When librarian Jennifer Nelson arrives at the tiny library at Crewe Primary School each morning, she is confronted with a cart of first-generation iPads. The detritus of attempts to infuse technology into one of the poorest and most rural schools in Virginia, the tablets are hopelessly obsolete, worth little more than the cart on which they reside.
The White House recently announced the launch of Open eBooks, an app giving access to thousands of free e-books to any educator, student or administrator at one of the more than 66,000 Title I schools or any of the 194 Defense Department Education Activity schools in the United States. It’s an admirable endeavor and recognizes that we have a literacy problem. However, it brings to mind Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous line: “Water, water, every where/ Nor any drop to drink.”
On that list of Title I schools: Crewe Primary. The whole of Nottoway County, Va., is a high-poverty tract; there is no public transportation, no fiber-optic Internet available for the county’s 16,000 residents. In Southside Virginia, the commonwealth’s poorest region, most schools don’t have broadband; Crewe Primary School has DSL but little more than 40 usable iPads (not counting the old and obsolete ones) for its 318 students.
The Nottoway County Public Library is the only location in the 316-square-mile county with publicly funded Internet access. To use Open eBooks at home, primary school students would have to rely on their parents’ phones and tablets. Older students may have their own devices, but downloading the e-books would eat into very pricey and limited data plans.
Open eBooks is part of the ConnectED initiative, which “empowers teachers with the best technology and the training to make the most of it, and empowers students through individualized learning and rich, digital content.” It’s a bold mission for a country in which, the Census Bureau reports, nearly 55 million people lack access to broadband service and 17 percent of households don’t have a computer. According to the Federal Communications Commission, of Americans making less than $25,000 per year, 48 percent do not have access to broadband at home. In poor regions such as Southside, that’s a lot of people.
Even if our poorest schools had broadband and ample devices, believing that free e-books are the key to ending our literacy crisis is dangerously misguided. Technology is repeatedly touted as a cure for the United States’ educational woes, promising everything from banishing boredom to widespread reform. Interactive whiteboards were the hope a few years ago, and Google Earth was supposed to make our children masters of geography. There is more technology in our classrooms and homes than ever, but too often these expensive technologies yield few gains in learning or gains not commensurate with cost.
Serving as the executive director of the Virginia Children’s Book Festival, in the heart of a literacy desert, has taught me two things: Literacy is an instilled value, and too frequently reading is a luxury instead of a necessity. Reports from the National Center for Education Statistics are clear: Children raised in homes that foster literacy are better readers and better students than children raised in homes where literacy is not promoted. Children who see their parents reading and engage in reading with their families have higher than average reading scores, regardless of their parents’ occupational status.
If a love of reading is not learned in the home, even technologically advanced schools are hard-pressed to make up that deficit. Despite the almost universal view about the importance of reading for pleasure, it continues to be given a low priority in schools. While teachers focus on testing and mechanics, school libraries such as Crewe’s are desperately underfunded or are being shuttered altogether. While there are no figures detailing the total number of public schools affected by library cuts and closures, the American Association of School Librarians’ data indicate an alarming trend. In Philadelphia, only 16 of 214 public schools have a certified school librarian. Of Los Angeles’s 545 elementary and middle schools, 316 are staffed with library aides.
The Open eBooks initiative is laudable, but it fails to address the root of the country’s literacy crisis. While it will make textbooks and storybooks accessible to those lucky enough to have the technology, without critical intervention to create a culture of reading in every home and school, that access has little chance of making any meaningful change. At best, the program and ConnectED must be seen as supplementary solutions to a problem we haven’t addressed in a sustained and intensive manner. At worst, Open eBooks will go the way of Crewe Primary’s iPads: well-intentioned but extraordinarily insufficient.
The writer is executive director of the Virginia Children’s Book Festival.