Is Technology Setting Up Our Students for Failure?


One of the most obvious changes in education in the last decade has been the proliferation of technology in the classroom. The digital revolution started contemporaneously with the nationwide release of the Common Core Standards, after which paper textbooks were quickly ushered out, replaced by computers and digital texts. With that came promises of improved academic performance and a narrowing of the achievement gap.  

It came as no surprise to grassroots education advocates that the promises were hollow. Academic performance has stagnated or declined in the majority of districts, and the lowest performing students are doing worse based on the most recent NAEP scores. Education reformers were left scratching their heads in befuddlement. As test scores continued to fall, they ignored the possibility that too much tech may be too much of a good thing.

However, if a recent Education Week report is any indication, elite education reformers and policy experts may finally be paying attention.

Deputy Director of Education Policy at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), Nat Malkus, was quoted in the Education Week article. When asked to discuss the cause of the decline, Malkus speculated “…It could just be that actually technology is not the answer for education, but that it’s sort of the enemy…wearing down the attention span that it takes to develop a sense of reading for pleasure.”

Malkus elaborated in an AEI article:

We have seen the plateau in NAEP for 8 to 10 years, roughly the time frame during which most of us have been able to put the internet in our pockets, ready to suck up any spare free time and brain space we have, no matter how small.

Given that NAEP declines have been more pronounced in literacy (8th graders are performing worse now than they did in 2009), Malkus’ connection between poor performance in literacy and increased screen time could be more than just a hunch. In fact, the 2019 Common Sense Census: Media Use By Tweens and Teens, gave credence to Malkus’ opinion.  

According to the Common Sense Media report, less than a third of teens read for pleasure at least once a month, yet the average time teens spent watching videos has roughly doubled since 2015. Common Sense Media also noted that 33 percent of teens reported using screen media between 4 to 8 hours per day, while nearly as many reported using screen media more than 8 hours per day. Those numbers don’t even include time spent on school-related work.

Per Education Week, “…NAEP background data found that in both grades 4 and 8, spending more time using a computer or a digital device for English and language arts work was associated with lower reading proficiency on the test.” The Education Week report also found that lighter digital users had higher reading proficiency scores: 26 points higher.

The negative consequences of 24/7 access to screen media is well documented. Outcomes include obesity, sleep disturbances, and impaired social skills, as well as decreased attention span, an inability to stay on task, and delayed speech and language development. In 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics found a relationship between kids who are heavy digital users and a decreased likelihood of completing homework.

Adding insult to injury, the hours students actually do spend reading digitally don’t offer truly substantive benefits. Studies have found reading paper texts improves comprehension, information retention, and recall; all skills required to score well on the literacy portion of the NAEP exam.

Virginia Clinton, an assistant professor of education at the University of Nebraska, compiled the results of 33 studies on reading comprehension when reading paper text versus digital. Of those 33 studies, 29 studies concluded students experience greater benefit from reading on paper.

Ms. Clinton also reported that students preferred paper to electronic media, yet education reformers have put companies like Pearson, a leading textbook publisher, in the driver’s seat — despite Pearson’s decision to abandon their textbook model in favor of a digital model of publishing. Schools, always in a cash deficit, can’t typically afford both, and the digital model is much more cost effective.

In the big picture, kids aren’t reading. But when they read via digital media, they’re not reading well.

As noted by Education Week, students, “…report growing tired more quickly when reading digitally…” whether from eye strain or the fact that the bells and whistles contained within digital media are just getting in the way. The article went on to state, “Including hyperlinks, videos, and other interactive elements encourages students to jump around on the story…” and that “…interactive features like pop-up dictionaries or sidebars distracted students and hurt comprehension.”

Screen media has its place, but its overuse has resulted in a host of unintended consequences, most of which have had a net negative impact on education. We can’t unwind the clock of the digital revolution. However, we can encourage parents and teachers to limit electronic media in favor of the printed word.  

It may be only a theory that tech has a role in the stagnation or declining test scores among American students, yet there is more and more research supporting that conclusion. The current downward trajectory of student achievement isn’t sustainable, which makes it a theory we can’t afford to leave untested.

Lisa Hudson

Lisa Hudson is a founding member of Arizonans Against Common Core and an advocate of classical Christian education and the protection of student privacy. She graduated from Michigan State University School of Law in 1996 and is an active member of the State Bar of Michigan.

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