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Technology in our schools: Measuring the return

By Michael Connolly

When I was growing up in the UK, I went to a high school where the head gym teacher was previously a top amateur boxer. His ambition was to turn our academically high-achieving all-boys school into one of the premier boxing academies in the country.

By some miracle, he managed to persuade the board of governors at the time that this is what the school should be spending its money on. Our dilapidated gym was taken over by an enormous custom-built boxing ring, surrounded by brand new weight-lifting gear and other complicated-looking equipment.

But despite the huge outlay, boxing never took off at St. Peter’s. It was effectively knocked out by the one-two punch of over-protective parents and less-than-enthusiastic students. While some of us were quite happy to see others climb into the ring and take a beating, no-one was quite ready for a beating themselves. The ring mostly gathered dust, and two years later it was gone.

I thought about this the other day when I read some of the reactions to a recent article in The New York Times. The article, In Classroom of the Future, Stagnant Scores, highlights the billions of dollars that school districts are spending on technology for the classroom, and draws a correlation between that spending and standardized test scores, which in many cases have stubbornly refused to improve.

While most teachers – but not all – support the increased spend on technology, they balk at the inference that it should result in an immediate improvement in test scores. Instead, they argue, it’s the quality of the learning experience that matters – the opportunity to collaborate; to research and develop new ideas; to use the Internet to reach far beyond the confines of the traditional classroom.

But in too many cases, spending on technology is seen to be a good thing in its own right, with little thought given to the return on investment. Like my pugilistic gym teacher and his expensive boxing ring, most schools lack a plan. They spend because they feel they have to or because politicians say they should. There is no clear thinking on how that equipment or the associated software is going to be incorporated into the mandated curriculum and result in improved performance.

Sometimes this is because of poor teacher training; other times it's because of an inconsistent approach at the top – principals and boards of education that are good at securing resources but are less skilled at defining and implementing day-to-day classroom policy. Whatever the reasons, it's left many observers wondering if the drive to bring technology into our schools is receiving too high a priority.     

As The Times article asks: If we can’t measure the impact of technology through improved test scores, then what is the appropriate measure? A feel-good experience for parents, teachers and students may be all well and good, but in a tight economy there have to be measurable results, otherwise maybe we should just spend the money on more books, more teachers, and higher salaries.

Is technology used effectively in your school district? How does the district measure the return on investment? Share your thoughts with The Online Mom!

Michael Connolly is a writer and gadget freak. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and two teenage sons.

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