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The public wants more computers in its schools. Politicians promise to deliver them. But is education putting too much faith in technology?

By Jason Gay

OCTOBER 12, 1998:  It's getting to be a standard part of the political stemwinder, right after the usual rhetoric about working families, new jobs, and safer streets. In order to improve the public schools in his or her city/district/state, the candidate promises to add new computers to every classroom. Denied this technology, our students will fall desperately behind in the information age, the candidate invariably says. With it, they'll at least have a fighting chance.

It doesn't matter whether the politician is aging or just starting out; Democratic, Republican, or independent. These days, practically everyone is head over heels for computers in the classroom. That includes private business, which is eager to contribute money toward educational technology; school districts, which are perpetually strapped and delighted to accept these free contributions; educators, who are hungry for teaching tools; and parents, who want their children to have every possible advantage.

So for all their other disagreements, you won't see Paul Cellucci and Scott Harshbarger scrapping over computers in the classroom in this fall's Massachusetts governor's race. "Putting computers in classrooms and hooking them up to the Internet is a giant step forward in getting students ready to face the challenges of the 21st century," Cellucci has said. Harshbarger's new education plan -- which notes that Massachusetts ranked 45th in the country in classroom computers in 1995 -- calls for public/private partnerships with the high-tech industry to wire schools and install computers. Democratic runner-up Patricia McGovern went the furthest of the gubernatorial candidates, calling for a computer on every student's desk. "I think it's important that children, all children, have access to computers and technology," she told the Associated Press.

Amid this good feeling, however, there is a small but growing sentiment that the hype about technology in schools is just that -- hype. Pointing to recent studies -- including one released last week by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), which develops and administers standardized tests nationwide -- critics charge that the educational value of computers may be exaggerated. They warn that the public may be putting too much faith in machinery, while forsaking such proven educational objectives as better teachers and smaller classrooms.

"Educators, parents, and policymakers can make their best choices when they recognize the level of uncertainty that surrounds the concept of computer-based instruction," William Rukeyser, coordinator of the education nonprofit Learning in the Real World, wrote earlier this year. "Those choices must be based on data and analysis, not on the fear and faith that seem to characterize the rush to put computers in the classroom."

But don't expect to hear this from the candidates. In a political season in which few souls want to buck conventional wisdom, it will be hard to find leaders willing even to tap the brakes on computers in the classroom. If the technology comes up short, it may be even harder to find people willing to work out the bugs.

The skeptics who question the expanded use of computers in classrooms aren't a bunch of Luddites who want to see kids scratching math equations with charcoal on a block of wood. Nobody wants schoolchildren to be "left behind." The vast majority of critics, in fact, favor keeping technology in schools.

Rather, the questions center on efficacy and priority -- that is, how much do computers actually help students in the classroom, and should computers be such a driving focus in our current educational agenda?

Given that computers-in-the-classroom programs vary widely from school to school, it's historically been difficult to get definitive answers to these questions. Some large new studies may be bringing answers into view, however. The ETS study released last week examined close to 14,000 fourth and eighth graders nationwide -- and found that unless computers are put to proper use, they may actually slow the progress of students in the classroom.

The study, authored by ETS researcher Harold Wenglinsky, specifically examined the impact of computers on mathematics proficiency. Wenglinsky found that students who used computers to study math actually performed worse than students who didn't -- a conclusion he ascribed to the fact that the computer math programs relied heavily on repetitive drilling, while students who didn't use computers received broader, more interactive instruction. The study also found that using computers to teach "basic thinking skills" to young students was "negatively related to academic achievement and the social environment of the school."

Reports like these are what fuel critics such as Massachusetts Board of Education chairman and Boston University chancellor John Silber, who rejects major computers-in-the-classroom initiatives as wasteful. But Silber, always a loose cannon, does other technology skeptics a disservice when he utters such comments as: "Why don't you just use a brand-new paper and pencil? . . . In the 1920s, all you needed was flash cards." That's what he said at an education meeting in Lawrence earlier this year, according to the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune.

More constructive are the experiences at schools like Roxbury's Nativity Prep, a Jesuit-run junior high that places many of its graduates in top parochial and exam schools. Though Nativity is a new school, just three years old, computers take a definite back seat to traditional blackboard-and-chalk teaching methods in its classrooms. Michael Mayo, an English teacher, says he lets his students use computers only rarely; last year, as the school's librarian, he prohibited computers almost entirely.

"All this attention to computers, and the money being spent, is being spent on a problem we have created ourselves," Mayo says. "We have too many kids in our classrooms, we don't pay teachers enough to teach, and now we look to solve all these problems with one sexy solution."

At 26 years of age, Mayo is no anti-technology curmudgeon. He's fooled around with computers for most of his life. But when students must be taught the utter basics of reading, writing, and problem solving, computers can be an unnecessary diversion, he believes. "The scope of material that a kid needs to know in middle school is actually pretty small," Mayo says. "My first year here, I sat the kids down and tried to discuss Seamus Heaney. Then I realized that most of them didn't know what a verb was."

But are Nativity students missing out? Technology boosters are fond of suggesting that if students aren't computer literate before graduation, they'll be doomed to minimum-wage jobs in a high-tech economy. This hyperbole, however, discounts the fact that software is increasingly easy to use: a student can master many programs in less than an hour (compare learning Microsoft Word, for example, to learning trigonometry). Too much classroom time spent on computers also threatens to bump other school assignments that can be crucial to a student's cognitive development. Says Nativity eighth grader Matthew Owen: "You can't talk about To Kill a Mockingbird on the Internet."

That doesn't mean that students can't benefit from some exposure to computer technology. If monitored properly by well-trained staff, computers can be a useful tool for learning and research, sometimes engaging students who are uninspired by typical classroom experiences. Learning-disabled students, for example, often show academic improvement following computer use.

Linda Croteau, a special-education teacher in Rockport Elementary School whose pupils' impairments range from mild dyslexia to Down syndrome, finds computers very helpful for working with learning-disabled students. Many of these kids are frustrated by classroom settings, Croteau says, but computers can allow them to learn at their own speed, without fear of giving the wrong answer. "It's very student-directed," she says. "There's no judgment."

Still, even Croteau cautions against educators' relying too much on computers in the classroom. "I don't use the computer as a baby sitter. It doesn't work that way," she says. "You have to be on a parallel journey with them."

The answer, of course, is finding the proper balance. Here in Boston, several unprecedented computers-in-the-classroom initiatives are under way. Mayor Thomas Menino's "Partners in Technology" program plans to equip the city's 125 schools with computers by using more than $25 million in donations and grants. On October 26 -- Menino's "Net Day" -- Boston celebrates becoming the first urban school system in the country to wire each of its schools to the Internet.

Given the desperate situations of many public schools, particularly urban ones, it's hard to not like such large-scale investment, especially from the private sector. Just by its presence, technology can reenergize a school system used to getting the short end of the stick.

"You can bring it [technology] into a school and revive people's thoughts about why they got into education," says Ed DeMore, executive assistant to the city's chief economic development officer, who helps steward Boston's partnerships with private business. "That in itself is valuable."

Though DeMore says that "anyone who questions the appropriateness of exposing children to technology" must be in the "dark ages," he agrees that the road to education reform ultimately leads back to the tried and true -- namely, teachers. "Technology is not an end-all and be-all but another tool, like the book or chalkboard," DeMore says. "How you apply it is key. If you give a poorly trained teacher a computer in a classroom, it's not going to change a damn thing."

Jason Gay can be reached at jgay@phx.com.

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