Research overwhelmingly shows that a computer can’t replace a real live K-12 public school

Duh! A computer screen can’t replace a real live teacher in a school filled with caring adults and other students. But that isn’t keeping some from arguing that it can.

Frederick Hess, director of the American Enterprise Institute, says that the nation’s $700 billion annual public education budget should instead be spent on “a bunch of online materials—along with a device for every child and better connectivity.”

Jeanne Allen, founder and CEO of the Center for Education Reform, says education “needn’t be ‘place-based,’ or dependent on a specific classroom.” To her, public school districts are “100-year-old concepts” and “centralized bureaucracies closely resembling feudal states.”

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) is even questioning why school buildings exist. “The old model of everybody goes and sits in a classroom, and the teacher is in front of that classroom and teaches that class, and you do that all across the city, all across the state,” he said a few weeks ago while announcing a partnership to “reimagine education” with the Gates Foundation. “All these buildings, all these physical classrooms. Why, with all the technology you have?”

Why? Because we already know that online education doesn’t work for the vast majority of students.

Virtual charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated, have a terrible track record—so terrible that even pro-charter school organizations like CREDO have admitted their many faults. A Google search for “virtual charter fraud” turns up scores of stories like the two Indiana school leaders who recently were caught inflating enrollment and funneling millions to a tangled web of related companies to the tune of $85 million in state funding.

Then there’s growing body of research showing students who learn online perform worse academically. Get this: on average, only half of online high school students graduate within four years, compared to 84 percent of high school students nationally.

Then there are the privacy concerns. Edtech services often collect far more information on kids than is necessary and store this information indefinitely. Platforms like Google Hangouts collect biometric data, which has been shown to lead to racial profiling.

And then there’s the issue of access. Roughly three million children do not have internet access at home, a population more likely to be students of color, from low-income families, or in households with lower parental education levels.

Yes, technology has a place in education—especially during a pandemic. Public school districts, teachers, and staff are mobilizing nationwide to provide students with distance learning on the fly. California schools, alone, have acquired more than 300,000 devices and hotspots in the past two months, on top of providing more than 24 million meals.

But technology should be seen as a tool to help teachers teach, not replace them and the schools they teach in altogether. Because public school is about more than just filling kids’ heads with information.

As high school teacher Annie Abrams writes, “In the best cases, public education helps students situate themselves among broader communities than they may otherwise encounter while building civic trust. It helps them become adults, slowly, clumsily, day by day. There’s no app-based replacement for that.”