[Editor: In order to protect the identify of this parent, she has asked that I not reveal her name or school. If you are a legislator and would like to speak with her, contact me and I can arrange it.]
“He isn’t learning how to write, he has learned how to beat the system and is rewarded constantly for it.”
I’m a mother of 3 children that use to attend a local elementary in Utah. When the school was built they used much of the money for technology and have since received a few technology grants as well. It is one of the most technologically advanced elementary schools in the state. I am a former teacher and was so excited for my kids to attend here. I was very excited for the technology that was going to be available to my kids, that is once they got to the magic 3rd grade. My oldest, who will be in 5th grade for the 2017-2018 school year, is highly advanced for his age. He taught himself how to read with very few lessons from me, did Upstart at a 1st grade level at age 4, almost completed the whole program through 2nd grade, and currently reads on a 10th grade reading level. I never wanted my son to attend public school because they don’t have enough programs and things set up for kids like him, even in the gifted and talented program which he was accepted into as a 1st grader. I thought that our neighborhood school would be great because all we had to do was get him to that magic grade, 3rd grade, and he would get a netbook and could be challenged. Third grade when his peers would finally catch up and start reading to learn, not learning to read. Kindergarten through second grade was rough keeping him interested in learning but with the help of his teacher’s and my willingness to create activities for him to do at school he did all right. We finally made it to 3rd grade and he got his netbook. Then I began noticing a few things.
First of all, I could email my son at any time during the day and he would respond within an hour or so. His 3rd grade teacher was surprised when she received an email from him one day when she was at a training and the sub couldn’t figure something out. We would email a research paper back a forth for a Martin Luther King contest the district held. I wasn’t really needed in his classroom and I didn’t see many papers coming home, which kind of bothered me but I had another child in school so most of my focus was on getting her caught up because she is slower to learn. I definitely noticed a difference in how things worked. Then I began to worry because if my second child didn’t bring home assignments for me to look at and go over with her she wouldn’t have the same success she had been having but we stayed because it was good.
January of 2017 a Standard examiner article came out saying that our school would now be doing Fusion Learning. We hadn’t heard a thing from our very involved principal, and I had just finished serving my second year as PTA president and usually knew what was going on at the school. I was there 3-5 days a week either volunteering or taking care of PTA something, but knew nothing of this new program that was to change my children’s lives drastically by reducing the number of teachers at the school with a student teacher ratio of 1:45. That is 2 teachers for every 90 kids and 1 full time aid. I began doing research on this new program and found out it was essentially having the computer teach the kids math and reading for 2 hours a day and the kids would do small group projects with the teachers. One teacher would monitor those on the computer along with the tutor if they weren’t needed with the project based learning, and if kids were struggling with a concept they’d pull those few kids into a small group and teach a lesson then send them back to the computers to get the answers right this time. My oldest was not in 4th grade and I hadn’t realized it yet but his class was piloting the program for the school.
I started looking at the consequences of having kids on the computers so much. The American Pediatrics gives a recommendation of so many hours of electronics time that varies by age, but none of that includes time on computers at school. Why? I found articles saying it could cause psychological issues, could aggravate ADHD, narratives showing that kids were learning to manipulate the computers but weren’t really learning the content or improving their skills. So many articles showing how this was most likely a bad experiment and that honestly we wouldn’t know what it was going to do to the kids long term until this group of kids grows up.
I started paying attention to what my then 4th, 3rd, and 1st graders brought home from school. My 1st grader brought home huge stacks of work each week, my 3rd and 4th graders brought home very little. I, their mom, was slowly being cut out of an important part of their day because I couldn’t see what they were learning, ask them questions, or see how they were doing with their studies and help them gain a better understanding of the concepts they weren’t fully understanding.
I noticed that my 4th grader, the child that has never needed help, needed help on the math homework. At first I scolded him for not paying attention in class, but when it kept happening I asked another parent if she was having the same problems. She said yes, so I knew it wasn’t just my son. I asked him what are you doing during math lessons, what is your teacher doing? He said she corrected papers and called a few kids to do small group things. He at the time, was hardly in these small groups. He was given a list of websites to go to and was to complete the tasks there. The homework didn’t have anything to do with what he was learning on the computers because it went with the districts brand new math program they had just written, which is why he couldn’t complete some of the problems on his own. I asked the teacher why he was struggling and her response was that she wanted her students to have to struggle a little bit as they learn, but this was different for my son. I’m totally fine with him struggling with difficult questions but he wasn’t able to do the basics because he wasn’t being taught on paper, he was being taught by a computer.
