Computers in Schools
by Fred E. Foldvary, Senior Editor
The perpetual problem with government schooling in the USA is that many students either drop out of school or graduate without being competent in reading, writing, mathematics, and civics. The perpetual solution sought by government schooling chiefs is to spend more taxpayer money on superficial remedies that only provide minor improvements.
A good example of costly programs is putting computers in classrooms. It is valuable for students to become proficient at using computers, but this can be done without putting a computer on every student desk. In his recent book, Underused and Oversold: Computers in the Classroom, Larry Cuban concludes that the expensive stockpile of computers that US government educators have amassed has not greatly improved educational results.
From 1997 to 1999, the ratio of students to computers went from 21 to 10, with a similar increase in Internet connections. From 1995 to 1999, computer spending rose from $75 to $119 per pupil. Cuban found that there were no significant teaching innovations in using computers. Teachers instead adapted computers to their familiar ways of teaching.
The basic problem with education in the US is not a lack of hardware or even class size. The most important factor in education is an empowered, competent, inspired teacher. Also important are the home and neighborhood. An incompetent teacher will not do much better having computers, a smaller class, and video tapes. An excellent teacher can do well with just a blackboard and chalk. Technology does help, but scarce resources are often better spent getting better teachers than more capital goods.
The inadequacy of American education is rooted in central planning. Governmental schooling can be effective, as it has been in some countries and some parts of the US, but in the current American context, it fails. Governmental schooling can succeed if there is a culture that supports it and institutions that prevent the system from being degraded by the bureaucracy, teacher unions, and overly centralized administration.
In the US, education has been centralized from local districts to the States and now increasingly to the federal government. Every US chief of state now wants to be an "education president." Education is now seen as a national problem. But money from Washington comes with a tangle of strings. We now have to spend education dollars on bureaucrats in the federal and state governments as well as at local school districts and in individual schools.
If central planning does not work well for an economy, why would it work well for education? We leave the most important years of education to the individual family. The parents or guardians teach their children how to talk, walk, tie their shoes, and relate to other people. If these lessons were to be federalized, there would be a national crisis with toddlers unable to walk or talk or tie their shoe-laces. It would require a national task force on walking deficiencies. A crash program would be implemented to use computers to help children learn to walk. If that didn't work, the program would be expanded to buy more and bigger computers.
The opposite of a centralized command-based educational system is a market-based system decentralized to the parents. Each family would choose which school to attend, including home schooling. If there were governmental schools, they would be financed by tuition just as private schools are, and on an equal basis. Governmental controls would be confined to testing students for basic competency.
With the current tax system, governmental funding for education, if any, should be limited to tax credits or vouchers for tuition. But the tax system today is part of the education problem. Prime beneficiaries of government-funded schooling today are the landowners surrounding the better schools. Tuition-based financing would require the local parents to pay for schooling rather than taxing their neighbors' wages. Tuition-based school financing would deflate today's puffed-up real-estate prices. If the tax base were confined to land rent, then tax credits would not be necessary, since untaxed wages would be adequate to pay for basic education. Charity scholarships would usually suffice for the few poor families, but if not, then vouchers could be granted locally.
Parents and students could then choose the type of schooling that best suits their goals and culture. Some would choose high-tech schools crammed with computers and laboratories, while others might want to emphasize teaching styles or special programs such as music or cultural and language programs. Some would prefer small schools, others large.
But this variety is precisely what American schooling officials oppose. The main purpose of American governmental schooling is the homogenization of American children. This was clearly the case when the federal government kidnapped American Indian children from their homes and forced them into government schools where they were forbidden to speak their native languages. Immigrant children too were subject to compulsory education to turn them into English-speaking workers who would dutifully pledge allegiance, pay taxes, and be good soldiers.
Computers would be fine if part of a system where the educators would use them if their benefits per dollar of cost were higher than the benefits of more and better teachers or classrooms, and the dollars were ultimately spent by parent customers who could compare schools. As the system is now, computers extract taxpayer dollars and reap benefits for computer companies but may not be cost-effective for students.
For more on this topic, see ncpa: computers in education.
-- Fred Foldvary
Copyright 2002 by Fred E. Foldvary. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system, without giving full credit to Fred Foldvary and The Progress Report.
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