06/28/2011 01:51 pm ET Updated Aug 28, 2011

The Turtle Gets a Cheat Sheet vs. 21st Century Technology for All

Richard Elmore and Elizabeth City worry that the future of public schools could be the "turtle gets a laptop" scenario. Schools would continue to be run in much the same way as they are today as more learning technology is introduced.

Since NCLB, however, schools have mostly followed the "turtle gets a cheat sheet" path into the 21st century. The most extreme example of technology in the age of data-driven reform was illustrated by North High School in Denver which used "credit recovery" to produce huge increases in the graduation rate.

It was common for a student in their massive computer lab to have his iPod on while cruising the Internet. The student could just type the credit recovery test question and copy and paste the answer, thus earning credit. One student did zero minutes of coursework and passed British Literature. The student explained the exam had been about, "something British. I just wrote anything."

Elmore also described a future, known as "open access to learning," or the "caterpillar learns to fly." For-profit service providers would compete for students, and schools as we know them are replaced by portfolios of programs or "blended learning." Allow schools to make a profit, and presumably they will liberate students' minds through a process known as "disruptive transformation."

The Free Market does not provide the only way to instantly turn large numbers of caterpillars into butterflies, however. On April 21 at North H.S., 48 of the 123 seniors were on track toward graduating. A month later, their blended learning system increased the number to 111!

I am not a cynic, even though I am not surprised that schools use online learning to hand out unbelievable numbers of course credits in order to pad their numbers. I was captivated by Education Week's "Digital Directions" special report. I just doubt that the liberating potential of technology can be realized without defeating the accountability hawks' efforts to turn schools into assembly lines as if it was 1911, not 2011.

Being an inner city teacher, I was especially impressed by the candor of "Summer Educators 'Mix Up' Instruction With Technology." It cited research by Susan Neuman demonstrating that, "the idea we can close the knowledge gap (for poor children) by just providing access to computers is a terrible fallacy." Research from the National Association of Summer Learning (NASL) showed that "students from less-affluent backgrounds, when in an unstructured environment, typically read fewer words and engage with less challenging online material than do more economically better-off students, even if they have the same access to technology."

Summer Advantage USA has taken this research to heart, so during vacation, technology-based learning occurs in the morning. Afternoons are devoted to physical education, music, and art. Fridays are for field trips and guest speakers.

I was cautiously optimistic when I read the words of the NSLA's director of strategic initiatives, "when it comes to incomes and access, technology definitely benefits higher-income students more. ... It's a matter of getting that research in front of [educators]."

My hopes were really raised, however, by Education Week's "Multimedia Transformation." It described the glorious potential of digital tools for conducting online experiments, running 30D simulations, and pushing literacy beyond the written word. In the short run, those miraculous technologies will primarily benefit low-poverty schools that are not being oppressed by NCLB, and the Duncan Administration's "innovations" that impose more bubble-in testing on our lowest-performing 10% of schools. Once a critical mass of parents see the true possibilities of technologies designed to engage, and stimulate creativity, however, today's data-driven reform will go the way of the Model T.