I noticed that he had learned how to beat the computer, especially when it came to Utah Compose, and was praised continually for it. Every once in a while he would email me something he had written into Utah compose that he’d gotten a high score on. His writing wasn’t great, definitely not what I would expect from him. His ideas were all over the place but he’s being told by a computer that he is amazing so he didn’t want to listen to me when I’d say this is good but if you put like sentences together you’d make more sense, or ask what does this sentence mean? Why is it here? He told me shortly after starting to use Utah Compose, as a 3rd grader, that to get a high score all he needed to do was use big words, proper grammar, commas, and have long sentences. He isn’t learning how to write, he has learned how to beat the system and is rewarded constantly for it.
I then started paying more attention to the few math quizzes that did come home. He’d missed a few questions so I asked him to come explain them to me. This was after he told me that he had completed 4th grade math 5 weeks before the school year ended and shortly before the principal of the school showed me a video of him working on a Minecraft area project for math instead of normal math lessons. The question he had missed was labeling a right angle. I asked him what angle it was. He said I don’t know. So I said remember acute, obtuse, right, and asked him to define each for me. He started with right and said a right triangle has 3 right angles. He became upset when I gave him a funny look and asked him to draw that for me. A response like that I would totally understand from my second child but not from him. It’s very out of character. I said well how many right angles can a triangle have. He responded 3.
I spoke with another parent who told me that with his job he sees things like that all the time. People are learning to beat the computers but aren’t really learning the material. He said if you want to see what a kid is really learning you need to give them a paper test, and as a former teacher I completely agree. There is a science to how kids answer questions. You can learn more about what they know by how they answer the question rather than the answer its self. He said if they really wanted to know how well kids were doing with the computer tests they needed to give kids a computer test then give them the exact same test on paper and see what happens. My son could answer questions on the computer but he couldn’t do it on paper because it takes different skills and he was being set up to fail when he reached Jr. High because in the Jr. High and High Schools computers aren’t used in the classrooms as frequently as they are being used in the elementary.
We recently had to get him a new glasses prescription. The eye doctor was shocked at how much his eyes had changed. It has taken me over 2 years to realize that it was probably because of all the computer time at the school during 3rd grade. Now that he has finished 4th grade I’m wondering if his eyes will be even worse.
Toward the end of the school year my 1st grader would come home extremely agitated and I couldn’t figure out why. Was someone picking on him at school, was something else dangerous going on? Little things, like asking him to put his backpack away, would send him into major fits which usually resulted in an object being thrown. I’m pretty sure he has ADHD and I have noticed at home that the more computer time he had the more explosive his behavior would become. He had not yet met that magic 3rd grade when he would get to use the 1:1 computers so that being the cause of his bad behavior never crossed my mind, or so I thought. Without my knowledge the first grade had been using computer programs, such as IXL, for the last half hour of class every day. I only discovered this after I told his teacher that my children would not be returning to the same school next year due to the usage of technology in the classrooms. She asked me to explain why because I had been one of the major supporters at the school. I told her how explosive my 1st grader became when he was exposed to electronics for long periods of time and that I was concerned for him when he did reach 3rd grade and that I was seeing other problems with my older kids. She then made some comment about how they had been using computers for the last little while for the last part of the day. I said that explains a lot about why he is coming home so agitated. Her response was “really, just a half hour at the end of the day causes that?” Yes, just a half an hour caused him to become easily upset at home. He had been overstimulated so even just the simplest tasks became incredibly frustrating for him.
I have since become a homeschool mom and am now seeing more damage that was caused by computer based learning. My children attend a distance charter school program and are required to take a grade level test quarterly. My oldest who was reading chapter books in kindergarten has been praised like crazy for doing mediocre work. Utah Compose told him his writing was amazing and now when I tell him it needs some work we have constant melt downs. My second, when she gets on the computer to take a test she immediately shuts down and won’t even work through the problems with me. Her basic math skills are almost non-existent, I put part of the blame on Common Core because she was never required to memorized her facts, just understand them. She can explain to me very nicely what a multiplication problem is but she can’t tell me what 6×7 is. This makes division, a major 4th grade math concept, incredibly difficult. We’ve had to take a major step back, almost a full grade level math wise to catch the things she didn’t master when she was using computers as a major part of her learning. She doesn’t learn on computers. She has had so many negative experiences trying to learn on computers in the past she can’t even handle the required tests with me right there and crumbles when she sees the scores. My third knows that he can just click through problems on the computer and get incorrect answers then be done. He hates learning on the computer. It requires a lot of sitting which is very difficult for a normal 7 year old, let alone a 7 year old with ADHD. If any learning is to be done on the computers, and because of our experience last year we use very little, my kids don’t handle it well. Currently computers and technology are strictly for play or research if we can’t get to the library. Some of that play may include learning but it is still just play. It’s become a mess that I am slowly cleaning up. It’s a very long process. We aren’t even learning to type because it caused too many tantrums and anxiety on children whose only concern should be scraped knees, playing basketball, and learning to ride a bike. They now see a computer test and immediately believe they are horrible and will fail.
