Money isn’t Everything Especially if the Government is Spending It

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money isn't everything

I saw this cool graphic over on Pinterest. It compares the costs of using iPods versus textbooks to deliver educational content.

I happened to be finishing up the excellent Steve Jobs biography at the same time, so I had been thinking a lot about innovation. I studied this graphic carefully, and although the bottom line adds up, I think it gives short shrift to the true cost of sticking with textbooks. After all, money isn’t everything.

This isn’t going to be my usual long, meandering post, which is kind of interesting because the topic of modernizing public education is a particular passion of mine. But I can keep this one short and sweet, because to me the issues are so clear. The infographic makes the case quite well that in the short term, there’s no money to be saved by giving school kids iPads instead of textbooks.

I think I can make an equally compelling case that this is the wrong question. Sure, money enters in, because there’s not enough to go around, if the government keeps spending it the way the government always spends it.

But money’s not the reason why textbooks and instruction need to shake hands with the iPad (and other cutting edge technology).

The unquantified costs, in my humble opinion, and from my personal perspective as the mother of two teenaged boys, far outweigh the literal price of textbooks vs. tablets. The question isn’t whether we can save money by moving to digital platforms for school books and instruction. The question is whether we can afford the costs of not doing so, and soon.

For example, how much does boredom cost the individual, the economy, and the world at large?

If you’ve looked at a textbook recently, you know what I mean about boredom. Actually, if you remember your own textbooks, you know what I mean.

A textbook is a textbook is a textbook, and they are boring. Partly that’s because they’re produced by committee and based on stuff that everyone can agree on, which makes for some fairly dry reading. Partly it’s because the teenaged brain encounters a 3 pound book that is mostly small type in long paragraphs and thinks,

“Boring.” But never mind why.

Traditional textbooks simply don’t engage. They are instead hauled from school to home and back again, cracked open only upon pain of grounding or failure.

And how much does disengagement cost the individual, the economy, and the world at large?

Big classrooms full of distracted kids who are being asked to receive and regurgitate one-dimensional lesson plans – that’s pretty disengaging.

Sure, I’ve had some stand-out teachers in my 18 years of formal education. I can think of three, as a matter of fact. I can think of about five who were absolutely horrible in the classroom. The rest have faded into obscurity. And it’s not their fault. In the first place, not everyone can be inspirational.

In the second place, and more importantly, schooling is so regimental and over-managed that excellence and inspiration have a hard time gaining a toe-hold. And in the third place, the expectations we have of our schools, compared with the resources they have available, are pretty darned demanding.

That all adds up to disengagement.

While we’re at it, how much does the sheer bureaucracy of producing textbooks cost?

First you’ve got the environmental costs: paper – reams of it. Transportation costs of sending crates of books all over hell and gone.

Then you’ve got the costs of outdated information (you don’t want to know what it takes to revise a textbook and get it into a classroom). Then you’ve got the governmental hoo-ha and committees and regulations and cronyism and all of its attendant costs.

The book might cost $30. Getting it into the hands of a student costs a lot more.

Boredom. Disengagement. Hide-bound bureaucracy and environmental expense.

Very big costs indeed to shoulder just so we can hang onto textbooks and institutions  because they’re what we know.

Steve Jobs himself was far from a stellar student. In fact, he was suspended numerous times from high school. He barely made it through a semester at college.

Luckily for him (and for us) he had the will to overcome a negative experience of school. He was a lifelong learner and a deeply curious man out of his own will.

But I think we can all agree that he was a rare case.

And that is why looking at this question from a purely financial standpoint does not make sense. Because the institution of schooling as we’ve always understood it is making less and less sense, at its core.

It’s expensive, unresponsive, disengaging, and boring – and it doesn’t have to be.

After all, money isn’t everything.


  • Wonderful post Jayne. I am frustrated when teachers do not use the automated systems set up for them, especially Teacher Access where a parent can look up a child’s grade and any assignments that are missing, along with how they are doing on tests. It’s a HUGE help for parents and the child but Teachers are allowed to not use it, so you will have 3 of your child’s teachers using it, with the other 3 not using it. Then don’t get me started on the fact that they all have different preferred contact information…”You have to email me at Yahoo, I don’t listen to my school voicemail or look at school email.” “I only look at school email, but I only check it on Fridays” “Don’t call the school; leave a message on my cell.” “Email me at AOL, but if it is important leave a message on the school voicemail.” It makes a parent crazy and it’s hard on the kids. I cannot imagine how it would be to get everyone using technology and using the same system. It is sooooo cost efficient.