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The new Rutgers paper, “Digital Divide, Critical and Crisis-Informatics Perspectives on K-12 Emergency Remote Teaching During the Pandemic,” is a valuable (if jargony) overview of the truly disastrous lack of oversight and leadership from the Murphy Administration’s Department of Education. But the authors should have abandoned their Luddite-like attack on all things technological because this ideology interviews with their scholarship.
First the four authors, relying on a representative sample of NJ teachers, clearly demonstrate how poorly the DOE managed the abrupt switch in March 2020 from in-school learning to online instruction. Teachers described the state guidance as “haphazard” and “under-resourced,” resulting in “social inequality” and severe teacher stress.
Teachers also talked about what the authors call “accountability vagueness” that “created feelings of under-performance for themselves and their students.” One teacher in a low-income high school felt “district pressure” to pass students even if they failed to master any material. She told the researchers, “I cannot keep track of every single assignment and if it’s being plagiarized or not. Especially when the culture is like: ‘if they turned it in, mark them present.’ So as a professional, it’s frustrating. Because we’re being asked to produce quality lessons, but the student accountability is kind of a joke.”
In a statement to (paywalled) Politico, lead author Rebecca Reynolds said, “beyond a PDF list of suggestions for online-learning platforms, districts received little guidance from the state on structuring online classes, choosing technology or paying for online service licenses.”
This documentation of the DOE’s failure to usefully guide school districts is important, validating superintendents’ concerns about lack of leadership or even the most basic communication.
Yet in the second part of the paper the authors hit some speed bumps as they bewail educational technology’s “abject failures…in supporting marginalized students of color and socio-economically disadvantaged students.”
Here’s the thing: the catastrophic digital divide between rich and poor districts (example: Paterson’s calamitous roll-out of remote instruction) isn’t the failure of the technology but of the DOE’s poor oversight and individual districts’ longstanding inability to effectively allocate resources.
Why are the reseachers so scared of the digital space? This is, after all, a technology-based world, including teaching and learning. What the authors call “edtech” can be a boon to students and teachers, like this platform used in New Egypt. The lack of nuance here and the focus on ideology after careful reliance on facts diminishes their work as they posit technology in classrooms as “a broader cultural framing that aligns with social shaping of technology and publics’ agency to push back,” one that inevitably leads to “the undermining of public education.” With robots running classrooms (that’s sort of the gestalt here), districts will be wooed into a “shifting of budgeting priorities” like “laying off instructors and instructional assistants, and reducing of overhead for purchasing and upkeep of learning materials and physical spaces, in ways that degrade the quality of public education services in favor of the bottom line.”
Actually, according to Chad Aldeman at Georgetown’s Edunomics Lab, “well-respected news outlets continue to perpetuate an outdated scarcity mindset that schools have fewer dollars and fewer teachers than in prior years.” We have more teachers than we used to. We’re spending more money than we used to. Meanwhile, enrollment in US K-12 schools is dropping, possibly a pandemic effect but remember that the birth rate has dropped 20% since 2007 (although it ticked up slightly this past year).
Get a grip. No one is “laying off instructors” so we can buy more chromebooks.
Another weakness of this section is the authors fall for the false dichotomy of “public” vs. “private” in education. They write,
As environmental, public health, safety, education, and state sovereignty crises occur, public–private partnerships of this type stand to gain legitimacy and government contracts that entrench their position in the fabric of public institutions in a constellation Klein (2008) has called ‘disaster capitalism.’
But public schools rely on the private sector for everything from busing and food preparation to nurses, speech and language therapists, engineers, lawyers, etc. Is NASA a private company because it buys its rockets from Spacex and its trucks from Ford? Is the Center for Disease Control a private company because it buys vaccines made by Merck and Pfizer? Is that “disaster capitalism”?
From the Rutgers website:
Looking for a good deal on a new personal computer? Academic pricing from Apple, Dell, Lenovo and HP can be accessed at findtech.rutgers.edu.
The researchers should have stuck with the testimony of NJ teachers and left their misplaced paranoia on the cutting room floor.