It’s early evening at the North Beach Elementary School in Seattle. As parents and teachers munch brownies and sip soft drinks, a Microsoft representative is taking them on a ride on the Internet.
With a few clicks on her computer, she shows how a student can quickly pull together a school report on dinosaurs, complete with pictures.
The presentation, one of 1,500 Family Technology Nights that Microsoft sponsors each year across the nation, ends with a slick video showing a father and son putting the final touches on a multimedia school project to the sound of Victoria Williams singing “and I think to myself, what a wonderful world. . . .”
This warm and fuzzy portrayal of how computers will transform education and prepare children for the “information age” has become a familiar theme. President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore speak eloquently of how wiring the nation’s schools will “revolutionize” education, and California Gov. Pete Wilson has called for the state to commit $500 million over the next four years to put more computers in schools. Parents are badgering their schools to offer the latest in technology.
But looking a little closer finds that the force driving much of the frenetic activity is a hard-nosed corporate effort to sell computers and software.
Shaping Debate on Education Reform
From top corporate executives influencing education policy to software companies making direct pitches to families, technology companies are taking an aggressive role in shaping the debate over how to reform the nation’s battered educational system.
“This is a mega-scam,” said Alex Molnar, professor of education at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee and author of “Giving Kids the Business,” a critical look at corporate influence in schools published last year. While tight budgets force schools to live with tattered textbooks, the technology world’s high-pressure marketing efforts, Molnar said, are “making it impossible for schools not to get computers.”
Although there is little solid research to support the notion that classroom technology significantly improves learning, the nation’s 105,000 K-12 schools bought $4.25 billion worth of computer hardware and software last year. That amount is expected to reach $9 billion by the end of the decade, according to IDC/Link, a market research company.
Critics argue that the effort to put computers into classrooms could prove to be just another costly distraction in a long line of failed efforts at education reform.
At the heart of the debate is the corporate view, bordering on faith, that technology can make a profound difference on the education of children--just as it has helped revitalize the business community.
“Technology was applied to the business world to re-engineer business,” said Terry Crane, chief executive at San Diego-based Jostens Learning Corp., one of the nation’s largest computer educational software companies. “The same thing has to happen in education. We need systematic reform.”
For almost as long as there have been personal computers, there has been a movement to get computers into schools. Technology companies long ago identified the potential market and aggressively pushed to get into classrooms. Today, virtually all large computer companies have units specifically devoted to education sales.
It’s hardly surprising that these companies would want schools to buy more computers. After all, the billions of dollars spent by schools could influence parents’ spending decisions, translating into billions more in revenue. What is surprising, perhaps, is the high level of access firms have enjoyed in promoting their agenda.
John Akers, former chief executive at IBM, advised President Bush on his educational policy panel, and former Apple Chief Executive John Sculley served as an advisor to Clinton. Last year, IBM Chief Executive Lou Gerstner hosted an educational summit with the National Assn. of Governors at which 49 top corporate executives were honored guests. The summit concluded with a call for more technology in schools.
A 1996 report by the California Education Technology Task Force--a group dominated by executives of such technology companies as Apple Computer, IBM, Hewlett Packard and Sun Microsystems--called on California to spend $10.9 billion on technology for schools over the next four years.
Cheerleaders for Technology
Comparing the proposed program to the Rural Electrification Project of the 1930s that brought electricity to most homes, the task force report claimed that “more than any other single measure, computers and network technologies, properly implemented, will bolster California’s continuing efforts to right what’s wrong with our public schools.”
Task force member Ted Mitchell, a UCLA vice chancellor and former dean of its Graduate School of Education, now admits that the report’s claims for technology’s ability to reform education were “a little hyperbolic.”
Said Mitchell, “I’m concerned that we are overselling the technology.”
Yet the task force report is now being used as a key document in support of several measures before the state Legislature that call for supplying billions of dollars of computer equipment to schools.
And while most education experts agree that exposing children to technology at a young age is a healthy thing, many critics worry that education policy is increasingly being driven by what companies have to sell rather than what schools need.
The Internet is one such example. Educational applications on the World Wide Web are still limited. But volunteer efforts like NetDay, sponsored by Sun Microsystems and other computer companies, have helped trigger a mad drive to wire schools.
“The Internet has taken the K-12 market by storm,” said Jane Kelly, general manager of the recently formed education division at Ingram Micro Inc., a Santa Ana-based computer distribution giant.
“Once schools are wired, they find they have to upgrade their hardware,” Kelly said. Ingram recently created a special education division and has seen sales of computers to schools increasing by about 40% a year.
Yet, according to a recent survey by Market Data Retrieval, an educational research firm, only 13.4% of educators surveyed believe that the Internet helps students achieve better grades.
It’s a familiar story. Douglas Noble, a Rochester, N.Y., technology historian notes that corporate America has a history of “falling on its face” when using technology to improve education.
In the 1960s, companies such as Control Data and General Learning Corp., a joint venture between General Electric and Time Inc., used government funding to develop “automated learning” systems hooked to old mainframe computers with terminals installed in schools. The costly systems failed to perform up to expectations.
