The Bane of Florida’s Education System

According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of “bane” is “a source of harm or ruin.” On Tuesday, August 2, 2016, Florida’s Commissioner of Education referred to textbooks as the “bane of our education system.”
Let that sink in… The Commissioner of Education believes BOOKS may be the source of harm or ruin in today’s education system.

As documented in the Citrus County Chronicle (read the entire article here):

Stewart stood in front of a packed auditorium at Lecanto High School on Tuesday morning to share her thoughts on what she sees at the inevitable digital takeover of education.

“I would like to do away with all textbooks,” she said. “I believe that they may be the bane of our educational system.”

The best way to teach to the standards, she said, is with digital content.

How are text books ruining education? What is her evidence to back up the claim that digital content is best?  What about the impact of a quality teacher? What will our schools be like if she gets her wish and textbooks are eliminated?

Last month, the Conservative Review described “Digital Learning” as “expensive and ineffective.” In addition to the high cost and potential health risks, they described how digital learning can remove teachers from the learning process. They point out that “students learn best when they “interact with real people who respond to them in real-time and with real interest, tossing ideas back and forth to explore a subject.” This obviously doesn’t happen with digital learning.” They summarize by saying “Common Core requires digital learning that is extraordinarily expensive, that minimizes the effect of a good teacher, and that (as Bill Gates admits) doesn’t work. What a deal.”

You can read more, here, about Bill Gates’ recent admission that, despite the hundreds of millions of dollars being poured into education technology, there has been little change in students’ academic outcomes. To be clear, the amount of money funneled into technology is huge. According to their 2014-15 Digital Classroom plan, on 5/29/2013, the School Board of Miami-Dade agreed to a proposal for digital devices totaling up to $63,450,000! $64 million in one county…

Please, let’s not burn the textbooks just yet. There is a significant amount research that should make Florida question whether the “inevitable digital takeover” is a good thing.

Reading and comprehension of paper-based textbooks appears to be superior to the reading of digital content:

  • This fascinating Scientific American article looks at the science of reading on paper vs screens and suggests that “reading on paper still boasts unique advantages.” Among other things, it suggests that reading on a computer screen may impair comprehension.
  • This paper reviewed studies comparing reading on paper to reading on computer screens and showed reading from computer screen is “slower, less accurate, more fatiguing, decreases comprehension and is rated inferior by readers.”
  • study from Israel, showed learners prefer studying text from printed hardcopy rather than computer screens and, when reading on paper, had a better sense of their own understanding. When reading from computer screens, students thought they had absorbed the information but tests showed otherwise.
  • A Missouri study showed that college students, when given the choice, overwhelmingly prefer paper textbooks.
  • A study out of Dartmouth found that reading on digital devices seems to reduce abstract thinking. “Reading on computer screens and smartphones has made people unable to fully understand what they are reading as our brains retreat into focusing on small details rather than meanings”, the study claimed (read more here).

The use, or overuse, of digital devices in the classroom may interfere with learning:

  • A study out of MIT looked at the use  use of electronic devices in classrooms at the United States Military Academy and the results indicated that students performed worse when personal computing technology was available. Researchers also found that reduced grades because of electronic usage were especially problematic for males and for students with higher GPAs. (Read more here.)
  • Another report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)  showed that “moderate” technology use in the classroom can improve learning, but that too much screen time is linked with a decrease in performance. “In a survey of students from 64 countries, the OECD found that students’ reading ability had declined in the countries that reported the most technology in the classroom.” (Read more here.)
  • Research  from the London School of Economics found “schools that banned pupils from carrying mobile phones showed a sustained improvement in exam results, with the biggest advances coming from struggling students.”

Handwriting, note taking and test taking with pencil and paper appears to have significant advantages for students:

  • The digital classroom emphasizes typing over handwriting. Read here and here to learn about concerns regarding brain development and handwriting.
  • This Scientific American article discusses how students who wrote their notes by hand remembered more and had a deeper understanding of material than those who typed notes on their laptop.
  • In Rhode Island,  Illinois and Maryland, PARCC scores were shown to be higher when students took the test on paper rather than computer, suggesting taking these tests on the computer puts students at a disadvantage.

