Computers in K-12 Classrooms — Helpful, Hindrances, or Ornaments? interview with Andrew J. Coulson

Published April 1, 2000

Public schooling: “a legally protected government monopoly bogged down by excessive regulation, protected from serious competition by its guaranteed tax funding base, bereft of the profit motive that spurs innovation and efficiency, and a pawn to credentialism.”

In January, Microsoft and Intel launched a major initiative to train computer-literate teachers in how to make better use of technology in the classroom. According to Intel president and CEO Craig Barrett, the program recognized that computers in classrooms weren’t much help if teachers didn’t know how to use them effectively. The initiative would enable teachers to enhance their lesson plans and presentations by accessing resources on the Internet and making use of desktop publishing and multimedia programs like Microsoft Office 2000 and Encarta 2000.

How many teachers currently use software for classroom instruction? Just over half, according to a 1999 national survey of teachers by Education Week. More than three-quarters of those teachers use software only as a supplementary resource. Another national study found that teachers typically use classroom computers for low-tech tasks such as word processing.

Even if teachers know how to use computers effectively, does the application of that technology in the classroom produce cost-effective gains in teacher productivity or student achievement? Does it provide students with the technical skills increasingly needed in the 21st century workplace? Given the huge investment required for technology acquisition, training, maintenance, and ongoing upgrades, should computers take priority over other pressing priorities in education?

Andrew J. Coulson is an individual uniquely positioned to address those questions, with experience in microcomputer software design and in evaluating educational systems. A former Microsoft software engineer, Coulson is now a senior research associate with the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Ohio’s Bowling Green State University.

Author of the highly acclaimed book, Market Education: The Unknown History (Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, NJ, 1999), Coulson was interviewed recently by School Reform News Managing Editor George Clowes.

Clowes: Could you tell me how you became involved in education reform?

Coulson: My first career was as a software design engineer for Microsoft, though I didn’t stay for very long. After a few years I realized I didn’t find the work as fulfilling as did some of my friends and colleagues, so I began to look around for another field I would find more satisfying.

Of all the issues that intrigued me, education was the one in which I felt I could make the most effective contribution. I’ve always been fascinated by the way people learn, and the settings in which that learning takes place.

After a little preliminary investigation, I discovered that very few people were asking the big question about education: What kind of education system is best able to meet the public’s needs? I decided to address that question by studying school systems from all over the world and from ancient times to the present. After spending five years researching the subject full-time, I published Market Education: The Unknown History in 1999.

Clowes: Was there anything in your experiences in a fast-growing, highly successful, high-tech company that gave you insight into the problems of U.S. public schools?

Coulson: No and Yes. From the outset, I have been very wary of direct analogies between education and other industries. I see such analogies as useful for suggesting lines of inquiry, or as helpful for explaining a complex point, but I don’t think they provide evidence from which conclusions can be drawn. That said, there were many lines of inquiry suggested by my work in the software industry.

The incredibly intense sense of competition that existed within Microsoft with regard to alternative operating systems and applications was a huge factor in driving our work. We knew that consumers had other alternatives, and so we had no choice but to try to build better products than our competitors.

The other hallmark of Microsoft, which differed dramatically from my previous experience with a typical college bureaucracy, was the remarkable freedom and flexibility employees enjoyed. In my first few days on the job I kept asking my supervisors what hours I was expected to work, and they wouldn’t answer the question. They had little interest in how many hours I worked, or which hours I worked. They really only cared that the jobs I was assigned got done well and on-time.

One final point about Microsoft that I kept in mind while doing my research: credentials were worth next-to-nothing in hiring decisions. We interviewed candidates from world famous colleges and from ones I had never heard of; we interviewed mathematicians, physicists, and English majors, as well as engineers and computer scientists. Neither I nor anyone I knew ever asked to see an applicant’s college transcripts. Instead, we took up to a full day to interview candidates and gave them the opportunity to demonstrate the sorts of problem-solving abilities they would need on the job. We hired people based on their abilities, not their pedigrees.

Clowes: Do business leaders, in general, have real concerns about the public school system? Or is it, as some claim, a “manufactured crisis”?

Coulson: The results on this question are a matter of public record. Polls of employers are done every few years, and their views on the qualifications of entry-level job applicants are abysmal. Employers see too many high-school graduates who can’t write complete sentences or reliably do basic arithmetic. The percentage of companies in this country providing remedial academic instruction to their new employees jumped from 18 percent in 1984 to 43 percent in 1995.

I have to mention, though, that I am not one of those people who says we must improve our education system for the sake of “the economy.” My focus has always been on people, not businesses. The first chapter of my book Market Education summarizes the public’s individual and social goals for education, and uses those goals as the yardstick by which to compare the performance of different school systems. I discuss the need for preparation for employment from the students’ and parents’ points of view, rather than from the point of view of employers.

Clowes: What do you see as the cause of the deficiencies of the public school system?

Coulson: The underlying cause of public schooling’s inability to satisfy the public’s goals is that it is a legally protected government monopoly bogged down by excessive regulation, protected from serious competition by its guaranteed tax funding base, bereft of the profit motive that spurs innovation and efficiency, and a pawn to credentialism.

