Blog Post

Stagnant Future, Stagnant Tests: Pointed Response to NY Times "Grading the Digital School"

Matt Richtel's panoramic essay, "In Classroom of the Future, Stagnant Scores."  weighs in this morning by  "Grading the Digital School."  I found myself cheering and jeering alternately throughout this piece.  Why?  Because it so quickly confuses "standards" with "standardized test scores" and technology put into classrooms with "preparing kids for a digital future (actually, the digital present:  it's here, it's now, like it or not).   These confusions are so pervasive in our culture and so urgent that I want to take a moment to focus on them.   The essay is well worth reading and you can find it here:


The article begins with a description of an inventive, imaginative, engaging assignment by seventh-grade teacher Amy Furman who teaches her kids "As You Like It" with all manner not just of technology but of interactivity.  The kids are co-creating, they are sharing blogs, and Facebook entries, and finding information on the Internet that applies to interpreting Shakespeare;  they are understanding together, they are making connections to their own contemporary culture (Kanye!), and they are doing exactly what seventh-grade kids should be doing for true learning to be happening:  they are understanding a complex text and making sense of it within the context of their own lives.   No parent wants more, no teacher does, than for kids to be able to not just "read" Shakespeare but to understand why his work still speaks urgently to the present, why it is worth taking the time to read all that odd English from another time.  ("Odd" is kids' talk:  I call it exquisitely beautiful, but I'm an English teacher:  for a child to realize it is beautiful is what every English teacher hopes for).


So what's the problem? All this knowledge, all this understanding, even some technology too  But American test scores are stagnant.  CRISIS!    Here's what Richtel writes:  "To be sure, test scores can go up or down for many reasons. But to many education experts, something is not adding up — here and across the country. In a nutshell: schools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning."


Oh, no, no.   First, Amy Furman could have come up with the same fantastically creative and interactive technology without the Internet.  That might have saved some bucks.  But it would have done nothing to help kids understand not just Shakespeare but the  implications of their own lives on line.   Because they can use technology easily, doesn't mean they understand it.   And that's a problem.  The whole point of living in a "Broadcast Yourself" era is any one of those blogs or Facebook quips can go out into the world instantly.   We are not responsible as educators unless we are teaching not just with technology but through it, about it, because of it.   We need to make kids understand its power, its potential, its dangers, its use.  That isn't just an investment worth making but one that it would be irresponsible to avoid.


Keep in mind public, compulsory school was invented in the 19th century because of the industrial age which needed a certain kind of focused worker who understood the new divisions of labor.   Keep in mind one product of the industrial age was the steam-powered press and machine made paper and ink that put books into the hands of the middle class for the first time in history.  Pundits worried that people wouldn't know how to read those books wisely and well.   No preacher mediated the message.   But schools could do just that.   If our forefathers mandated school for the first generation of mass readers, why wouldn't we mandate that schools today address the technology that is int he hands of our students today?   Wouldn't that be utterly irresponsible?


What Ms. Furman is doing is exactly right.  She is investing in the future of our kids.  She is investing in helping them to be responsible citizens of a world that is digital and that has an awful lot of irresponsible citizens.  She is teaching a classic and teaching the world of today in which that classic lives and breathes.  I applaud her.   And those test scores?  How can A, B, C, and D multiple choice end-of-grade testing possibly comprehend the complexity and importance of what Ms. Furman is doing in her classroom.


Those tests can't really.  They too were invented for the industrial age, and for a model of efficiency exemplified by the Model T.   We cannot keep educating kids for the efficiencies of 1914 (when the multiple choice test was invented).  We must, if we are responsible, educate them for the world they already inhabit in their play and will soon inhabit in their work.   The tests we require do not begin to comprehend the lives our kids lead.   A great teacher has to come up with a workaround, finding creative and challenging ways to teach despite being saddled with the testing apparatus invented for the immigrants coming into America during World War I.  [For a fuller discussion of standardized testing, read this excerpt from Now You See It}


It is not the test scores that are stagnant. It is the tests themselves.   We need a better, more interactive, more comprehensive, and accurate way of testing how kids think, how they learn, how they create, how the browse the Web and find knowledge, how they synthesize it and apply it to the world they live in.   As long as we measure great teaching such as Ms. Furman's by a metric invented for our great grandparents, we give kids not just the limited options of A, B, C, and D in a world where they can Google anything, anytime.  Worse, we are telling them that, in the world of the future, the skills they need, they will have to learn on their own.  For, after all, they are not on the test.  


