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Jewish World Review Dec. 27, 1999 /18 Teves, 5760

Michelle Malkin

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Reading, writing, PlayStation?

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- FIRST IT WAS condoms. Then came metal detectors, sensitivity training, and Captain Planet comic books. Well, you are not going to believe what public schools are spending your money on now:

Sony PlayStations.

Yup, under the guise of raising academic standards and "making learning fun," teachers and principals are turning classrooms into video-game-console lending libraries. With the help of a San Diego-based firm called Lightspan and gobs of federal education dollars -- school districts across the country loan PlayStation machines to students for overnight, weekly, and semester-long use.

The Pleasantville school district in southern New Jersey recently bought 780 PlayStations and plans to spend $1.8 million more on games over the next five years. Cleveland and Denver school officials have forked over $1 million each. Administrators in Maryland, Florida, and Kentucky are also wild about the program, which rewards aggressive recruiters within the public schools with free digital cameras and gift certificates.

The PlayStation ploy is partially funded through the federal Title I program -- a War on Poverty-era relic that has squandered more than $120 billion since 1965 on educational gimmickry. The feds created Title I to close the achievement gap between the nation's poorest students and the rest of the country. By all accounts, Title I's massive remedial expenditures have been an abysmal failure.

Yet, Congress continues to pour money down the drain. And educational snake-oil peddlers continue to slurp it up.

Lightspan's experiment supposedly brings kids and their parents closer together while they do their homework. The company's director of business development, Etsuko Adelman, asserts that "because the student is most often working in a family room, rather than a home office environment, there is increased family participation" if the child uses a school-bought PlayStation. Fat chance.

The Pollyanna school administrators who believe this pabulum have obviously never had to pry the game controller from the twitching hands of a zombified, pajama-clad pre-teen who has been glued to his PlayStation all weekend. Take it from a recovered Tempest/Tetris/Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle addict: Sitting in front of a video game screen is not a family bonding experience. It is a self-absorbed and stultifying recreational indulgence.

Lightspan's advisory boards are stocked with bureaucrats, professors, and self-described "educational innovators." But I don't care how many education Ph.D.'s have been snookered by this scheme. PlayStations will never be effective teaching aides. They are 32-bit babysitters.

The Lightspan "curriculum" claims to be different. The company, which is supported by tech giants such as Microsoft and TCI, touts "342 research studies" showing that PlayStation use boosted students' reading and math scores by "17%, 25%, or 37%."

"It increases student self-esteem and helps students feel good about learning," says Lightspan's Etsuko Adelman. So what do students actually learn from these costly computer games that can't already be taught through take-home worksheets and textbooks?

Designed by various experts and consultants, the PlayStation cartridges purchased by schools use gee-whiz software with colorful cartoon characters to capture students' interest. Lightspan representative Peter Walling bragged to school officials in southern New Jersey this month that "81 percent of children said they would rather work on a PlayStation than watch regular television at home." Who wouldn't?

This is not education. This is indolent capitulation to the education technology racket. Over one thousand elementary schools nationwide have purchased more than 40,000 PlayStations and related Lightspan cartridges. The firm has targeted more than 15,000 schools over next few years. Sony, a Goliath in the $3.5 billion video game market, can count on capturing tens of thousands of new customers through the schools.

Pamela Donaldson, a third-grade teacher in Utah who supports the program, voices a common sentiment among PlayStation boosters: "Kids today are visual and into video games. So, why fight it?"

Why? Because the transmission of knowledge is a job too important to cede to faddists. Because poor kids deserve fiscally responsible administrators willing to spend wisely on human capital, not flashy gadgetry.

And because homework should be brain work, not electronic horseplay.


JWR contributor Michelle Malkin can be reached by clicking here.

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©1999, Creators Syndicate