Digital Bootstraps for Analog Problems — A Reply to Forbes Columnist Gene Marks’ “If I Were A Poor Black Kid”Posted December 22nd, 2011 by Cynthia Liu
A truly clueless if well-intentioned column by Gene Marks titled “If I Were A Poor Black Kid” in Forbes magazine is getting righteously ripped from journalists all around the web. They’re correctly pointing out how bereft Marks’ column is of history, research, practical awareness, racial sensitivity, or the sheer realities of hunger or even homelessness that low-income children face. Marks seems to suggest that kids from impoverished backgrounds – all too many of whom are African American – can simply access computers and lift themselves up by their digital bootstraps to use free websites and enter elite prep schools or colleges. Maybe a handful of motivated kids will manage a heroic feat like that despite all the odds, but is this going to work for the majority of poor kids?
And here’s exactly what’s wrong with Marks’ perspective and why it’s indicative of a 1% mentality among billionaire education philanthropists (Silicon Valley included) that results in failure to truly invest in public schools, despite those same businesses relying on a highly skilled and educated workforce: solutions lie in privatization — individuals hands on individual (digital) bootstraps.
But also privatization of another kind: web-assisted businesses that hollow out the public school system and see it as nothing but a lucrative market. Marks’ list of ed-tech resources is lengthy and a roll call of ideas, good and bad, to bring education into the computer age. But as recent article after article has pointed out, online education companies hawking virtual schooling are providing low quality schooling to at-risk kids with no accountability, and at the same time siphoning off public money intended for neighborhood schools on the corner. Billionaire philanthropists thwart democratic decision-making about taxpayer priorities by using string-laden foundation donations as a form of education policy, instead of those same businesses or their owners paying taxes to fund public education. For example, in Seattle, titans of Microsoft corporation donated to groups that swatted down a 2010 ballot initiative to tax millionaire incomes that would’ve funded public schools in Washington state.
This isn’t a partisan issue, it’s a greed issue. Many of these well-meaning “edupreneurs” are Democrats who are reliably liberal on stopping climate change, or banning genetically modified foods. But when it comes to the nation’s schools and cherishing the fact that every public school serves every child who comes to the door as they are, conveying important ideas about citizenship, diversity, democracy, and a common good to the nation’s children, “edupreneurs” miss the rainforest for the money tree. Our open, publicly-funded public school system, deeply woven into the fabric of our open, freedom- and innovation-loving society, is the gem in the crown of America that people from around the world for decades have tried to replicate. Certainly it’s our bricks-and-mortar universities, and not mediocre for-profit online colleges, that are still the envy of the world. Close the door of equal opportunity to children, especially poor children, and we turn our backs on our legacy as the land of opportunity.
Is the answer to reject technology, to do as 19th century Luddites did and smash laptops, the equivalent of mechanized looms, in order to save schools? Emphatically no, and here’s where I think many miss an important point about Marks’ misguided piece. The internet provides the same frictionless means to disintermediate middle men as it provides opportunities to insert middle men. And today’s education middle men are testing companies, textbook publishers, online learning companies, teacher certification companies, and standardized test prep companies, sometimes all rolled into the same conglomerate — taking a giant, profitable chunk from states and school districts even as money that goes to classrooms where kids are gets cut.
So here’s what I’d like to see: flip this state of affairs. Disintermediate high-tech middlemen selling silicon snake oil. State departments of education could start acting in the public interest and creating FREE and OPEN SOURCE websites where best practices in teaching, outstanding examples of curriculum, test prep materials, tests themselves, teacher certification, syllabi and other resources are made available to teachers and any student who wants to improve herself. With the millions saved from not buying an international conglomerate’s tests, curriculum, online school materials, test prep, or online teacher certification, there’d be plenty of money for small, intimate classrooms, plentiful well-trained and well-paid teachers, and every child who needs wrap-around services would have them. With the money saved from eliminating the middle man, we’d have plenty to invest in after-school enrichment, high-quality daycare, remedial help, special ed shadows, children’s dental or medical care, fully-funded music/art/sports programs, nutritious real vegetables (not pizza-like vegetables), and gifted and talented education.
The longstanding problems that kids from disadvantaged backgrounds face need a broad social and political response, not solutions that are occasional feel-good stories about one or two motivated kids who figure out how to do calculus online. Realizing you can use library computers to access the internet for free isn’t going to fill the stomachs of some 20% of all children –white, African American, Latino, Asian, Native American — under 18 who are struggling this very minute.
Poverty, hunger, homelessness, parents who are ineffective or unable to parent – these are all analog problems kids have that need the help of other people, not only computers, to solve. What Gene Marks and other Silicon Valley “edupreneurs” forget is that we live in a complicated three-dimensional world that doesn’t fit on a spreadsheet or a computer screen. Digital bootstraps aren’t enough; to help all the nation’s kids we need lifelines offered face to face to real kids, from a person who cares in their neighborhood schools.
Cynthia Liu is founder of the grassroots education news site K12NewsNetwork.com, which empowers parents, educators, and students to report on important events at their local neighborhood schools and provides tools for maximum civic engagement in support of public education. This piece originally appeared in Technorati.