When I told the principal I was taking my kids out and sending them to a charter school he said that he had just come out of a meeting with some of the biggest CEO’s. They said they don’t hire people from Utah because we don’t have the computer skills needed. They said 1:1 computers should have happened in elementary 10 years ago.
There are so many opportunities to learn how to use computers. What we really need are people who can solve unique problems in a creative manner and by giving kids the same education and searching for box answers we aren’t going to get that. We need kids who can think outside the box. We need kids who have been kids that had an imagination, where they actually had to create something out of sticks, Legos, actually entertain themselves for more than 15 minutes, kids who have read a variety of books and gone on a million adventures. I went from one of the most supportive parents when it came to technology in the schools, to one now that won’t use it with my own children. I have seen the damage it can do and you don’t know what it will do until the damage has been done. Kids are resilient. They bounce back but the longer they are exposed, the longer it will take. I have 3 very different kids. Each one learns so different but the one thing they all have in common is they don’t learn well on a computer.
The School my kids use to attend recently was named as a Utah State Board of Education Reward school. This means that this Title 1 school is in the top 15% of Title 1 schools in the state and they have a high level of student proficiency and student growth. They attribute much of this to the technology usage in the classrooms. To me this means the kids have learned how to play the system, because that’s what I saw with my own son. The school plans to expand this program next year since they have seen such success. They want to mix the computer based education with project based learning. Essentially the kids will be getting a majority of their basic math and reading on computers. It’s a program we will have nothing to do with and other parents in the area are nervous too.
It’s frustrating because we are assigned to this school, we can’t get a variance to attend another school as they are full with the children that are in their boundaries. Many parents here can’t homeschool or take their kids to a charter. We are a very low income area. In most families both parents have to work just to make the house payment. I have had a few parents come ask me what to do. This isn’t a charter school where you know what you are getting into when you sign up for the lottery, these kids and families have no choice but to send their kids to this experimental program. The principal said that charter schools are going to catch onto this soon and that then the district would be saying why didn’t we do it first when we had the chance. This program probably will work for some kids, and it will look very good on computer based tests but if we really want to see how this computer based learning works we need to give children the same test twice, once on computer and once on paper. Multiple studies are beginning to show that we learn different on paper vs on the computer.
There is a time and a place for technology but from my experience the classrooms in elementary schools are neither the time nor the place. We really don’t know what this is doing to the kids. Studies are beginning to show the technology aggravates ADHD, children are learning to beat the system, and parents are slowly being pushed farther and farther out of their children’s school lives. Please don’t continue to put 1:1 technology into the classrooms until we know the full effects. Allow parents to choose to put their kids into these programs, not just force them into them because they were assigned to the school. Stick with the tried and true paper, pencil, and books. It takes more time, more preparation but the things that are worth the most usually take the longest. Teaching isn’t easy and it is so nice to have a computer grade all your students writing assignments then tell you how they did or to teach math for you so you can help your kids who just don’t get it but it also eliminates your ability to see how they solved a problem. There truly is a science to how kids answer questions. I can look at a students’ work and see exactly why they missed a math problem. I can tell if they were just goofing off to get done quickly, if they don’t understand the concept at all and need extra help, or if they just made a simple addition or subtraction error but understand the concept taught. When a computer is correcting the assignments all I get is the score. A 35% looks the same in a child who has clicked to get done, a child who needs extra help, and a child that forgot to borrow. The difference is one gets it and doesn’t need the extra help from the teacher, one needs a 5 minute reminder, and the other really needs my extra time.
My son was the star pupil in the school. The child they talked about at parent teacher conference saying this would be so amazing, look at what he has done. I’m going to spend part of this upcoming school year undoing what was done as we move to a new school without technology. Please consider my story before expanding this program. Take the time to do the research before using this to solve the teacher shortage. We do have a teacher shortage, our students deserve better but as we “race to the top” we are forgetting learning isn’t quick sprint. It’s a marathon. Some are faster than others, and that’s ok. We aren’t all the same, we don’t all think the same. That’s ok, as long as we learn to get along and care for each other. That is something a computer will never be able to truly teach.