The Achievement Gap

Response to Annie Murphy Paul, whose newsletter appeared in my email today, on her article, Technology Is Making Achievement Gaps Bigger.

In your email you state "I'd love to get your feedback!" so I'll take that to heart.

My first impression was of the level of writing. Phrases like "making reference" (instead of 'referring') and "more vocabulary words" (instead of 'larger vocabulary') suggest a lack of writing experience.

There is also a naive air of 'research reveals' this or that (the phrase "Research is finding..." is actually used) when it does no such thing. People perform research, and of results are ever 'revealed' (which they are usually not) they are revealed by people.

Finally, why would you suppose that a few research studies of students in the United States can be generalized to anything? And what is the basis for suggesting that the *computers* increase the digital divide? The cause of (what you call) the Matthew effect is clearly the lack of social support (you refer to 'parents' but there's no reason to suppose that genetic relation is necessary here). So why transfer this problem to a discussion about computers?

So I think you're reading your sources uncritically. The sceptic in me wonders whether that is what you are being paid to do, if you are being paid at all - there is a substantial lobby seeking to limit and reduce the provision of social supports (including computers) to poor people. Or perhaps you simply haven't read sufficiently widely, as is suggested by the level of writing.

I detect a strong strain of the line of thought advanced by people like Daniel Willingham in your writing - we see this in the references to "background knowledge", for example. I don't think the Willingham position is well-supported in the field, and I think a lot of the supporting argumentative infrastructure, such as cognitive load theory, is methodologically unsound. You might disagree with me on this - and that's fine - but it makes presenting the research as you do here, as establishing some sort of fact of the matter - as misrepresentation and even a bit pernicious.

It bothers me because I see this same argument being advanced without any real consideration of its weaknesses from a variety of sources - this one for example, from "America's Quarterly", even uses the same "social envelop" phrasing.

(As an aside, numerous researchers - not "one researcher", as you say - use the phrase "social envelop". But real researchers are careful to say "there is no one appropriate social envelop for educational computing." (Giacquinta, Bauer, Levin, 'Beyond Technology's Promise', 1993, p. 163)

Finally, it concerns me that the solution seems to be to divert resources away from people who need them. A lot of research has suggested that socio-economic background is the primary predictor of educational outcome. It's easy to say that we should simply focus on "training teachers, librarians, parents and children themselves to use computers effectively." But if the 'Matthew effect' is as you describe, then these too would increase the divide, because the well-off people can make better use of these services than poor people.

My own thinking is that the actual cause of the socio-economic divide in education is socio-economic disparity. We live in a world in which most social and institutional structures are designed in such a way as to disproportionately help those who already have an advantage. Proposals for structural reforms we need to address these inequalities are opaqued by distracting nonsense telling us things like "computers don't solve the educational divide all by themselves." Which is probably the point of such articles.


  1. I agree with your comments about this Annie Murphy Paul article but don't be too quick to dismiss Mark Warschauer's writing and motivation. I have found his and Lynette Kvasny's writing on 'digital divides' to be very insightful.


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