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April 04, 2001 3 min read
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I was fascinated to learn from the essay by William J. Bennett and David Gelernter (“Improving Education With Technology,” Commentary, March 14, 2001) that technology will be the new vehicle for school choice.

To the Editor:

I was fascinated to learn from the essay by William J. Bennett and David Gelernter (“Improving Education With Technology,” Commentary, March 14, 2001) that technology will be the new vehicle for school choice.

Last year, 28 states considered voucher legislation, but not one passed new legislation. California’s and Michigan’s failed voter initiatives have dispirited the choice advocates. The courts found that Florida’s and Ohio’s voucher programs were unconstitutional, though the rulings are under appeal. President Bush has refrained from mentioning the word “voucher.”

The voucher movement has stalled, and its advocates are divided about where to direct their energies. Some propose tax credits; others seek new resources for charter schools. Now it appears that computers can silently bring about the school choice revolution.

The online schools proposed by Mr. Bennett and Mr. Gelernter will lessen the importance of qualified teachers. Children can be set up in centers housing hundreds of computers, with only limited supervision. Technical colleges and rural public schools already provide instruction in this manner. Without the need for professionals, the teachers’ unions will lose their monopoly over decisionmaking. Private firms hawking their own brand of instruction will step in. Charter schools and home schooling will explode. Religious schools will be relieved from the burden of paying lay teachers livable salaries.

While I do not oppose increasing choice in schools, especially in urban areas, I do not believe that a software program can ever replace the teacher. A computer cannot provide Socratic dialogue, it cannot answer creative questions, nor can it interject interesting tangents and personal anecdotes in a lesson. Children will also lose the competition and camaraderie found in a classroom. A life of isolation in front of a computer strikes me as a very sad fate for our children.

I hope that liberals and conservatives alike understand the limits of computers before rushing into this brave new world.

Laura McKenna

Doctoral Candidate

City University of New York Graduate Center

New York, N.Y.

To the Editor:

William J. Bennett and David Gelernter claim to have joined the technology revolution, but still sound much like the skeptics they used to be. While acknowledging the awesome power of the Internet, they still talk about “teaching material” having to “stand on its own without computers or technology to jazz it up.”

David Thornburg, an educational technology icon, would disagree. According to Mr. Thornburg, computers should change not only how you teach, but also what you teach. After all, you don’t sit in a five-star restaurant expecting to be served a McDonald’s meal.

To the authors’ statement that “it’s the content that counts, not the computer,” I would say this: Being educated is more than the ability to master the computer or the content; it is about acquiring essential life skills to sensibly apply knowledge in a real-world context—something that technology facilitates.

Mr. Bennett and Mr. Gelernter sound more like traditionalists than revolutionaries when they insist that a child’s education should be a tangible thing, so that “parents must be able to see, step by step, exactly what education their children are getting.” This view pays homage to the testing craze while devaluing the intangible aspects of learning, such as critical and creative thinking and self-esteem.

The revolution can benefit from big names like Mr. Bennett and Mr. Gelernter, but only if they understand that all the old rules have changed—not just the ones they are comfortable with changing.

Prakash Nair

President

Urban Educational Facilities for the 21st Century

Forest Hills, N.Y.

A version of this article appeared in the April 04, 2001 edition of Education Week as Letters

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