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Magical Thinking… or Diversionary Tactics

June 8, 2013

I am never sure whether politicians are engaging in magical thinking with their education proposals or if they are all engaged in diversionary tactics designed to shift our attention away inequality, which is the root cause of the so-called “failing public schools”. The Republicans form of magical thinking is that resilience, good parenting, and hard work can overcome inequality and so they advocate no-excuses charter schools and vouchers as the way for schools to improve. Democrats, on the other hand, seem to think that they can expand schooling and use technology to expand opportunities without increasing the broad based taxes required to provide comprehensive supports for children raised in poverty.

The latest example of technology-to-the rescue came earlier this week when President Obama announced his plan to provide 99% of all public schools with high speed internet. Edward Wyatt’s NYTimes article announcing this initiative, explained that while schools generally have fast internet connections, they generally lack the robust connectivity needed to make extensive use of technology:

Administration officials said that while the E-rate program, established in 1996, currently provides low-cost Internet connections to community institutions, the speed of those services is rarely different than home subscribers can receive, about 20 megabits per second.

That is fast enough for the average home consumer to stream video, but if dozens of classrooms are trying to view video or listen to digital audio files at the same time, a school’s network will operate much more slowly.

The Obama administration expects that the new E-rate fund will provide, within five years, new high-speed broadband and wireless service in 99 percent of American communities. In addition, schools will receive training in using technology in the classroom.

This thinking is magical on at least three levels: first it assumes that the FCC will increase the e-rate as he is recommending, thereby allowing discounted connections to schools and libraries. Secondly, it assumes that there will be competition among providers in each community, an assumption that has not been the case in many of the communities where I have consulted over the past two years. Without competition, the discounts Obama forecasts will not materialize. Finally, it assumes that school districts and libraries will have the wherewithal to fund the technology tools needed to connect to broadband once it is in place– an assumption that I undercut in my recent post illustrating how federal cuts will ultimately compromise public schools’ ability to fund technology in the near future and coming five years.

There is one last element of magical thinking: providing high speed internet to schools without providing it to all residents will not result in equitable educational opportunity. If children go home to a house where high speed internet is not available at an affordable rate their access to instruction will be limited. If they are taught by teachers who reside in houses where affordable high speed internet is not available their educational opportunities will be limited. Politicians assume that providing high speed connectivity in schools is sufficient: it is not. Access to information via the internet is as essential as having electricity: until all homes have access to high speed internet students without access will remain in the dark. Thinking that the telecom industry will provide internet access to rural areas or neighborhoods with high poverty levels is magical thinking in the same way that thinking private enterprise can provide superior public education without addressing inequality.

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