The Internet School Scam
By spring 2003, Congressional investigators had gotten wind of these troubles and were embarked on their own inquiries. These are now wrapping up and are expected to be the subject of hearings before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in February or March. From all indications, investigators have found some smoking guns. "We have uncovered numerous instances of fraud and abuse totaling tens of millions of dollars," says Ken Johnson, the committee's press secretary. "We're convinced that the problem is far worse than we feared." There is no formal count yet on how many companies or schools are involved in these abuses, but insider estimates indicate that dozens of different companies across the country may be implicated. (At this point, only two cases have made it through the courts.)
In the wake of these troubles, the FCC and its e-rate management firms are starting to take more care in approving new grants. But the size of the e-rate grants, and many others that support high-end wired systems in the schools, have not appreciably diminished.
There are three bitter paradoxes in this. First, it won't be long before the Internet goes wireless, which will make much of the schools' investment in wired computing--at a cost of roughly $80 billion over the past decade--obsolete. Second, yesteryear's frenzy to wire the schools occurred during very flush times. Today, states are struggling with budget cuts--and the damage these cuts are doing to fundamental school needs such as building repairs, teacher salaries and purchases of books, science supplies and other classroom necessities.
Third, and perhaps most important, most computer technology has been sold to schools--especially poor schools--on little more than hype. One of the most commonly heard selling points in this campaign is to prepare youngsters for tomorrow's increasingly high-tech jobs. But when business leaders talk about what they need from new recruits, they hardly mention computer skills, which they find they can teach employees relatively easily on their own. Most employers say their priority is what are sometimes called "soft" skills: a deep knowledge base; the ability to listen and communicate; to think critically and imaginatively; to read, write and figure; and many other capabilities that schools are increasingly neglecting. A report from the Information Technology Association of America, which represents a range of companies that use technology, put it this way: "Want to get a job using information technology to solve problems? Know something about the problems that need to be solved."
All of which casts entirely new light on the "digital divide"--the common belief that the poor are being shut out of social and economic opportunities because they have fewer computers than wealthy families do. Widely promoted by the Clinton Administration, this campaign has become so appealing that, according to a recent report from the Education Department, computers are almost as abundant in poor schools now as they are in wealthy ones. Nonetheless, political and education leaders continually cry about this supposedly terrible divide. In reality, the schools' new technology riches have taken the real divide between rich and poor children--the educational divide--and widened it.
In Harlem, for example, teachers in overcrowded classrooms now have to spend much of their time managing technical hassles the schools can't afford to fix, and watching for cheating, instant-messaging tricks and illicit material on screens that teachers cannot control or even see. When the computers do work, fancy software programs automate design and math functions so beautifully that students don't have to think through much of their work anymore. School papers throughout the country are so dominated by computer graphics these days that students often spend only a fraction of their time on the intellectual content of the assignment. Strangely, instead of bemoaning scenes like these, nearly everyone--teachers and parents, principals and politicians--applaud them.
Meanwhile, schools that are doing truly good work often downplay technology, concentrating instead on human basics. These not only involve creative, often theatrical, approaches to the three Rs; they also include a broader definition of achievement than the thin, standardized tests being pushed by the Bush Administration. Interestingly, most of these schools have also invested in their teachers more than they have in machinery. Before the rest of the nation's schools and their federal benefactors buy more fancy digital novelties, they should get their houses in order on academic basics of this sort. Everyone knows you need to learn to walk before you run.