Thursday, May 24, 2012

California School Pressures Parents to Buy IPads

The American Civil Liberties Union (ALCU) is challenging an elementary school’s drive to put technology into the hands of every student, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported this week. Tierra Bonita Elementary School, in Poway, California has initiated a technology program requiring every fourth and fifth grader to have an iPad or similar tablet-style computer. Students were given the choice of using their own device, buying one from the district for $379 (plus $79 warranty and $25 case), or renting or borrowing one from the district.

The problem with their program, according to the ACLU, is that they warned parents the program would be halted if more than 10% of families had to borrow a device. Furthermore, the principal told parents “We are just 15 commitments away from being the first school in Poway to equip all students in 4th and 5th grade next year with a digital device. If you have not turned in a response, we need you.”

The ACLU is arguing that the email and survey “go far beyond assessing interest” by placing “significant pressure on families to either provide or pay for a digital device. This pressure is dangerously close if not tantamount to directly charging an illegal fee...”

While one could easily come up with numerous pedagogically sound ways to use personal tablets in the classroom and for homework assignments, the real driving force behind the “laptops for every child” movement is lobbying by the tech and textbook companies which stand to profit handsomely from it (see here and here).

It is also a boondoggle for school districts. Sure, they could put all their textbooks on one laptop instead of issuing many books to each student. However, they (or their students) would still be responsible for upkeep and maintenance, which could quickly become prohibitively expensive if students treat their tablets as carelessly as many treat their paper textbooks.

As a high school science teacher, when I think about what my students really need to succeed, personal laptops or tablets are pretty low on the list. Those who are struggling most in my classes are the ones who lack the prerequisite skills to succeed in a college preparatory level science class. They lack these skills not because they lack computers, but because they lack proficiency in reading, math, English language and study skills. What difference does it make whether they are having trouble reading from a textbook or an ebook?

While the ACLU is probably taking the correct stand on this, the case is symptomatic of a much bigger problem in education: We continue to gut K-12 funding and then waste what little is left on lame solutions to nonexistent or exaggerated problems. How can anyone think it makes sense to fire and furlough teachers, balloon class sizes, eviscerate support services and then try to compensate for these losses and also shrink the achievement gap by purchasing laptops or tablets for every student?

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