To my mind, that is not an option.   It is a system failure for our current educational system and the way we measure.


At the same time, the issue Richtel raises about costs and investments is exactly the right one.  I am highly suspicious of just dumping expensive technology into the classroom.  The motivation always, for any innovation, has to be better learning possibilities, not better profit possibilities.   I'm wary of for-profits exploiting school systems with promises of fixes that you cannot buy with iPads.   I am as wary of just tech or IT edu-dumping as I am of spending hundreds of millions each year on the grading, preparing, creating, and prep-school cramming for the current end of grade multiple choice tests.   The industrial-educational complex is to be regarded, always, with great suspicion.   And "technodeterminism" (thinking of technology as an answer instead of a tool) is just as dubious as "test-determinism":  thinking a test score reveals real learning).  And just as costly.  


No school should invest in technology without investing in substantial, dedicated retraining of its workforce---which is to say its teachers.  If IBM pays the equivalent of $1700 per employee per year to help them keep abreast of new technology, new methods, new tools, shouldn't we be investing that kind of funding in supporting the professional development of our teachers who are training the next generation of IBM workers?    To dump technology without supporting the teachers who are responsible for teaching with that technology is a terrible disservice and an insult to teachers and to our kids. 


The point I am making in response to this very long and often exceptionally thoughtful essay by Richtel is that the issue of "technology" is inseparable from all the ways we think, communicate, and interact today.  Of course we need to teach kids how to be successful in their world.   That also means not "teaching to the test" but working with teachers to teach this technology in the best ways possible.   In  studying how to do this in the course of my research for Now You See It, some of the most brilliant and inspiring teaching I observed prepared students for technology with things like scissors, construction paper, popsicle sticks.   It taught them to think structurally and interactively, not just to Google the right answer.   That's the deal.   We are wasting our money and the time our kids spend in school if we just throw a bunch of technology into the classroom without helping them to understand that technology.   As Steve Jobs likes to say "technology itself is not enough." 






Cathy N. Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC, and author of The Future of Thinking:  Learning Institutions for a Digital Age (with HASTAC co-founder David Theo Goldberg), and the forthcoming Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (publication date, Viking Press, August 18, 2011).  below.

A starred review in the May 30 Publisher's Weekly notes:  "Davidson has produced an exceptional and critically important book, one that is all-but-impossible to put down and likely to shape discussions for years to come." PW named it one of the "top 10 science books" of the Fall 2011 season.

In the August 9 New York Times, columnist Virginia Heffernan calls the book "galvanic. . .  One of the nation’s great digital minds, she has written an immensely enjoyable omni-manifesto that’s officially about the brain science of attention. But the book also challenges nearly every assumption about American education. . . . As scholarly as “Now You See It” is — as rooted in field experience, as well as rigorous history, philosophy and science — this book about education happens to double as an optimistic, even thrilling, summer read. It supplies reasons for hope about the future. Take it to the beach. That much hope, plus that much scholarship, amounts to a distinctly unguilty pleasure."

For more information, visit or order on by clicking on the book below.

  [NYSI cover]



A look at the so-called stagnant scores shows that they are stagnating at a rather high level. The way a lot of standardized tests work, there are very few scoring at the highest level due to the way the tests are constructed. The fact that the scores are high even though the lessons are not focused on test preparation should give more principals the courage to tell their teachers create engaging lessons and to let the tests take care of themselves. This is the next best thing to dumping the tests altogether. I agree with what you have said here. I hope this comment adds to the conversation. Also check my summary of "The Myths of Standardized Tests" at This will explain why the tests should go. Keep up the good work.


