An influential parent-advocacy group that has vocally opposed high-stakes testing, the Common Core State Standards, and charter school expansion has its sights on a new target: education technology.
Parents Across America, a nonprofit group with 44 chapters across 25 states, last month issued a set of resources warning of the “threats” posed by the explosion of digital- and online-technology use in schools, including rising screen time for children, increased testing and data collection, and what the group views as misguided teaching strategies based on low-quality digital products.
Although the group says it supports “appropriate” use of technology in schools, its recommendations include such controversial suggestions as “no in-school screen time before 3rd grade” and “no 1-to-1 devices before high school.”
Roughly half of American K-12 students now have access to their own school-issued mobile-computing devices, according to FutureSource Consulting, a United Kingdom-based research group. A nationwide 2015 poll of parents commissioned by the nonprofit Data Quality Campaign (which advocates greater data use in schools), meanwhile, found that parents overwhelmingly want access to information on such issues as their children’s academic performance and safety.
Some prominent research and children’s-media groups see Parents Across America’s stance as alarmist. They express concern that the group is giving renewed attention to some questionable research, including one widely discredited study calling for no screen time at all for children younger than 12.
Parents are “absolutely right to call into question many of the overheated claims for ed tech’s benefits,” said Michael Levine, the executive director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, a New York City-based research center. But, Levine said, “all screens are not created equal. There is a huge difference between video chatting with grandma and being left alone to play first-person-shooter games.”
Launched in 2010, Parents Across America is run on a small annual budget, with funding provided in part by a foundation associated with the Chicago Teachers Union. Despite its size and lack of structure, the group and some of its leaders have had a big impact: The standardized-testing opt-out movement they have helped support has gained considerable traction in recent years, and parent-activist concerns about student-data privacy played a huge role in the demise of inBloom, a massive student-data-warehouse project started with $100 million in support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York (both of which provide support to Education Week).
Julie Woestehoff, who has a 3-year-old grandson and a history of parent activism dating back more than 20 years, is Parents Across America’s current interim executive director. She spoke by phone with Education Week about her group’s concerns.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
What’s the big message you hope to get across to parents?
We think parents need to be much more vigilant about what’s happening in schools around digital technology, and we think schools need to be more accountable for what technology they use and whether it is valuable.
What are some of your specific concerns?
When ed-tech proponents start calling it “student-centered learning” or “personalized learning,” that raises a red flag, because it’s really totally the opposite. Most parents think personalized learning means a teacher paying more attention to their child. But what it increasingly means in schools is digital classrooms, bigger class sizes, and curriculum being fed through a company’s software program. It’s sneaky.
I also think with screen time parents see how that impacts their own children. It’s really not that different from television. Most parents think their children should be doing less on screens. They need to be responsible for that at home, but schools need to be responsible as well, rather than just throwing devices and packaged curricula at students.
Some see Parents Across America’s stance as well outside the mainstream. Groups like the National PTA, for example, “believe students must have access to digital devices and the Internet to engage in 21st-century learning.”
We think parents should be alarmed. They already are alarmed. We are not making that up. These are real dangers. We start there. I don’t apologize for that.
I’ve done this work for 25 years and counting. When we first started protesting high-stakes testing in the late 1990s, people would say, “Well, there are always going to be tests.” It’s the same thing now with technology. Parents need to wake up to the fact that the push behind ed tech is not a benign force trying to bring children into the digital age. That is something that the PTA will not acknowledge, and you just need to look at their funding sources to understand why.
There is also concern that your perspective is not representative of the beliefs of many low-income parents and parents of color. A survey by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, for example, found that low-income parents felt strongly that technology could help prepare their children for important tests at school.
We clearly have a progressive take on education. We don’t represent all parents, but we are a multiracial, multicultural group. All parents need more information about this situation. It’s new to a lot of white middle-class parents as well.
What do you think appropriate technology use in school looks like?
There need to be very strict limits on what kind of screens are being used, and parents need to be much more involved. We support proper use of technology in a limited manner, as long it allows for teachers to be in control of their classroom and allows parents to protect their children and allows children to have a healthy physical environment, with good, strong relationships. Those are the things that make a good school. We see digital learning as undermining that.
Nobody has all the answers, but parents should be able to find out what devices and software programs their kids are using in school. It’s so basic, but most parents are not given that information.
Parents should also be able to get answers to questions like, “How is this enhancing education? What kind of research and track record do these programs have?” It’s the same kinds of questions we encourage parents to ask about standardized testing and [the Common Core State Standards].
Parents Across America has actively opposed what you describe as the “corporate reform” agenda, including common core, standardized testing, test-based teacher evaluation, and charter school expansion. To what extent are your warnings about education technology and personalized learning an extension of those fights?
Just look who is behind it all. Look who is selling the merchandise. It’s still Pearson, still Bill Gates and his foundation, still all the same usual suspects. We’re just peeling back the layers and trying to show parents what’s behind the hard sell.
A version of this article appeared in the September 07, 2016 edition of Education Week as Parent Group Sees Education Technology ‘Threats’