Diane Ravitch’s “Error” on Technology in Schools

Thanks, everyone for your thoughtful responses and comments on part one of my review, linked here.


To summarize, I believe “privatization” and “corporate” are too simplistic a brand with which to lash the education-reform complex.

I believe a more subtle characterization with more explanatory power is that this is a technocratic and technophilic coalition, uniting conservatives, liberals, bureaucrats, politicians, entrepreneurs, executives, school leaders, and philanthropists–hey, even some teachers, parents and students!–in the basic conviction that schools must innovate, using technology and data. 

This explanation is a little bit juicier, because there are far more people who accept the underlying technocratic/technophilic premise, even if they take it in very different directions and to different degrees, than those who swallow the case for privatization. So there’s abundant room for debate and disagreement.

Quoting myself earlier in the year:

“Is it possible to support real technological innovation in schools without supporting the privatization of schools? Can learning be personalized without destroying the public mission of schools? Do advocates of web-enabled learning necessarily stand in opposition to teachers’ unions?”

Ravitch’s answers to these questions would probably be no, no, and yes. While my answers are yes, yes, and no. Her view of technology in schools can be summarized in her book’s index:


.. technology’s replacing of, 19, 34, 250, 303”

Her book contains one reference to “blended learning” in quotes, as a Trojan horse for, you guessed it, technology replacing teachers. No references to (for example) open educational resources, connected educators, gamification, social media, or the Maker movement.

Is technology really being used to replace teachers? It’s hard to see the evidence, not in public schools. Pupil-teacher ratios in public schools have fallen steadily over the last 40 years, including from 15.9 to 1 to 15.2 to 1 between 2001 and 2011 (linking to the Google cache because NCES is down due to the government shutdown).

If “technology” is not (yet) replacing teachers, what in fact is it doing in schools? And what could it be doing for education? Here’s a couple of cases in point:

  1. Simply, acclimating students to the way work is done and life is lived in the developed world. This is the age of Google and ubiquitous smartphones. Why should they disappear at the school gate?
  2. Enabling students to share work to the open web.
  3. Connecting students with marine biologists or astrophysicists.
  4. Saving money on textbooks through Creative Commons-licensed resources.
  5. Customizing teaching for gifted students, students with disabilities, or other learning differences.
  6. Setting creative educators free to network with each other and reinvigorate their commitment to teaching and learning.

On the other hand, technology’s having deleterious effects too:

  1. Wasting money that could be used for wraparound services, basic supplies and, yes, maybe more teachers.
  2. Widening the gap between rich and poor classrooms (the digital divide).
  3. Exposing students’ data for the enrichment of private business.

How can this be? Well, technology is neither good, nor evil, nor even neutral. Nor is it beside the point or unworthy of serious consideration in any discussion of what can/should/must be done in education.

The technocratic/technophilic worldview does come with some characteristic and pernicious errors, which are worth investigating to root out. I believe it explains the current obsession with high-stakes standardized testing better than the “privatizer” lens. Technocrats must have data on which to base decisions, regardless of its quality, integrity, or relevance to the matter at hand.

It’s perhaps necessary to draw more specific battle lines among the terms “reformer,” “innovator,” and “privatizer.” The fact is, you can believe in locally, democratically controlled schools that are equitably and abundantly publicly funded and staffed with professional, well-paid teachers, and you can further hold that poverty eradication and other social progress around the family/maternal/child development matrix is equally important to any thing that happens under the umbrella called “school,” while also seeing a lot of merit in educational technology, innovation and data-driven decisionmaking. That’s what makes the current state of education reform so complicated and interesting.

POSTED BY Anya Kamenetz ON October 10, 2013

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Rocco P. Hill

About how much influence would you say that teachers and students share with Gates, NewsCorps, and Bezos in this benevolent “coalition of technophiles and technocrats?” And why do you suppose these technophiles believe that schools “must” “innovate,” using their products? Hmm…

Anya Kamenetz

I’m not saying anyone is benevolent. But I personally know plenty of teachers and students who believe that schools must innovate.

Leonie Haimson

Class sizes have gone up sharply in the last five years in districts and states throughout the country — and meanwhile technocrats like Bill Gates have promoted this. Anyone who hasn’t noticed isn’t paying attention.


I think you are right on about the “technophilic” glue that binds a disparate set of reformers together and – even though I may not agree with it all – I find it refreshing in that your assessment seems to consider “reformers” as something other than a bunch of people committed to privatizing public education. It’s not true and, yet, it is so incendiary that people start talking as if NCLB broke public education. From what I can see – the achievement gap has a very long and healthy run in k12 education in the US well before NCLB.

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