Thanks for this good comment and the great reference.   I have a previous blog here that excerpts from my chapter on standardized testing, "How We Measure," in Now You See It.   We're all in this fight together, aren't we?  Thanks for all you do!



As I am in the midst of reading your fantastic book, I was preparing a blog post to respond to the NY Times article with the exact arguments that you have laid out. Douglas also hit the nail on the head in referencing the impressive scores that the district is achieving. At a certain point, which the district has obviously reached, there are diminishing marginal returns on such assessments. 

Another point to consider, which your book alludes to, is how we have spent more than $60 billion over the past 20 years getting computers into classrooms without ever allowing that technology to transform how students learn. A 19th century organization of schools is not going to be remedied by dropping 21st century tools into the classroom. 

The opportunities for differentiated, personalized learning and ongoing, embedded assessment are just beginning to be realized (ie Quest 2 Learn). HASTAC's upcoming Digital Media and Learning Competition regarding Badges for Lifelong Learning is a game changer that will accelerate this transition. Taken together with Oregon's SB 909, the walls around the industrial classroom are beginning to erode.  If students can progress at their own pace and carry their proficiencies with them in an online portfolio, then innovative solutions for education, driven by attention economics, will kick into high gear.

Students with an incentive and responsibility for guiding their own learning will navigate towards the best resources, which will be identified by total views on YouTube, 'Likes' on Facebook, and +1s on whatever Google+ becomes. Learning in schools will take on the social and collaborative spirit that drives the acquisition of knowledge and skills in the real world. 

We're on the cusp of some phenomenal changes in the manner that students access learning. 

I look forward to your voice narrating the way,

Kristoffer Kohl, Center for Teaching Quality, @edKohl


I noticed a particular sentence in the Times article that struck me, but wasn't something you focused on in your response:

"That represents around 3.5 percent of the district’s annual spending, five times what it spends on textbooks."

Why shouldn't the district spend more on technology than on textbooks? I'm not sure if that is what Richtel was trying to say, but it certainly sounds like there's a measure of disapproval there. 'Technology' as a generalized entity is no less valuable than textbooks, and no less deserving of a school's funds. Later we see:

"A division of the Education Department that rates classroom curriculums has found that much educational software is not an improvement over textbooks."

But what this fails to note is that much educational software is written by the same people who write textbooks! I have been in that industry. A lot of what passes for educational software are digitized textbooks, sometimes with animations and links to Internet sources. Nothing fundamental has changed about most of the products of the industrial-educational complex in the transition to the digital realm. Companies still produce what they are familiar with, and know will sell, and that means text books on CD, or online, with multiple-choice tests that now, as a labor-saving step, grade themselves. And I've heard textbooks decried for years as needlessly boring, stifling, and out of touch with reality--as well as functioning poorly as replacements for teachers unwilling or incapable to actually teach, another criticism Richtel seemed to level at classroom technologies.

I completely agree with you when you say that technology, without the understanding of how to apply it constructively, is not going to accomplish what we want it to:  it isn't the silver bullet to education. But I think it is important that all parties be clear on what we mean when we say "technology in the classroom" and what we intend to do with it. This isn't just PowerPoints or eBooks. As you say, this is about teaching new types of learning, and they aren't necessarily going to be things that existing measures can quantify and keep up with. Given that the present state of textbook education is no great success story, I find Richtels' skeptical treatment of it a little confounding.




  It is so important to correct the wrongheadedness that the Times article assumes.  Please keep shouting.  This is an issue that is crucial to our time.  I've shared a similar prespective on my blog  where I've suggested that real assessment is indeed possible and doable.



   It is so important to correct the wrongheadedness the Times article assumes.  Thank you.  I think real assessment is indeed possible and doable now, with the kind of investment in teacher training you recomment.  I've argue so here

Keep shouting the truth,