In addition, there are significant health concerns associated with the digital classroom:

  • Read here about growing concerns regarding the health impacts of WiFi (Radio Frequency (RF) exposure) on young children.
  • Read here to learn how digital devices may be affecting children’s eyes, leading to a rising incidence of nearsightedness, which increases the risk of later glaucoma or retinal detachment.
  • Read here to learn how scientists have urged Google to “Stop Untested Microwave Radiation of Children’s Eyes and Brains” associated with Google Cardboard devices in schools.
  • Read here to see evidence the effect of excessive screen time on the brain, including gray matter atrophy, compromised white matter integrity, reduced cortical thickness, impaired cognitive functioning and impaired dopamine function. “In short, excessive screen-time appears to impair brain structure and function.”

In 2000, the Alliance for Children called for a moratorium on the introduction of computers in early childhood and elementary education and recommended a refocus on the “essentials of a healthy childhood” : “strong bonds with caring adults; time for spontaneous, creative play; a curriculum rich in music and the other arts; reading books aloud; storytelling and poetry; rhythm and movement; cooking, building things, and other handcrafts; and gardening and other hands-on experiences of nature and the physical world.” If only someone had listened…

Finally, in this brilliant blog the author outlines parental concerns regarding the digital classroom including lack of teacher involvement, lack of real-life experiences, lack of balance in content, and lack of knowledge of content by teachers and parents. This last point may be the most relevant to Commissioner Stewart’s disdain for textbooks:

“As for parents, if no textbook ever comes home, they have limited access to the ideas being presented to their children.”

When the textbooks are eliminated, it will be very difficult for parents to review the scope, content and quality of their children’s curriculum. Perhaps that is by design.

There has been surprising little conversation regarding the quality of the content in these programs. Monica Bulger discusses this concern in “Personalized Learning: The Conversation We’re Not Having“:

How Good is Personalized Learning Content?

While the responsiveness of personalized learning systems hold promise for timely feedback, scaffolding, and deliberate practice, the quality of many systems are low. Most product websites describe the input of teachers or learning scientists into development as minimal and after the fact (Guernsey & Levine, 2015). Products are not field tested before adoption in schools and offer limited to no research on the efficacy of personalized learning systems beyond testimonials and anecdotes. In 2010, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt commissioned independent randomized studies of its Algebra 1 program: Harcourt Fuse. The headline findings reported significant gains for a school in Riverside, California. The publicity did not mention that Riverside was one of four schools studied, the other three showed no impact, and in Riverside, teachers who frequently used technologies were selected for the study, rather than being randomly assigned (Toby, et al., 2012). In short, very little is known about the quality of these systems or their generalizability.

Why are we spending hundreds of millions on programs without documented research confirming their efficacy?

At, the word “bane” has a secondary definition: “A source of persistent annoyance or exasperation.” Perhaps this is what Commissioner Stewart meant when she called textbooks the bane of education. All the documented evidence showing “old-fashioned” text books to be more effective, less harmful and more favorable must be exasperating to a woman whose vision is to completely digitalize Florida’s classrooms.

There is overwhelming evidence demonstrating that, currently, tech-ed is NOT superior to traditional education and the digital classroom may have significant consequences to a child’s health and well-being. These problems won’t go away if we eliminate textbooks. Billions of dollars are being funneled into technology with, as Bill Gates admitted, little positive academic results. Ed-tech companies, and their investors, are becoming rich. Is this an appropriate use of our limited education budgets? Parents and taxpayers should be outraged.

This wonderful article by Dr. Karen Effrem, explains that, rather than corporate education technology and “Big Data” driven education, parents want “proven methods of education — teaching by human beings, plus focus on handwriting, classic literature, standard algorithms, and actual content knowledge — instead of skills-training and constant invasive psychological manipulation and assessment.”  Such schools, where human interaction is valued over technology, exist (read about them here and here) and could be models for creating the education programming parents want for their children in Florida.

What is the “bane” of Florida’s education system? Is it our textbooks? I don’t think so. The bane of our education system is the rush to the digital classroom, where profits and privatization matter more than providing a quality education for all our children.

Please don’t burn the books.