January 7, 2000

O.K., Schools Are Wired. Now What?


The question is no longer, Should computers be used? The question is, How?

One minute, Doreen Capriglione is teaching her first-graders at Sapphire Elementary School in Harriman, N.Y., how to clean up strawberry pudding smeared on the carpet. Next, she is teaching them how to operate a computer.

On this morning, the children are learning about Simtown, a software program that invites children to create a simulated neighborhood by placing icons of trees, roadways and buildings on a blank stretch of land. As Ms. Capriglione helps a 6-year-old boy guide a mouse, the children crowd around the Macintosh, fidgety with excitement, offering their own advice.

Jessica Metellus, a wide-eyed 6-year-old with pigtails, impatiently awaits her turn. Asked if she thinks the software helps her learn, she nods. "It makes you do all these fun things," she said.

Five years ago, when President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore set national goals for educational technology, they were aiming for scenes just like this one. Sapphire Elementary, in a relatively affluent area of the Hudson Valley, has computers in nearly every classroom, myriad software programs and a high-speed Internet connection.

Thousands of other schools have become equally equipped. The average public school now has at least one multimedia computer for every 10 students. And one of the Clinton administration's biggest goals -- to ensure that every school in the country is wired to the Internet by the year 2000 -- is close to being met: In 1999, 90 percent of public schools had Internet access, according to Market Data Retrieval, a company that has surveyed nearly half the public schools in the United States. Analysts expect that 100 percent will be wired by the end of this year.

Teachers and administrators, however, are not patting themselves on the back. In many ways, technology has opened a Pandora's box. Ms. Capriglione has three old computers to tend to. The school's principal, Charlene A. Pepe, must face anxious parents demanding evidence of the school's technological prowess. And Anne Guzman, a teacher down the hall from Ms. Capriglione, is dealing with hyperactive children. "Never again will I turn on the computers this early," Ms. Guzman said after a morning session of software games. "It has just made them wild."

A minority of parents and educators would rather not have computers turned on at all in primary schools. William L. Rukeyser, the coordinator of the nonprofit organization Learning in the Real World, and Jane M. Healy, an educational psychologist, have been sounding alarms over the past few years over what they see as ill-guided and expensive attempts to bring computers to each classroom.

Frances Roberts for The New York Times
At Murray Bergtraum High School in Manhattan, Ted Nellen teaches English the cyber way, with class discussions via email.

"Starting children on computers too early is far worse than starting them too late," Dr. Healy wrote in "Failure to Connect," a 1998 book that explores whether computers actually hamper children's progress in the classroom. Before the age of 9 or 10, Dr. Healy wrote, children may benefit much more from hands-on work and social interaction than computer software.

Even Ms. Pepe has doubts.

"What purpose do computers serve to make kids brighter, more curious?" Ms. Pepe asked. She is not convinced that they stimulate learning as much as some people think. In fact, in her own home, she tries to keep her 6-year-old daughter off the computer, occupying her instead with an easel and paint setup in the kitchen. Too often, she said, "Computers are used as pacifiers."

But most principals and teachers would agree that computers are here to stay. Shipments of new and used computers arrive in school districts every day. The federal government has been spending nearly $1.5 billion annually to bring technology into schools, while local school districts spent more than $5.4 billion in 1998-99. Anyone who has paid a telephone bill recently has contributed to the cause as well: As a result of a new federal law, telephone companies are now charging customers an "e-rate" fee to subsidize schools' networking costs.

Many educators are tired of defending the need for computers. "We have to move beyond that debate, and think about what we can do to take advantage of this technology," said Andy Carvin, an associate at the Benton Foundation, a nonprofit communications policy organization, and the moderator of a technology-related e-mail list for teachers (edweb.cnidr.org/wwwedu.html).

The question is no longer, Should computers be used? The question is, How?

Visit Murry Bergtraum High school New York City, in lower Manhattan, and the first thing you may notice is the blue paint peeling off the elevator walls, or the squeals of teen-agers as they lumber into class several minutes after the morning bell. The scenes unfolding on each floor seem typical of any high school: Teachers stand in front of blackboards and stride between rows of students sitting at desks. A boy struggles to read aloud while his teacher prods him to continue. Some students look alert. Others prop their heads in their hands, seemingly to keep from falling asleep.

