About a decade ago, as the global economy shuddered, an 11-year-old boy sat at a desk with a laptop computer in the hallway of an experimental school in New York City. I stood with other adults watching the student demonstrate a software program that allowed him to design video games. Between the boy and us, a production crew for a local TV news affiliate was filming for a story on this well-resourced public middle school that had opened two months earlier. The TV crew had moved the boy, the desk, and the computer into the hallway so they could get a clean shot of the student using the computer program.
Each part of the scene—the student, the television crew, the onlookers, and the computer itself—revealed something about the promise held out by this new school. The hope for disrupting American education hinged on curriculum highlighting new technologies that would prepare students to compete in a brave new world. But the educational disruption that occurred would turn out to have little to do with the one that had been planned.
Over the previous several years, a team of technology designers and educational experts had developed a new model of schooling, one described as tailored for the digital age. This school would connect the classroom to the world and meet students where they lived. The entire curriculum would be designed like a game, and the latest digital technologies would be woven through all classes. Instead of rote and boring activities from conventional schools, students would spend their days working through complex challenges in designed game worlds. Rather than learning to be obedient pupils, they would become designers, inventors, scientists, coders, and other creative professionals. And the new school would offer its services to students from any background, thus equitably preparing today’s young people for the interconnected, competitive world of the 21st century.
Within months of its opening, the school had already attracted enthusiastic endorsements. In its first year, a steady stream of guests visited the school: scholars, technology designers, and educational reformers from around the world; the president of one of the country’s most respected philanthropic foundations; the chancellor of New York City’s public schools; numerous journalists from prominent media outlets; and several researchers, including myself, who were studying the experiment as it unfolded. While conducting research for my doctorate across several years, I documented the development and launch of what I came to call the “Downtown School.” Following ethnographic conventions, I decided not to use the real name of the institution when writing about it.
Everyone involved seemed to agree that conventional approaches to education were outdated, failing to fulfill their social mandates, and disconnected from 21st-century realities. They also seemed to think that the Downtown School was a pathbreaking attempt to reimagine education for a new era. The Downtown School had redesigned the traditional school “from top to bottom,” the president of one of the school’s partner organizations stated in a press release. Prominent news outlets echoed this sentiment, portraying the school as “burning the canon,” superseding “the factory model” of schooling, and “dismantling” the classroom. In a moment of heightened economic anxieties and mounting political strife, experiments like the Downtown School portended a hopeful future.
Back in the hallway, the camera crew moved closer to the boy at the desk. A second, separate camera crew, this one for a national public affairs show, had set up at the other end of the hallway and wound up in the frame of the first camera crew’s shot. As the second camera crew was interviewing one of the teachers, the reporter asked why the school thought it important to teach things like game design and programming.
The teacher explained that “the great promise of the web is that we all can produce media.” Meanwhile, a door to one of the classrooms swung open and a teacher’s voice escaped: “Let’s form this line!” Students arranged themselves into single file lines so that teachers could escort them quietly to their next class. The camera crews stopped filming and waited for the marching lines of students to pass.
At the very moment when journalists and the school’s backers were producing hopeful stories about the school, behind the scenes, tensions were approaching a breaking point. In the weeks leading up to the television shoots, a mostly upper-middle-class white and Asian-American faction of the school’s parents had been pressuring the administration to crack down on what they saw as untoward behavior by some lower-income students, all of whom identified as black or Latino.
More so than the school’s game-based teaching, the diversity of the Downtown School student body was proving to be the school’s most unusual characteristic. While the vast majority of public schools in New York City are highly segregated by race and social class, the Downtown School’s first cohort of students brought with them a broad range of social classes and ethnic identifications. It was this diversity, and some parents’ reactions to it, that generated the most difficult and unanticipated challenges for the school’s leaders and educators.
Parental pressure for stricter discipline had helped lead to the policy of escorting students between classes in single file lines. As educators acquiesced to parental demands such as these, the Downtown School gradually became more and more like the schools it had been designed to replace and perpetuated many of the problems it had been designed to fix. By the end of the school’s second year, strict classroom management techniques had been instituted throughout the school, boys outnumbered girls by a three-to-two ratio, and many of the students of color from the school’s inaugural class had transferred to other schools. None of these developments squared with the hopeful vision of creating a playful, tech savvy, and equitable new model of schooling for the 21st century.
In reality, the Downtown School had never been that different from conventional schools, nor could it have been, given the limited aspects of schooling that its designers could control with their new approaches. Much of the curriculum was set by the state, students were evaluated annually by standardized tests, and the classrooms they inherited had been designed for a traditional school. Much of what shaped the knowledge, interests, and concerns of students and parents took place beyond the school walls. The criteria by which the school’s students would be evaluated when they applied to high schools and colleges were set by others. And so on.
Yet time and again, both insiders and outsiders portrayed the school as a particularly promising and new model of schooling. When they did so, they focused on the school’s tech-centered innovations and downplayed nearly all of its familiar and problematic aspects. It is precisely this dynamic that played out when the television crews staged their shots in the hallway: The television crews highlighted gamed-based instruction and students equipped with novel tech devices, while excluding the mundane, divisive, and controlling aspects of education.
It should not surprise us when techno-idealistic reform projects like the Downtown School fall short of hoped-for outcomes. Many historians and social scientists have demonstrated that overpromising is a recurrent feature of well-intentioned reform initiatives that center on new technologies. What makes techno-idealism peculiar is that so many smart and well-intentioned people repeatedly overestimate the transformations that techno-reformers can accomplish. Even more puzzling is the fact that this techno-idealism endures despite an abundance of evidence that should temper it.
Take, for example, the recent flurry of calls to treat computer science as a requisite literacy for the 21st century. While advocates of “computer science for all” regularly tell stories about how computer science training will benefit current and future workers, few acknowledge that the most reliable projections, like those from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’, undermine their case by foretelling a division of labor and a corresponding structure of income inequality unsettlingly similar to today’s.
Of the top 30 occupations that the BLS anticipates to experience the most job growth between 2016 and 2026, only one—software developers —requires knowing how to code. Instead, the vast majority of the occupations expected to experience the most job growth by 2026 are comparatively low-paying and do not require a bachelor’s degree. In a related vein, the BLS anticipates that computing and math occupations will make up 3% of total employment in the year 2026, up slightly from 2.83% in 2016, but wildly at odds with the futures that are regularly prophesied by advocates of computer science for all.
To be sure, technological skepticism also rears its head from time to time, and we appear to be experiencing a tech backlash at the current moment. But history also suggests that it will not take long for technological idealism to come rushing back. How can it be that so many Americans, who pride themselves on their pragmatism and their prudence, repeatedly pin such unrealistic hopes on the new technologies of the moment?
Perhaps it is because techno-idealism often provides an acceptable way to express concerns that are not only understandable but also often admirable. There are plenty of good reasons to be concerned about the state of the world, and it is honorable to want to fix it. But when we center our yearning for change so squarely on the promises of new technologies, we forgo more honest, sobering, and explicitly political diagnoses and treatments. Techno-idealism may ease our angst and warm our hearts with hope, but it also sets the stage for sorrow as it leaves safely intact the deeper sources of our maladies.