12/29/2014 03:28 pm ET Updated Feb 28, 2015

Better Learning Through Expensive Software

A leading archaeologist and an expert on societal collapse, Arthur Demarest, recently stated that "When there is pressure for leaders to respond to problems or crises, they often simply intensify their efforts in their particular defined sphere of activity -- even if that's not relevant to the real problem."

In education reform, we are reaching that apogee. Instead of improving the instructional practices of teachers, we are throwing vast sums of money and time at software and digital solutions that are largely untested, unproven and highly questionable.

Recently, a kerfuffle erupted over the Mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel's appointed school board member, Deborah Quazzo. First the Sun Times detailed how several companies she invests in profit from business with CPS. Then, in a separate piece the Sun Times editorial board suggested she should step down because she invested in companies that do millions of dollars of business with the Board and with individual schools. Quazzo insists she has done nothing wrong and followed all ethical guidelines, and the Sun Times editorial board agrees, but nonetheless suggests she should step down.

I'd side with the Sun Times editorial board in regards to Quazzo being innocent of any maleficence. I know several people that work for companies similar to the ones she invests in, and they're good, decent people. They want schools to work, they want our students to learn and succeed.

For me, the real story is with the types of companies Quazzo invests in, along with the types of companies attracted to the educational investment conference she hosts in Arizona every year. Nearly every company presenting at the conference sells software or digital platforms. "Edtech" has been the rage for years now, and it's only getting hotter.

On a surface level this makes sense. We live in a digital age, and most people in education have heard the claims of our students being "digital natives", having grown up submerged and surrounded in technology. The claim is that because today's children have access to technology they learn differently. I have yet to find any scientific evidence proving this, and I've read enough to throw cold water on the claim. The term "digital native" was coined in 2001 by an Ivy League (Oberlin, Yale, and Harvard Business School) writer, who has a self-interest in promoting the claims in his books.

Schools do need to change, but I don't believe schools need to change by throwing out printed text and purchasing software. It's confusing when Common Core is advocating that we return to students reading grade-level texts, but these companies are hocking software that differentiates the text to students' levels. Many teachers I know require students to read independent books at their reading level to ensure differentiation.

Then again, some of these companies aren't interested in what teachers prefer. One such company representative, during a presentation to my faculty, stated twice that teachers have "so much to do" and "not enough time to teach", which is why they should put our students on their digital platform, where they can get assistance from a live teacher online.

I was perplexed: What's wrong with the flesh-and-blood teacher in front of them? And who is this person that will communicate directly with our children? What are their credentials? Are they working in a call-center in a "right-to-work" state? A foreign country? Maybe they're using the same staffing strategy that American Airlines uses to take their reservations and insourcing it to prison-labor... I doubt it, but I've been wrong before.

If our teachers have so much to do they don't have time to teach, let's talk about that and fix it. Yet this disregard for teachers is nothing new. Several CEOs ago, Ron Huberman attempted to extend the school day for 90 minutes by placing students on computers and having a non-teacher supervise their "learning".

I talked to a literacy specialist I've worked with who has been responsible for implementing three types of software across dozens of classrooms. She has experimented with many other types of software and applications, as have most teachers I know. I asked her if she has found anything that is worth the time and money. Without hesitating, she replied "No." At a whole-school level the time it takes to implement, that is, to force teachers to use a product they didn't ask for, they didn't choose, and they don't want, is a winless game. All the various applications offer "usage reports" so you can quickly determine which teachers are using it and which aren't. As an administrator you could mandate they use the software and hold them accountable if they don't, but that old saying about leading a horse to water? This is especially true when the water is untested.

I have yet to find independent scientific research proving any software is equal to or better than other non-digital teaching strategies. The "research" studies ed-tech companies throw around are often created by the companies themselves, or affiliated supporters of the companies. Some software companies are even trying to get their products into schools so they can beta-test them on children, then using the (hopefully) higher test scores to market the product to more schools.

When software is introduced, it is exciting and appears to be the answer to all our problems. Educators think, "If we get this, our scores will improve, and our students will learn." What I have discovered by observing the teachers at our school is that when teachers commit to best practices that they designed with their colleagues, with their students' background, culture, and needs in mind, that is when we have the greatest success.

The real problem with all of these companies is that they claim they are revolutionizing education. They're not. Many sell nothing more than test-prep software. Their products show "gains" on the ACT and NWEA MAP because their product mimics the test format. The learning gains don't necessarily transfer to the real world, or last much longer than the end of the school year. Parents might wonder why teachers agree to use the test-prep software, but the fact so much is riding on high-stakes tests, even the most ethical and dedicated educator will make compromises.

Strangely, some of these companies are openly comparing education to the healthcare sector back in 1970, and how healthcare has risen from 8 percent of GDP to a current 18 percent, as if that is a good thing. I'm sure it is a good thing for those that invested in privatized healthcare, but it hasn't proven to be an improvement for patients, doctors, or taxpayers. One education-software investment company enviously cited a $66 billion acquisition of a Botox manufacturer. In the same presentation they compared software to "weapons of mass instruction". This isn't the school reform I had in mind.

Even if all of this software did work, should we use it? I'd still argue no. The reason is because our biggest obstacle isn't the quality of education our children receive, but the inequalities in our country, from income to gender and race. Inequalities between families contributes to the achievement gap that begins long before toddlers enter preschool.

Reforming education by purchasing assets such as software won't fix the achievement gap because families that can afford the software will purchase it and use it at home, while families struggling with poverty will not be able to afford it, and won't use it at home on their non-existent computer. Even if we purchased a computer for every low-income family, this wouldn't necessarily be the solution. We recently donated a computer to a family and just days later learned they had brought it to a pawn shop. It's unfathomable to many privileged Americans, but education is too often a luxury when food and housing are more pressing issues.

