John Deasy was an impressive superintendent of the Prince George’s County schools when I knew him six years ago. He cared about kids. He had good ideas. He worked very hard. That got him one of the biggest jobs in education, superintendent of the Los Angeles schools in 2011. He made some improvements, including a rise in the level of challenge and achievement in those schools, but he lost touch with his school board — a common occurrence — and had to quit this month.
Education Web sites throb with debate about this. Was Deasy wrong to demand that student test scores be used in teacher assessments? Did the teacher’s union have too much influence over who got elected to the board? Is this a happy victory over corporate school reform, given Deasy’s ties to the Broad and Gates foundations? Or is it a sad defeat for compassionate reform that focused on kids rather than politics?
Such arguments are useful in our ongoing struggle to improve schools. But I wonder why we aren’t debating some of the biggest stains on Deasy’s record. He launched a $1.3 billion program to provide every student in the school system with an iPad. So far, that has been a mess. He oversaw a $130 million software program to track student records. As a result, many students have waited weeks for their classes. Why aren’t we reformers talking about that?
Two decades ago, Columbus middle school in Union City, N.J., partnered with Bell Atlantic Corp. to fill classrooms with new computers and software. Politicians and reporters gave rave reviews to the technology boost. They said low test scores at the school had soared as a result. President Bill Clinton visited the school to announce a $2 billion program to put computers in all U.S. classrooms.
Yet when I visited the school and compared the date the scores jumped to the date the computers arrived, the story didn’t hold up. The scores went up a year before the kids and teachers got the computers. The teachers explained their success came from more preparation, new library books, free-reading periods, more after-school programs and other classroom innovations, not from the new machinery.
I remember that when I read stories about technology transforming schools. Usually there is little data to back up the good news. I used to get frequent e-mails from technology companies touting their new achievement-boosting products. I told them I wouldn’t write anything until they had verified results, and they don’t contact me any more.
Larry Cuban, a Stanford University researcher who was once Arlington County schools superintendent, has written several books challenging the notion that technology is saving our schools. His latest, “Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice,” provides many examples. No large district achievement gains can be credited to computers. There is still no substitute for great teachers, well-trained, motivated and supported by principals. We have to teach students how to use computers, of course. My brother Jim’s public school computer classes in San Mateo, Calif., begin with 4-year-olds. Some teachers have developed creative ways to improve learning with the help of computers and the Internet.
But big buys of shiny new equipment mesmerize us in unhealthy ways. One Bell Atlantic executive told me she repeatedly denied that her company’s computers had saved Columbus middle school, but few listened. The major dollars involved in such deals are hypnotic.
Big iPad handouts without proper planning and new computer systems without enough trials offend everyone’s idea of good school reform. But we still get excited at the prospect of new toys and shrug off their flaws as just another inconvenience of modern life. Isn’t our students’ time important? Every failure of the new machines to deliver on promises holds kids back, no matter how hard they are trying to learn.