efforts to achieve even greater outcomes for the their students) AND at least as many (if not more) who really aren’t cut out for the demands of teaching in the 21st century.

        4. Most people, regardless of their political leanings, would probably agree that our current evaluation systems are at least partially flawed or inadequate. It IS essential that we continue to work on improving these methods and reassessing their effectiveness at identifying strong educators and teaching practices. However, the fact that we have even gotten to the point of introducing such convoluted and burdensome evaluation measures is evidence that the field is already flooded with incompetence and unduly shielded from criticism and accountability. If we already had highly competent educators filling most of our schools’ teaching and administrative positions, and if administrators had the authority to make hiring, firing, and wages on the basis of their own sound judgment (as they are made in virtually every other sector of the economy), we wouldn’t need to create committees to develop elaborate rubrics for evaluating teachers and time-consuming professional development seminars to train principals in how to evaluate teachers. An accomplished, well-educated individual with a keen eye can spend a few hours in a classroom and identify rather quickly whether or not the teacher is effective. It’s not rocket science.

        By not setting high standards in education and focusing education policy on recruiting and retaining outstanding educators, we have created a system which operates on the basis of outwardly imposed rules, formulas, and meaningless requirements rather than on intellect, critical analysis, responsibility, and professionalism. Unfortunately, in order to reverse this, we cannot simply eliminate all of the rules; we must first begin the longer and far more arduous task of recruiting top talent into the field of education before we hand over the freedom to make decisions that effect our children and our future. With such a task at hand, it is irresponsible and outright shameful to be caught up in furnishing classrooms with SmartBoards and iPads.

      • CitizensArrest

        1. I have seen no reliable research that indicates or best and highest SES schools are under performing. Those schools rank at the top of PISA scores worldwide. I live near one such school. It’s a hyper performing school, not under performing.
        2. Your reply to the issue of poverty is an oxymoron. “but it is not the job of education reformers to address it.” “Yes, it is important to recognize the effects of poverty on achievement and advocate measures that alleviate those effects,” Anyone who presumes to reform education without advocating for both in school and external strategies to address the effects of poverty is disingenuous at best, since it is not possible for teachers to “achieve the highest possible outcomes for the students with whose learning they have been entrusted. ” without doing that. Poverty is the cause of much of the poor performance seen in the inner city schools you reference. There are teaching methods that address this, especially in the critically important lower grades. If a child comes from a home where they are not read to, where there are no books to be read, there is no way they will read as well as children who have that resource as there is not time in even an extended school day to do the amount of reading required for full early development. How is it the job of teachers to address such egregious failures of parenting? It is not a teachers responsibility to insure that children show up at school ready willing and able to learn. One of the other effects of poverty is high absenteeism. Students who do not come to school will not learn. This cannot be blamed on teachers by any stretch of the imagination. Great, inspiring teachers will have little effect on attendance if the affected communities continue to place a low value on education itself, on being smart. The silence, the refusal by so called reformers who are so well connected and funded, who have such great access to the media to make this a part of their advocacy is inexcusable and speaks volumes about their ideological positions.
        3. Cite your evidence that there are so very many “bad” teachers, especially in inner city schools. Describe the filtering mechanism that sends the least capable new teachers to those schools while allowing the good ones to go to good schools. I have heard too many stories of skilled, committed teachers both staying at and leaving such schools due to lack of support from all sides and the resulting frustration at not being able to make a difference to take this seriously.
        4. “However, the fact that we have even gotten to the point of introducing such convoluted and burdensome evaluation measures is evidence that the field is already flooded with incompetence and unduly shielded from criticism and accountability. ” This is a lie based on the conflation of disparate allegations. What you correctly described the nature of is in fact evidence of the desire to profit from these useless measures, nothing more. If the goal of those “burdensome measures” was real, valid evaluations, these atrocities would never have made the first cut. The failure to implement what is already known to work so well for evaluating and further developing teachers is more evidence of this, as these systems do not lend themselves to the creation of corporate profits and are in fact more effective and efficient at removing teachers who should not be in a classroom. These systems depend solely on what you correctly describe as “An accomplished, well-educated individual with a keen eye can spend a few hours in a classroom and identify rather quickly whether or not the teacher is effective. It’s not rocket science. ” There is no reason to pursue any other method, especially those data collection based systems that constitute an even bigger bureaucracy, a more entrenched status quo than what we have now. No one I have heard advocates the elimination of all the rules. Recruiting top talent would be quite easy and fast if the profession was not under attack by false reformers pushing a fantasy business model where job security was based on inscrutable metrics rather than true merit as determined by peer review alone as is done so successfully in so many other places.

    • Gary Ravani

      The ETS study “How Teachers Compare,” as well as numerous other studies, refute the urban myth that US teachers are somehow intellectually
      or academically inferior. US teachers compare favorably with all other college professionals in academics, and in literacy skills exceed the level of competence of most other professionals.

      The area where the US exceeds all comparable nations is child poverty.

      • CitizensArrest

        Me thinks you are exceedingly generous in calling it an urban myth. These days with the incessant way it’s been caused to percolate thru the discussion, propaganda seems more accurate.

      • Gary Ravani

        Point taken.

        Some of the comments made here seem to echo press releases, mislabled as “research,” of the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas.

        And yes, W has an “institute” it appears.

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