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Digitizing America's School Kids

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To resuscitate our moribund public education system, IBM and the Clinton administration want to computerize our low-tech schools so as to prepare our children for life in the high-tech fast lane. President Clinton has proposed a $2 billion program to link all American classrooms to the Internet. Louis V. Gerstner Jr., the chief executive officer of the International Business Machines Corp., wants to digitize every kid's portfolio of art, music, writing, mathematics, and science.

But why would anyone want to do this to our children and their schools? Is all of this computer power really necessary? Education philosopher Neil Postman thinks not. In his recent book The End of Education, Mr. Postman notes that the problem of giving people greater access to more information, faster, more conveniently, and in more diverse forms, was largely solved a hundred years ago.

Our problem today is not too little information, but information overload. We are bombarded with so much information at such high rates of speed from so many computers, radios, television sets, telephones, fax machines, newspapers, periodicals, books, billboards, and pieces of advertising junk mail that we haven't a clue as to what to do with it all. What we need from our schools and our universities is not more or faster computers, but more effective tools to help us make sense of all this information.

As for digitizing student portfolios, this is the ultimate form of computerization for the sake of computerization. Comparing portfolios of math, science, art, and music is a little like trying to compare apples, oranges, peaches, and grapes. There are no known mathematical or social-science formulas available for reducing student-portfolio information down to a common denominator suitable for objective comparisons. Furthermore, portfolio computerization provides endless opportunities for the invasion of privacy and the commercialization of confidential information about our children. It represents high-tech paternalism carried to ridiculous extremes.

Big Business, Big Government, and Big Education want all of us to be the same--just like them. In his book Reinventing Education, Mr. Gerstner also calls for national education standards and testing, longer school days, and longer school years--big solutions to make our school problems even bigger. Big Blue's approach to education differs little from Moscow's Big Brother approach in the 1980s.

Digitizing student portfolios and connecting every classroom to the Internet are public relations gimmicks aimed at conning the American people into believing there are simplistic, short-term solutions to enormously complex problems. There are no high-tech quick fixes to America's public education problems, which are deeply rooted in excessive centralization, overregulation, and the absence of local community involvement.

Even though education research as far back as the 1960s began casting serious doubts about the efficacy of large consolidated public schools, our nation has maintained an almost absolute commitment to the bigger-is-better model of public education. For over half a century, public school policymakers argued that smaller schools were less efficient, provided students with fewer academic options, and should be closed, with students bused often far away from their homes to larger, modern consolidated schools. Many a neighborhood, village, or small town was left high and dry when its school was closed, always in the name of progress.

A kind of assembly line mentality pervaded public education. Because of so-called economies of scale, large schools were said to be a more cost-effective way of training the future employees of corporate America. If you were going to spend most of your life working in a big factory, it made sense to be educated in a similar environment.

More recently, the bigger-is-better philosophy has come under siege as an increasing number of educators now question the wisdom and cost-effectiveness of large consolidated schools--particularly big urban high schools. Some Chicago, New York City, and Philadelphia high schools with over 5,000 students have actually been broken up into schools of 500 students.

Not only are our public schools too big, but they are literally drowning in a sea of federal, state, and local school district regulations. Local school boards have little or nothing to say about such issues as racial balance, pupil selection, curriculum content, textbook selection, teacher qualifications, and the treatment of special-needs students. Recent studies suggest that no form of government regulation has been less effective than court-ordered desegregation and busing. This top-down attempt to impose community on unwilling subjects has resulted in our nation's schools being more segregated than they have been in over 25 years.

A strong sense of community connecting parents, teachers, students, administrators, and other community members provides the glue which binds effective schools, without which a school becomes a dehumanized, mechanistic instrument of the state. The absence of community in most of our overcentralized, oversized, overregulated schools should come as a surprise to no one.

Increased computer power will do little to turn our badly failing education system around. Anything short of radical restructuring of the entire system will provide insufficient firepower to halt the public education free fall. What is required is nothing less than the dismantling of the federal and state educational bureaucracies and the complete transfer of power back to locally controlled neighborhood and village school boards.

While it is one thing for conservative politicians to rail against the federal government and denounce federal control of education, it's quite another for local communities to step forward and assume complete responsibility for their own schools. We can't have it both ways. We either bite the bullet and take charge of our schools, or we abdicate the responsibility to Big Brother or Big Blue. Local control of schools comes with a price, but a price we cannot afford not to pay.

If we want to save our schools from self-destruction, we must act now, and we must act decisively. The hour is late, and the risk of having our kids digitized by IBM or someone else is far greater than most realize.

The problems of low-tech public schools require bottom-up, low-tech solutions, not top-down, high-tech fads imposed by Washington, the statehouse, and corporate America.

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