In the 1980s, Jostens, which began as a vendor of class rings and yearbooks, pushed the concept of automated teaching further with $60,000 to $100,000 computer labs designed to help students with “drill and kill” exercises in spelling and math. Although the systems were popular for a time, many teachers now disparage them expensive workbooks.
Apple Computer was the most aggressive and successful in selling to schools, using a widely publicized plan to donate one computer to each of California’s 9,250 schools. Those Apple II computers are the ones most seen today at the back of classrooms collecting dust.
And while technology companies like to promote the use of technology in schools, few are open about the extent to which schools would have to boost spending to support an effective technology program.
In his book “The Road Ahead,” Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates suggests that schools could move into the information age by spending just 3% of their budgets on technology.
But a recent report by Rand Corp., the Santa Monica think tank, found only a small number of schools nationwide extensively integrating technology into the classroom. Those schools typically spent up to $450 or more per student each year--several times what they spent on textbooks and six times more than the average school spends on technology, the report found.
While schools are grappling with the confusing array of approaches to technology, educational software companies are wooing administrators to win contracts.
San Diego software company Lightspan Partnership’s marketing efforts include inviting school officials on dinner cruises around San Diego’s harbor.
Software vendor Computer Curriculum Corp. has hired Bill Anton, a former superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, to promote its products. Anton was criticized for attending a fully paid three-day conference in Monterey in 1992 sponsored by the company. Anton declined to be interviewed for this story.
Officials of Jostens, a competitor to Computer Curriculum Corp., said hiring former superintendents to help open doors is a common practice in the industry. The company also looks for ways to cozy up to active superintendents. It invited school officials from the Los Angeles area to a June 30 conference in Aspen, Colo., where Jostens’ chief executive is speaking. Jostens will also be entertaining 25 superintendents from southern states at a conference in New Orleans.
“It gets a little sticky,” said Audrey Clarke, superintendent of the Lynwood Unified School District, who received such an invitation but will not be attending. “Once they give you a big invite, they expect something from you.”
Harrison Miller, Lightspan marketing vice president, said it is standard practice for school officials to be invited to fully paid conferences where they hear not only about company products but listen to speakers and discuss education issues.
Although there are rules against conflicts of interest, many public officials take advantage of these functions if there is a return in educational benefits, said Howard Friedman, assistant general counsel to L.A. Unified.
“If you are going to benefit from learning about technological advances,” Friedman said, “there may be a public benefit, on balance.”
As educators become more experienced with technology, they are learning to separate the wheat from the chaff. “Lately I’ve been getting calls from software companies that want to give us this amount of software in exchange for trying out the software on a trial basis,” said Beth Ogina, principal of Coeur d’Alene Elementary in Venice. “I don’t listen to them. We want to be able to select our own software.”
“The solutions [corporations] propose are never to be taken at face value,” agreed Bill Ragsdale, who heads the computer lab at Harvard Park Middle School in Pleasanton and is an advisor to the California Teachers Assn. “They always say it’s easy to use and directly applicable--but it never is.”
The hard sell is the lifeblood of technology companies that depend on rapid growth to maintain high profits. Computer companies want more technologically savvy consumers, for example, to increase the penetration of computers beyond the 40% of homes in which they are now found. And they argue that increased use of technology in schools will help fill a growing shortage of computer literate workers.
“We are interested in the business proposition of having 50 million people able to create and produce using technology,” said Elizabeth King, general manager of Microsoft’s education unit, referring to the number of students in the nation’s schools.
And companies see a strategic sales edge in getting their product into the hands of schools. Educational software giant Davidson & Associates, for example, donated $1 million worth of software to Los Angeles County schools. In exchange, the Los Angeles County Department of Education has agreed to train hundreds of teachers in the use of Davidson software.
“When kids go shopping, if they see products in the school, that is what they want to buy,” said Martha Conellan, vice president of school products at CUC International, the parent company of Los Angeles-based Davidson. “If parents are unsure, they go to teachers for recommendations.”
Even technology giants like IBM recognize big opportunities and are building up their marketing efforts.
“If a teacher or principal wants to do something with technology, nine times out of 10, I want them to call IBM,” said IBM general manager William Rodrigues, who is behind an aggressive push to boost IBM’s position in the K-12 market.
Companies, with their eye on the hot education market but mindful of cost restraints, have begun selling multimedia computers for less then $1,000. Apple recently began offering eMate, a $750 portable computer that can do spreadsheets and word processing. And Oracle said it will soon come out with a “six-pack” combination of six networked computers designed for school use for about $5,000.
One thing experts do agree on: Taking old equipment off the hands of corporations looking for tax write-offs is hardly the solution.
“Schools need to be especially careful about companies bearing gifts,” said Howard Mehlinger, director of Center for Excellence in Education at Indiana University. “An insurance company can take a tax write-off by donating a lot of computers. But the school is saddled with old computers that just create new headaches.”