Review 2: Cuban and Christensen, Johnson and Horn

The education reform rhetoric has reached a fever pitch. A perusal of the opinion pages and television news shows, even Oprah, reflects the growing angst about the nation’s increasing powerlessness to solve the fundamental question of how best to educate our nation’s youth. We disagree on the content, the methods, the assessments. We lay blame on the teachers, the administrators, the unions, the states, the feds, the parents, and the students themselves. We agonize over our slipping test scores as our global economic rivals surpass us on almost every measure. It is hard to imagine a more difficult time to part of such a seemingly disastrous system.

Indeed, the majority of the education reform rhetoric is dominated by the language of Big Business. From value-added evaluations of teachers to talk of market-driven reform, our nation’s business interests are shining their light on education and not liking what they see. But with such a narrow beam, it is no wonder that things look bleak. Students are not specialized workers, they are developing, curious, creative beings waiting to be shaped and molded as well as to do some shaping and molding themselves. Teachers are expected to be masters of multiple disciplines, coaches, therapists, social workers. Learning is a messy, inefficient process: the antithesis of Big Business. In fact, it is not even clear that the promises of Big Business are even working for Big Business. Big Business should be taking a long hard look at their own need for reform, as is evidenced by the collapse of General Motors, the banking crisis and horrific housing market, the Great Recession in general. When I hear the language of commerce applied to education, I personally object to the commodification of our children in the first place. In the end, these reforms borrowed from the business world generally don’t work any better or worse than the current system we have. The devil, it turns out, is in the details. That being said, it is a worthwhile enterprise to identify what it means to be educated and the best ways to go about doing that.

In Oversold and Underused, Larry Cuban considers this language of reform in light of the whole-sale adoption of computers and other new technologies by our nation’s schools. Larry Cuban’s analysis of the complete infusion of computers into our nation’s schools (recent estimates put the ratio at 1 computer for every 4 students, and, obviously, the number of 1:1 laptop schools is only increasing. Michigan recently opened six New Tech High Schools and has plans for many more, each of which rely on 1:1 laptops and problem-based learning), brings to light both the benefits and drawbacks of the spending on computers in schools. A chronic plea echoed throughout the nation’s schools, especially now in the age of the Great Recession’s brutal budget cuts, is for more resources, more money per pupil, more help. While this look at the implementation of new technologies is a tad dated (my favorite being the discussion of laser discs! How quaint!) the questions Cuban raised remain unanswered today.

Cuban takes aim at the Big Business rhetoric that so often works its way into discussions of education reform. Big Business tell us that computers make workers more efficient, thus we order more computers for our students. As Cuban states, “… the more serious problems afflicting urban and rural poor schools–inequitable funding, extraordinary health and social needs growing out of poverty, crumbling facilities, unqualified teachers–have little to do with a lack of technology.” This speaks the heart of the issue: that we do not adequately meet the needs of individual students and communities. Equipping a school with computers will not be the panacea that some technology advocates believe it to be. Recognizing all the factors that influence the use and implementation of the technology is essential to proper implementation. And when the choice comes down between paying for essential needs (school lunches, toilet paper, heat) and the wiring of classrooms, it becomes an even harder sell. I remember when the school I taught at repeatedly ran out of toilet paper. The grumbling very quickly came to complaining about the cost of a SmartBoard and how much toilet paper that would buy.

Cuban’s point as I see it is this: that computers and other new technology tools won’t solve all our problems, meeting the needs of the learners and the teachers will solve our problems. Blaming a teacher or a school for poor utilization of the resources they’ve been given in terms of new technologies is blame misplaced. Failing to recognize the very real obstacles to technology implementation has led to a mismanagement of resources. That is not to say that we shouldn’t equip these classrooms: merely that, if we are going to equip classrooms, we do it in a way that honors the needs of those who will ultimately utilize those resources. Cuban’s clear-eyed criticism of the corporate and market-driven reforms that have led to a type of unbridled consumerism in our schools is exactly the same conversation we are continuing to have as various federal and state reforms (ESEA reauthorization, Race to the Top, Common Core Standards movement, etc) emphasize even more completely that standardized test scores and other “business-style assessments” that remain intertwined with the pursuit of wiring our schools.

One of the most cogent points Cuban makes is around the continued agreement that students should gain computer literacy, and the continued disagreement of what computer literacy means. This is a strong indictment of the computer advocates reform argument: if we can’t identify what computer literacy is, how can we prove that we’ve been successful in producing students who are computer literate?

So what to do with the issues Cuban raises? In Disrupting Class, Christensen, Johnson, and Horn take an interesting look at the ways that education might utilize the idea of disruptive education and the ways in which technology has facilitated the disruption in order to create powerful learning opportunities for students, a way to better meed their needs as learners. The authors advocate for a student-centered approach, which, according to the authors, is available largely in the context of market-driven reform’s most common answer to questions of education reform: charter schools. While charter schools as a concept are not a bad intervention, research has largely shown that charter schools are like public schools: there are exceptionally good charter schools and there are exceptionally bad charter schools. In the end, the concepts behind Disrupting Class, that student-centered learning can be facilitated by the thoughtful use of newer technologies, are sound. In this way, the authors are answering the very real criticism raised by Cuban with a strong model for technology implementation.

In an ideal world, the very complicated issues of education reform would be discussed in thoughtful and reflective ways, respectful of the teachers and students for whom these reforms are the most important. Instead, we are often subjected to sound bites and 140 character micro-messages that tend to overlook the complexity that is human learning. And while it is true that education in this country should be improved for every student, it seems that we are mistaking the failures of the system as representative of the system itself. For every crumbling school, there are beautiful examples of learning environments. For every child not learning to read, there are many more who do. It has always been my desire to help those who are struggling, who are failed by our current system, but I also worry that our current national discussions of education reform fail to recognize the amazing job that many are doing in education millions of our children. That is a huge, messy job, as these authors have rightly discussed and identified. My only wish is that the larger conversation might be so forthcoming.

Cuban, Larry (2001). Oversold and Underused: Computers in Classrooms, 1980-2000. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Christensen, Clayton, Curtis W. Johnson, and Michael B. Horn (2008). Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. New York: McGraw Hill.

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