I reached this conclusion not by analogy to the software industry, but by actually looking at state-run school systems from 500 BC to the present, and comparing them with parent-driven educational markets over that same span of time. When supplemented with financial assistance for low-income families, markets have proven themselves superior in serving not only the individual demands of families, but also our broader social goals for education.

Clowes: Why do you think so many lawmakers are ordering up the application of new technology–such as Internet access and new PCs–as a way to solve these problems?

Coulson: I think you really have to ask them. Based on my own assessment, it is utterly impossible for technology to solve the problems of public schooling, because those problems are inherent in the system’s design. Computers will not create competition, they will not inject the profit motive, they will not return decision making power to parents, and they will not give teachers the freedom to teach what and how they think best.

The belief that computers can solve our educational problems is akin to believing that Soviet communism could have worked as efficiently as U.S. capitalism if only it had been more heavily computerized. No one ever suggested that implausible argument, and I can’t imagine why so many people are making an analogous argument about our state education monopoly.

Clowes: Is there any evidence that giving students better access to the Internet and to computer technology helps or hinders them in their subsequent careers?

Coulson: Unfortunately, I am not aware of any such research. That’s typical, though. Curricula and pedagogical methods in public schools are rarely ever based on empirical evidence of their effectiveness.

Clowes: What about evidence that students in schools with Internet access and a low student-to-PC ratio learn faster and better than schools without much technology?

Coulson: Taking all uses of computer technology together, the net effect in mathematics is slightly negative. According to a study by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), the longer students spend in front of the keyboard, the lower their math scores fall. Nationally representative data for other subjects is hard to come by, but again this is par for the course.

Our current technological jihad is going on not because there is reliable widespread evidence of its effectiveness, but because it seems like a good idea to certain influential political and business leaders.

Clowes: Why do you think the application of technology in schools hasn’t raised productivity the way it has in most businesses?

Coulson: In business, Information Technology managers and executives make very detailed assessments of their technological options and make the decision of whether or not to adopt a particular technology based on that assessment.

The situation in public schooling is rather more like backing a dump truck up to the schools and unloading a pile of computers into them. Very often the budget for maintenance and teacher training is non-existent, and there is no classroom-tested, computer-based curriculum for teachers to use. Teachers are often left to their own devices to figure out how to use the machines, and how to keep them running.

Any private business run that way would have a hard time competing against competitors who carefully thought out and implemented their technology strategies.

Clowes: Has technology in schools helped bridge the “digital divide” in resources between rich and poor school districts, and the achievement gap between white Anglo-Saxon and other ethnic groups?

Coulson: The “digital divide,” the idea that poor or minority children will be less exposed to computers in the home and therefore less well prepared for technologically advanced workplaces, is a valid concern. Unfortunately, public schooling’s approach to the issue has thus far not only been unhelpful, it has worsened the job prospects of the groups it was meant to help.

The same ETS study I mentioned earlier found that black children are now spending even more time at computers than other students, but that this increased computer usage has been associated with an even wider gap in their achievement.

It is far more important to ensure that all students have the basic academic skills that contemporary jobs require than to focus on the vague notion of “familiarity” with technology. I had never before used the Windows operating system when Microsoft hired me to work on the next version of that product in the late 1980s. In general, it only takes a few weeks for people to get up-to-speed with the fairly simple computer programs used in entry-level jobs. More sophisticated jobs require more sophisticated skills that are taught in college, not elementary schools or high schools.

Students, in other words, would be much better off if public schools would do a better job of teaching reading and math, and just dedicated a few weeks in the senior year of high school to closing the “digital divide.”

Clowes: If public schools don’t try to keep up with technology in the classroom, isn’t there a danger they’ll be bypassed by the technology and lose customers to virtual schools and curriculum delivery via the Internet?

Coulson: That question presupposes that public schools will be able to “keep up with technology” just by spending money on computers as they have been doing. This is an unjustified assumption. Just because public schools spend money on things, doesn’t mean they can deliver the goods.

We spend roughly $7,000 per year per student in our public schools, but one out of every four 16-to-25-year-olds in the United States is either totally illiterate or has such poor reading and writing skills that they couldn’t hold (or even apply for) most semi-skilled jobs. That’s $84,000 of public schooling per child and a significant minority of young American adults are still functionally illiterate.

Why would we think public schools could do a better job doing something so potentially complex as integrating technology into the classroom if they can’t teach reading?

I suspect that regardless of public schooling’s efforts in the area of technology, an increasing number of families is going to start looking elsewhere for educational services in the coming years.

Clowes: What do you consider to be the best way to implement computers in the classroom?

Coulson: That’s a question best left to the marketplace. The idea that one practice could or should be enshrined as superior ignores the tremendous pace of change in the computer industry. The kinds of educational software that will be possible on groups of blindingly fast PCs running over blindingly fast networks can only be guessed at today.

Clowes: Is there a different strategy that both high-spending and low-spending schools could use that would best prepare students for the challenge of working in the 21st century’s economy?

Coulson: The most cost-effective strategy is to reintroduce a free educational marketplace and provide low-income families with financial assistance so that they can fully participate in that marketplace. Unless and until we reintroduce choice and financial responsibility for parents, and freedom, competition, and the profit motive for educators, we can’t expect to enjoy a dramatic improvement in educational outcomes or efficiency.