Technology: the great unequalizer

According to Annie Murphy Paul and a number of researchers, technology is not narrowing achievement and opportunity gaps; rather, it seems to be widening them.

Susan B. Neuman, a professor of early childhood and literacy education at NYU, and Donna C. Celano, an assistant professor of communication at LaSalle University in Philadelphia, spent hundreds of hours observing children in the high-poverty Badlands and the affluent Chestnut Hill sections of Philadelphia. They found that technology exacerbated inequalities between rich and poor children–not because the rich had more of it, but because they used it differently. Paul writes: “They select different programs and features, engage in different types of mental activity, and come away with different kinds of knowledge and experience.”

Paul relates this to a well-documented “Matthew Effect,” a term coined in 1968 by Roger Merton. (“For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.” [Matthew 13:12]). That is, when rich children use technology for educational purposes, they make greater leaps than poor children.

Not only do poor children gain less from technology than their rich counterparts, but they may even lose. In a forthcoming article, economists Jacob Vigdor, Helen Ladd, and Erika Martinez report a possible negative effect of technology on poor students’ performance: after broadband was introduced to public schools across North Carolina, math and reading performance went down in each region where it was introduced. The scores of disadvantaged students dropped the most.

Paul suggests that affluent children have more guidance from adults when using the computer; thus, they may be directed toward intellectually challenging activities.

There may be still more explanations of the phenomenon. Schools have been told that technology will help raise the achievement levels of the disadvantaged. High-poverty schools are clearly under great pressure to raise the achievement levels of the disadvantaged. So, when technology comes their way, they may require teachers to use it, even when it doesn’t serve the lesson well. (A pre-Danielson classroom observation form in NYC had a check box for technology use–nothing about whether it was used well or poorly.) I have attended PDs where the emphasis was on making use of technology no matter what, not on examining how it might or might not enhance a given lesson. At one PD, we watched a video that ended with the a principal’s advice, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”

How can schools improve the quality of their technology use? Paul has a few suggestions:

Addressing it would require a focus on people: training teachers, librarians, parents and children themselves to use computers effectively. It would require a focus on practices: what one researcher has called the dynamic “social envelope” that surrounds the hunks of plastic and silicon on our desks. And it would require a focus on knowledge: background knowledge that is both broad and deep. (The Common Core standards, with their focus on building broad background knowledge, may be education’s most significant contribution to true computer literacy.)

Amen: I suspect that if schools focus on that last part–building background knowledge (and foreground knowledge, for that matter, and ways of interpreting the knowledge)–the proper uses of technology will present themselves, not automatically and naturally, but relatively easily all the same.

One minor quibble, though (minor because it’s tangential to her argument):  The Common Core, particularly in ELA, doesn’t focus on building background knowledge. It stresses the importance of curriculum but focuses on skills. Not that the Core should have specified a curriculum–but as it is now, one can “implement” the Core–to the satisfaction of state officials–without a clear sense of what is being taught and why.

In the spirit of Paul’s last point, though, schools would do well to have technology serve the lesson and not the other way around.


  1. The introduction of writing in pre-literate society probably has a similar effect in increasing inequality. Paleolithic cultures were probably pretty equalitarian. Almost every cultural development since then has probably tended to increase inequality and social stratification.

  2. Technology is nothing more than a tool, as someone once said. If you cannot write, spell, handle math, etc, all of the technology known to mankind won’t solve this problem. Get back to teaching the way it was done 40 to 50 years ago, and after the basics are mastered, get the students using technology.


  3. Bad educational theories are the great unequalizer. They ALL hurt people from poor backgrounds more than people from good backgrounds.

  4. The same pattern is likely to exist in TV use. IIRC, kids from educated families watch less than kids from low-SES families (who are more likely to use it as a babysitter, including video games) but I wouldn’t be surprised if the same difference in programs viewed exists, along with the different parent roles. Kids who watch a program on volcanos, earthquakes, tsunamis, hot springs etc., with parents who comments, ask/answer questions etc. gain far more than kids who simply watch reality shows, regular programming, rap videos, etc. Even video games can differ; Civilization and Oregon Trail (or the current equivalent) are vastly different than Grand Theft Auto etc.

    • Sorry – meant to add that the adult guidance and participation can make a big difference. I’m old enough to remember that TV was once touted as a magical solution – by an entity eternally in search of THE magical solution that will create equal outcomes, despite the impossibility

Speak Your Mind