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Transforming education via the Common Core national standards doesn’t come cheap. It was reported recently that California has spent about $578 million on technology to implement the standards. California taxpayers might wonder why they’re having to fork over such enormous sums when their previous state standards were indisputably better than Common Core, but then California taxpayers may be too beaten down to object.


Implemented properly (or “with fidelity,” as the current tagline goes), Common Core requires technology for “digital” or “personalized” learning. Common Core is a blueprint for competency-based education (CBE), which essentially means the old, discredited Outcome-Based Education. With OBE/CBE, schools are to focus not on teaching academic knowledge but rather on inculcating in each student “21st-century skills,” including communication, collaboration, and digital literacy. CBE is more effectively implemented through digital platforms that train each student to cough up the response that, in their subjectivity, the platforms want, and that can keep tabs on which of these “competencies” each student has achieved. As EdWeek reports, “new technologies are giving rise to more powerful and detailed information systems that can help track students at the level of granularity that CBE requires.”


As part of their CBE focus, the Common Core standards dictate specific content-free technology skills for students at different grade levels. Third-graders, for example, should “use text features and search tools (e.g., key words, sidebars, hyperlinks) to locate information relevant to a given topic,” and seventh-graders should “compare and contrast a written story . . . to its . . . multimedia version . . . .” Thus, the money-dump into the ed-tech companies that (surprise!) promote Common Core.


The result is articles about the glories of digital learning, with students glued to their screens. The CIO of a metro-Atlanta school district dismisses books and teaching methods that use them: “[Students] expect to be presented with information, content, dialogue, interactivity, and even entertainment. Anything less is boring for most kids . . . .” While making the obligatory nod toward good teachers, this CIO parrots the ed-tech line: “Instructor-led teaching is often dry because it does not engage students in multiple modes.”


We won’t dwell on the many dangers of increasing children’s screen time; that’s fodder for a more in-depth column. Instead, let’s examine another angle, provided by a Utah teacher who explains how this digital learning really plays out in the classroom.


In a recent blog post, Suzan Barnes describes a multitude of problems that teachers, students, and parents face with digital learning. One is that teachers tend to be cut out of the learning process:

When a teacher delivers a lecture, both the students and the teacher are meaningfully engaged in the lesson content ... By contrast, the teacher’s involvement in online lessons occurs mainly through use of the dashboard. The dashboard alerts a teacher than an action, such as unlocking a quiz, is needed in order for a student to move forward. The teacher can review a student’s scores on assignments leading up to a quiz, or unlock the quiz without looking at the scores. In either case, familiarity with the lesson material or thoughtful review of the students’ work is not required.

If a teacher isn’t reviewing the student’s work (which frequently happens because of the fast-paced environment in which every student is reaching different mileposts with the software), Ms. Barnes says, the student can complete the assignment by copying and pasting material from the lesson into the response box (in scoring, the computer just looks for certain words). So a student may get perfect scores on the assignments but then fail the quiz that covers the same material—because the computer, being an inanimate object, didn’t recognize that he was cheating on the assignments and not learning anything.

How, exactly, are we to lure the best potential teachers into the profession if the classroom experience looks like this?

Ms. Barnes points 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. And if the teacher attempts a group discussion about the online content, she encounters two problems: Some students have already progressed beyond that point and will be bored with the discussion, and others aren’t there yet and so won’t understand it.

How, exactly, are we to lure the best potential teachers into the profession if the classroom experience looks like this? For that matter, why do we even need professionals—why not just clerks who can navigate the digital content?


To sum up: 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.

Emmett McGroarty and Jane Robbins are both senior fellows at American Principles Project.