The efficacy of math and reading software has been maligned around the world as the result of careless, inappropriate, and misguided news reports about a study paid for by U.S. taxpayers. The Bush Administration was the proximate cause of this disservice, but so-called reporters supplied the megaphone. All in all, the spectacle was enough to make me want to burn my press pass.
One would have hoped editors and reporters might have learned by now that swallowing whole what comes out of Washington can lead to journalistic indigestion. But it doesn't look like they've absorbed this basic lesson.
Indeed, if any conclusions at all could be drawn from the research released so far, the study boils down to some pretty unspectacular findings, as were cogently enumerated by Computerworld's senior news columnist Frank Hayes:
•Educational software doesn't automatically improve test scores;
•Educational software works better when class sizes are smaller; and
•Educational software works better when kids use it more.
At one point, the study itself reveals this astonishing fact: "For a typical 180-day school year, average daily usage is about 10 minutes for all products combined."
Hmm ... Using math or reading software for 10 minutes a day doesn't boost test scores. Or, as Hayes put it: This software doesn't work ... unless you use it.
A valuable insight, to be sure. But we might be excused for asking if that revelation really is worth every penny of the $10 million U.S. taxpayers had to pay for it.
Now, look: ED was irresponsible to release such a half-baked study. The department should have known how its findings would be misused. But at least the study itself contained caveats aplenty.
In fact, speaking of the report, Phoebe Cottingham, the head of ED's research agency, confided this to eSchool News: "I think it's premature to draw any kind of conclusions ... we don't feel we're done yet, and the rest of the world shouldn't consider that we're done."
One might tremble at the prospect that there's more of this sort of thing to come. But Cottingham's admonition did nothing to dissuade the Fourth Estate from plastering erroneous conclusions all over newspapers, television stations, and web sites.
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