Matt Richtel has published thelatest articlein his New York Times seriesGrading the Digital School. The series has been quite critical of education technology, questioning theamount of money schools are spending on itand doubting that those expenditures are having anyimpact on student achievement -- as evidenced by stagnant test scores, at least.

This most recent story again invokes test scores as a main indicator of "what works" in education.But test scores aren't what educators are focused on, according to Richtel, suggesting that instead schools are being unduly influenced by the tech industry's schmoozing and lobbying.


Wowing and Wooing Educators

"Silicon Valley Wows Educators, Woos Them," the headline reads.Its original title, which you can still see via the URL and which points the finger at one Silicon Valley company in particular: "Apple Woos Educators with Trips to Silicon Valley." The argument: Apple brings educators to its Cupertino campus to meet with company executives, to watch presentations, to test-drive technology tools for the classroom, and to dine at "trendy restaurants." The implication: schools that have opted to buy MacBooks or iPads have been "wowed" and "wooed" by these trips. The article does briefly note that these sorts of sales and marketing tactics occur throughout the education industry, not just with hardware and software companies. What the textbook sellers had perfected for years has moved into the high-tech world, Harvard's Graduate School of Education lecturer John Richards tells Richtel.But there's no link from Richtel to some of the recent stories in which the NYT has covered these practices. (Within the last six weeks, there have been two raising questions about potential improprieties of the education giant Pearson --linkandlink.) There's no real comparison in Richtel's piece of how districts' textbook or testing contracts differ -- in scale or in sales practices -- with contracts for school-wide iPad or Macbook installations. One district, the story reports, has spent $637,000 to give its faculty and students laptops and iPads. I looked at the schools'2010-2011 budget, hoping to see what it spent on textbooks or standardizing testing but I couldn't find the line items. For what it's worth, $600K is also roughly what it spent on student athletics.

Apple, Technology and Textbooks

Richtel's article does, however, offer a contrast between schools' technophilia and tech spending and comments by Steve Jobs himself, citing a1996 Wired interviewthat seems to encapsulate the theme of Richtel's whole "Grading the Digital School" series: "I used to think that technology could help education," Jobs told Wired. "I've probably spearheaded giving away more computer equipment to schools than anybody else on the planet. But I've had to come to the inevitable conclusion that the problem is not one that technology can hope to solve. What's wrong with education cannot be fixed with technology. No amount of technology will make a dent." The problem according to Jobs (of course): teachers' unions. But as theWalter Isaacson biography of Jobssuggests, the Apple co-founder also saw textbooks as key piece of the education bureaucracy, another part of the "problem," and another industry (a $8 billion a year industry) that Apple could potentially disrupt. "The process by which states certify textbooks is corrupt, Jobs told Isaacson. But if we can make the textbooks free, and they come with the iPad, then they don't have to be certified. The crappy economy at the state level will last for a decade, and we can give them an opportunity to circumvent that whole process and save money. In other words, buy the iPads. Get the textbooks for free.

It's not too hard to imagine the vast amount of lobbying (whether we're talking lavish trips to Silicon Valley or simply very heated school board meetings) that would need to go in to convincing schools to abandon the traditional textbook. But that's not what Richtel has uncovered in the case of Apple. And it's probably worth pointing out too that as publishers are (slowly) making the switch to digital content, schools now buy computers andelectronicandprint textbooks.

Even with budget crises, schools buy a lot of things, and that means there's an incredible amount of money at stake when convincing school officials to sign contracts, whether it's to buy software licenses, computers, iPads, textbooks, football team uniforms, cafeteria food, vending machine drinks, paper products and the like. Education, and not just education technology, is big business. Not all technology companies are engaged in this sort of enterprise-level wooing. Indeed, you'll often hear startups in Silicon Valley say they're doing whatever they can do avoid this sort of direct sales to schools, partly because they are up against corporations with much deeper pockets.

Branding and Buying Ed-Tech

Even though Apple has some of the deepest corporate pockets in the world, Richtel's description of the company as engaged in this sort of influence peddling doesn't seem quite right. What Richtel's article doesn't really address -- and something that I think really undermines his larger argument about corporations' "wooing and wowing" -- is the way in which the Apple brand now feels far stronger than any of these lobbying efforts. The lure of Apple is more powerful than sending a district tech coordinator on an all-expenses-paid trip to Silicon Valley. Lots of companies offer "perks" like this to get a school district to adopt their particular Algebra textbooks or their Interactive Whiteboards or their learning management systems (and don't get me wrong here -- bad behavior is bad). But the relationship that consumers have to Apple products feels somehow different than these other purchasing decisions.Consumers -- students, teachers, librarians, principals--wantApple products. Richtel does briefly allude to that consumer desire, citingCommon Cause's Mike Dean saying that "There is a geek culture that very much worships Apple, and they're feeding into that to get more contracts."But I'm wary about conflating that worship with payola. And I'm wary about pointing at tech companies for "buying" their way into schools without focusing on the practices of the rest of the education industry -- oh say, those that offer the standardized tests, for example, the ones that Richtel contends are so indicative of what supposedly "works" in education/technology. Photo credits: Flickr userAnil Mohabir

Audrey Watters


Hack Education

The History of the Future of Education Technology

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