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.

Sadly, most of these news organizations didn’t bother to delve below the punch lines of the news release. Here’s just a sampling of the kind of negligent messages readers around the world were subjected to after ED released its study:

CNN: Study: No benefit going high-tech for math and reading

China Post (Taiwan): Software has no major impact on student performance: study

Fox News: Study: Computers in Classrooms Don’t Make Kids Smarter

The Age (Australia): No benefit to adding math and science software products to classrooms, study says

USA Today: Software doesn’t help hard numbers of math, science scores [Poor USA Today couldn’t even manage to read the lead of its own story before writing that headline. The USA Today story, of course, actually cites math and reading scores, not science.]

Gulf News (United Arab Emirates): No benefit by adding math software to classrooms

Boston Globe, Business Week, Forbes: Study: Test scores unmoved by technology

WIFR-TV (Freeport–Rockford, Ill.): Education Technology Isn’t Helping

And here, in case you’re wondering, was our own headline for this debacle (see Ed-tech research under fire, http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=6964).

Turns out, that headline of ours was overly optimistic. Knowledgeable observers had plenty to dispute with ED’s work (see Major study questions value of school software, http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=7011), but skepticism in the general press was as rare as socks on a chicken.

The news media at large were gullible, incurious, and downright lazy. They took PR punch lines that defy common sense and mindlessly repeated them. The ill effects of their sloth likely will undermine education efforts for years to come–as latter-day Luddites, imbeciles, yahoos, and cheapskates wave accounts of this so-called "research" whenever legislative sessions and school board meetings convene to consider technology expenditures.

The whole fiasco is a dirty shame. But that’s what happens when the reporters and editors we rely on for news and analysis become nothing but repeaters.

Links:

Ed study of software effectiveness (PDF)
http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/pdf/20074005.pdf

"Major study questions value of school software"
http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=7011

"Ed-tech research under fire"
http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=6964

"Report: Ed tech has proven effective"
http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showstory.cfm?ArticleID=6671

eSN-TV interview on ed-tech research
http://www.eschoolnews.com/video/?v=166&c=10&f=204&cb=1176668245312