In Chicago, since the NWEA MAP became high-stakes and used to determine eligibility for selective enrollment high schools, companies have sprung up that purchase a software license, and then offer direct access to students so they can take the NWEA test over-and-over again until they are ready to get the score they desire. Most of my students can't afford this type of tutoring.

At an assessment review task force meeting at the Illinois State Board of Education, superintendents stated they didn't want test prep created by PARCC to be made available to anyone in the State because those districts and families that could afford it would have an unfair advantage, widening the achievement gap. This superintendent pleading for such a "disarmament" represented a wealthy district.

Schools need to be transformed. The outdated "factory model" wasn't very effective when I was in school, and it certainly isn't working today. The solution isn't to make the factory model robotized with software and technology. The solution is to make education relevant and to use technology as a tool, not the solution in itself. We need to help support our teachers and schools in adopting project-based and inquiry-based learning. Instead of a factory-model of education, we need a lab and studio model of education, not where the students are used as test subjects, but in which the students design the questions and create the tests themselves.

The software companies trying to sell us expensive wares, all while our schools are being underfunded, will try to convince us their product will help teachers adopt project-based learning, but they won't. The software are simply shiny and new versions of a textbook.

The irony is that much of this push is being sold as "personalized learning." I attended a presentation when a salesperson said it was "like Montessori on steroids." My son attends a Montessori school, and I thought at the time, "why not just do Montessori? Why do we need steroids?" The ideas of personalized and computerized learning as a reform model both go back 100 years.

Here we are, trying to revolutionize education with ideas that failed long ago. We can thank groups like the Gates Foundation for this new push for mechanized learning. With all their money, any idea that pops into Bill Gates head, even when he's on the treadmill, can become an overnight national fad if he dangles a few million dollars in front of superintendents of starved school-districts.

Bill Gates is well known as an autodidactic: he guides his own learning, which is similar to personalized learning. Now he wants to push all of our students to become autodidactics. I'm fine with this. I want all of our children to become lifelong self-learners, but the problem is that software companies won't get us there. These software companies are the digital version of the "Choose Your Own Adventure Books", which I loved, but they weren't that revolutionary from a normal book.

If you want authentic personalized learning, let's teach the way Bill Gates learned. He learned to program a computer not by being forced to sit at a computer and use software someone else developed. He found an interest, which was programming a computer, and was allowed to pursue it. He created code and programs, he didn't just use someone else's software. Creating is project-based learning. Tinkering is inquiry-based learning. Using software developed by someone else is traditional learning, which we need to reform.

The goal of school isn't to do well on a test. Doing school should never be for the purpose of more school. The goal of school is to create moral citizens that will fall in love with learning. We can reform schools but it will never happen because of expensive, invasive software that replace text and teachers. We can reform schools by adopting proven practices, and without the constant upheaval done to education over the past 15 years. The collapse of the current wave of education reform is approaching, and that's a good thing. We can start anew, using what we know that works.

Below are a list of resources that might be helpful to anyone that needs more reading on the topics and themes discussed in this post.

Regarding student data and privacy: Federal Family and Educational Rights Privacy Act

The long history of education reform going back more than 150 years:

Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform, by David Tyack and Larry Cuban. Harvard University Press, 1997.

The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession, by Dana Goldstein. Doubleday, 2014.

So Much Change, So Little Reform: The Persistence of Failure in Urban Schools, by Charles Payne. Harvard Education Press, 2008.

Reign of Error: The Hoax of Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools, by Diane Ravitch. Knopf: 2013.

School Reform, Corporate Style: Chicago 1880-2000, by Dorothy Shipps. University of Kansas Press: 2006.

How children can learn with relevant curriculum and experiences:

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, by Paul Tough. Mariner Books: 2013.

This is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, by Jose Luis Vilson. Haymarket Books: 2014.

Understanding By Design, by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. Pearson: 2005.

Authentic Learning in the Digital Age: Engaging Students Through Inquiry, by Larissa Pahomov and Deborah Siegel. ASCD: 2014

Effective teaching that doesn't require software:

Minds on Math: Using Math Workshop to Develop Deep Understanding in Grades 4-8, by Wendy Ward Hoffer. Heinemann: 2014.

Strategies That Work: Teaching Comprehension for Understanding and Engagement, by Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis. Stenhouse Publishers: 2007.

Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning, by John Hattie. Routledge: 2011.

Better Learning Through Structured Teaching: A Framework for the Gradual Release of Responsibility, by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey. ASCD: 2013.

Most books by Alfred Tatum, Lisa Delpit, Charlotte Danielson, Robert Marzano, Lucy Calkins, or Fountas and Pinnell.

High-Stakes testing:

The Myths of Standardized Tests: Why They Don't Tell You What You Think They Do, by Phillip Harris, Bruce M. Smith, and Joan Harris. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers: 2011.

High Stakes Education: Inequality, Globalization, and Urban School Reform, by Pauline Lipman. Routledge, 2003.

Effective school reform that doesn't require software:

School Reform from the Inside Out, by Richard F. Elmore. Harvard Education Press: 2004.

Surpassing Shanghai: An Agenda for American Education Built on the World's Leading Systems, by Marc S. Tucker. Harvard Education Press: 2011.

Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? By Pasi Sahlberg. Teachers College Press, 2011.

Human Side of School Change: Reform, Resistance, and the Real-Life Problems of Innovation, by Robert Evans. Jossey-Bass: 2001.

Continuous School Improvement, by Mark A. Smylie. Corwin: 2009.

Distributed Leadership, by James P. Spillane. Jossey-Bass: 2006.