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Are school technology investments paying off?

Report: Students are often using technology for simple foundational exercises, rather than higher-order data analysis

Schools are not getting a big enough bang for their education technology buck, according to a new report.

While computers and internet access are common in the classroom, students are often using this technology for simple foundational exercises, rather than higher-order data analysis or statistics work that will help prepare them for the modern workforce, the report from the Center for American Progress found. This issue is most prevalent in schools with primarily low-income students, further widening the digital divide.

“We’ve put a great deal of money into school technology—for a long time, the promise has been that it’s going to dramatically change the way teachers teach and students learn,” says Ulrich Boser, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the report’s author. “But a large percentage are using computers for drill and practice, or just watching movies, which is disconcerting.”

Over a third of middle school students regularly use computers for drill and practice, while just 17 percent regularly use statistical programs, the report found after analyzing data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. And 73 percent of students reported regularly watching a movie or video in science class, but only 66 percent reported regularly using a computer in class.

Further, states are not studying the impact of their technology investments on learning. Rather, they only collect data on the presence of technology, the report found in a state-by-state review of department of education websites. “States are looking closely at how many computers are in schools, and the type of internet connection schools have,” Boser says. “This is important, but it’s not what they’re actually getting from all this spending.”

Today’s digital divide between low-income students and their financially better-off peers is less about access, and more about practices. In many schools, low-income students do not receive rigorous technology-based instruction. For example, 41 percent of eighth grade math students from high-poverty backgrounds regularly use computers for lower-order thinking skills, rather than more complex tasks, compared to only 29 percent of those from wealthier backgrounds. And black students are 20 percent more likely to use computers for drill and practice than white students.

A lack of monetary incentives from states to reorganize school programs and take full advantage of technology, combined with a lack of teacher preparation, often lead to poor technology use, Boser says. Principals with little spending flexibility should only consider purchasing technology options that will impact student achievement. “We’re not arguing that students shouldn’t practice basic math, but pen and paper are a cheaper way to gain those basic skills, as opposed to buying a new MacBook Air and having students do those same practices on a computer,” Boser says. “Administrators need to realize that it’s not simply that we need technology, but we need to know what we are getting from this technology, and what is the most effective way to increase achievement.”

Schools must figure how technology can both customize assignments, and make them more interesting for students, says Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, who also has analyzed state K12 technology investments.

“The most important thing for administrators is to understand that technology is not an elixir,” Hess says. “A lot of times we see districts that spend a lot of money on iPads or other devices, and it turns out they don’t have any clear plan on what they’re going to do with them.”

Technology support, curriculum alignment, and teacher professional development are key considerations for administrators when implementing technology in the classroom, said Brian Lewis, CEO of ISTE. “[Technology] has the power to continually improve student achievement when schools have the opportunity and resources to develop thoughtful plans for integrating technology,” Lewis says.

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