Wednesday, May 30, 2007

It's My Book in a Box

Another Bush tries his hand at edumacating students:

“The kids are so into the video games,” Ms. Hodges, a veteran teacher of 27 years, said as the children watched a cartoon character named Mr. Bighead, who switched hats rapid-fire to portray the British, French and Spanish perspectives on the colonies. “We have to entertain them, or we lose them.”

The clips emanate from a purple plastic box, known as a COW, for Curriculum on Wheels. They are the brainchild of Neil Bush, brother of the president, who is president of Ignite! Learning. The company has sold its science and social studies curriculums, aimed mostly at middle school grades, to 2,300 of the nation’s 85,000 public schools, and is seeking to expand its business to China, Japan, South Korea and the Middle East.

Video games are always fun, but let's withhold the fervent faith in COWs for the time being. Technology can be useful but it does have its drawbacks. If you recall, one of the largest counterarguments to having laptops in the classroom is that they've had virtually no positive impact on students' standardized test scores, the only benchmark we have in ensuring equity in the education students are receiving across many communities. In fact, computer-based instruction in general carries the same dead weight:

A recent extensive study of educational software by the federal Education Department, which looked at 15 reading and math courses used by nearly 9,500 students in 132 schools, found that computer-based instruction, while expensive, had no effect on student achievement. (Mr. Bush’s curriculum was not studied.)

There have not been any definitive studies yet suggesting that COWs specifically are having an impact on student achievement, although results from some recent research should be available shortly.

I am, however, lacking confidence in this program because of what I've read so far. On the COW website, Ignite! Learning, clicking on "results" takes you to a page with positive teacher testimonials, as if making teachers happy and students excited is an important "result" of education. Navigating to the "research" subsection offers a few vague percentage increases in performance from unexplained research studies, although with more information about the study currently undertaken. "Results" is probably not a good name for this section.

The article and COW website both note some devastatingly-backwards responses to the COW way of life-- textbooks are to blame for our educational troubles:

Mr. Bush said his curriculum made social studies and science more accessible. “Middle schools use 19th-century technologies to teach 21st-century kids,” he said. “Textbooks honestly have failed middle school children. They rely on children’s ability to read, and they’re boring.”

Textbooks can't fail students. Textbooks are inanimate objects. They are educational tools that must be correctly utilized to be effective. You can't blame a hammer and nails for the shoddy construction of a chair or table.

Mr. Bush is suggesting that books are somehow past their prime, and that differences in reading capabilities should be side-stepped by having students avoid reading altogether.

Educators are being asked to trust a man who is implying that illiteracy is unimportant? As per the Achievement Gap, nine-year-olds growing up in low-income communities are already three grade levels behind their peers in high-income communities, half of them won't graduate from high school, and those who do graduate will, on average, read and do math at the level of eighth graders in high-income communities. We need students to read and write as much as possible to change this. We don't need more video games in their lives.

But instead of focusing on the glaring problem of these inequities, let's burn the books and have Mr. Bighead teach textbook concepts with flashy graphics. This is Mr. Bush's strategy for improving education. And other bigheads are biting:

On the company’s Web site are testimonials from teachers and school officials, some of whom say that they have been able to toss out their textbooks because the COW is so comprehensive.

Maybe we should hold off on dumping the textbooks until we know for sure of the impact COWs have on student achievement. After all, we will not defeat illiteracy by ignoring the one way students will learn to read and write--by reading and writing.

Technology is not a panacea for our nation's educational woes. Creativity and innovation are tools that educators can use, but the focus must always be on students attaining large academic gains.

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