CHANDLER, Ariz. — Amy Furman, a seventh-grade English teacher here, roams among 31 students sitting at their desks or in clumps on the floor. They’re studying Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” — but not in any traditional way.
In this technology-centric classroom, students are bent over laptops, some blogging or building Facebook pages from the perspective of Shakespeare’s characters. One student compiles a song list from the Internet, picking a tune by the rapper Kanye West to express the emotions of Shakespeare’s lovelorn Silvius.
It’s nothing new that some kids find reading a chore. What strikes me is the frequent lack of correlation between the ability to read and any inclination to do it. That, and the number of times I hear someone say, “I hate to read.” A girl tells me so in private and sobs so preposterously that I worry I might laugh. After she calms down, I gently suggest that she read a passage aloud. Her fluency is impeccable; she could work for the BBC.
Advocates for giving schools a major technological upgrade — which include powerful educators, Silicon Valley titans and White House appointees — say digital devices let students learn at their own pace, teach skills needed in a modern economy and hold the attention of a generation weaned on gadgets.
Some backers of this idea say standardized tests, the most widely used measure of student performance, don’t capture the breadth of skills that computers can help develop. But they also concede that for now there is no better way to gauge the educational value of expensive technology investments.
“Let’s hope the fiscal crisis doesn’t get better too soon. It’ll slow down reform,” said Tom Watkins, the former superintendent for the Michigan schools, and now a consultant to businesses in the education sector.
Clearly, the push for technology is to the benefit of one group: technology companies.
The SellersIt is 4:30 a.m. on a Tuesday. Mr. Share, the director of technology at Kyrene and often an early riser, awakens to the hard sell. Awaiting him at his home computer are six pitches from technology companies.
It’s just another day for the man with the checkbook.
“I get one pitch an hour,” he said. He finds most of them useless and sometimes galling: “They’re mostly car salesmen. I think they believe in the product they’re selling, but they don’t have a leg to stand on as to why the product is good or bad.”
This is big business. Sales of computer software to schools for classroom use were $1.89 billion in 2010. Spending on hardware is more difficult to measure, researchers say, but some put the figure at five times that amount.
The vendors relish their relationship with Kyrene.
“I joke I should have an office here, I’m here so often,” said Will Dunham, a salesman for CCS Presentation Systems, a leading reseller of Smart Boards in Arizona.
Last summer, the district paid $500,000 to CCS to replace ceiling-hung projectors in 400 classrooms. The alternative was to spend $100,000 to replace their aging bulbs, which Mr. Share said were growing dimmer, causing teachers to sometimes have to turn down the lights to see a crisp image.Mr. Dunham said the purchase made sense because new was better. “I could take a used car down to the mechanic and get it all fixed up and still have a used car.”
But Ms. Kirchoff, the president of the teachers’ association, is furious. “My projector works just fine,” she said. “Give me Kleenex, Kleenex, Kleenex!”