Walk into Ted Nellen's 11th-grade "CyberEnglish" class, however, and you first notice rows and rows of old computers. Then you see the students. Some are reclining in their chairs, some are typing intently at the keyboards and some are talking together, pointing at the screens in front of them.

What you do not see, at least not right away, is the teacher. Nellen is crouched next to a student, guiding her through an assignment on her screen. Today, he has asked his students to select one of several online projects to work on independently.

More than 73 percent of Murry Bergtraum students are black and Hispanic, and 70 percent of the student body qualifies for a free lunch. Nellen's computer-rich classroom, with one for every student, is a rarity. Market Data Retrieval reports that the number of students per computer rises with the number of students who qualify for a free lunch. And only 28 percent of schools with mostly minority students match the national average of one multimedia computer (essential for running educational software) per 10 students. In schools with enrollments that are 95 percent white, more than 42 percent have achieved at least that ratio.

Nellen wants his students to learn, above everything else, about writing and literature. His strategy happens to be through computers. One assignment, for example, is about Shakespeare's "Tempest." Nellen posed discussion questions to his students in an e-mail message. Instead of discussing the questions orally, they are expected to send their answers in e-mail messages distributed to the entire class, so that everyone can read them and elaborate, again via e-mail, on what has been said.

"This way you have time to think about it," said Jose Mendez as he typed. He also likes the technology for another reason. In this class of 35 students, he is able to communicate personally with Nellen through one-on-one e-mail messages. In a traditional class, he said, teachers rarely talk to their students individually, except when they call them over to their desk. "Then," he added, "everyone thinks you are getting in trouble."

Nellen is clearly not teaching English in a traditional way. He is no longer front and center, moderating discussion but not necessarily leading it. Around him, students ask one another questions instead of asking him for the answers. "What the technology is doing is forcing us to rethink how we do our jobs," he said. "You have to get rid of everything you ever learned about being a teacher."

Some educators say that Nellen's radical approach is asking too much. Before teachers even consider such a change in mentality, they need training. They need to learn how to use new computer applications and how to integrate them into their classrooms. A recent survey by the National Center for Education Statistics found that only 20 percent of teachers feel ready to do so.

Even teachers fresh out of education school are poorly prepared, according to a study released last March by the Milken Exchange on Educational Technology. In the 416 education colleges surveyed, most reported that professors do not teach technology use in their regular courses. And most student teachers, when placed in classrooms as part of their fieldwork, are not given instruction in how to use technology, either.

Last year, the Education Department started a grant program to address the problem. So far, it has awarded more than $57 million to 224 education schools, teacher colleges and a consortia of institutions that have plans to build technology training into their curriculums. "We are just at the beginning," said Peter Cookson, the director of the Center for Educational Outreach and Innovation at Columbia University. "A lot of faculty are not computer literate and don't have technical support."

Teachers resist for other reasons, too. They argue that if they are going to be forced to undergo a transformation, to give up traditional methods and make room for Web-enabled computers, they at least want to see proof that the effort is worth it.

Professional Development

Percentage of schools where at least half the teachers identified themselves as a technology beginner (is learning the basics), intermediate (uses a variety of applications), advanced (uses in curriculum) or innovator (leads or instructs others).

Computers That Help to Teach

Multimedia computers, which have a sound card and a CD-ROM drive, are essential for running many of today's instructional software programs.

Getting Connected

Internet access ranges from a high of 99 percent in Maine to a low of 80 percent in Oklahoma, with a national average of 90 percent.

But no proof exists. Studies have been conducted, but their sample sizes are small and their focus narrow. Many are outdated. The National Governors' Association released a report in August boasting of the effectiveness of computers in schools. Its footnotes refer to three studies. One was dated 1991 and another 1993. The third, in 1998, was conducted by the Software Publishers Association, a group with a vested interest in the adoption of technology in schools.

Linda Roberts, director of the Office of Educational Technology for the Department of Education, agrees that there is need for more research. But she defends the administration's push to wire schools. Before studies can be done, she said, the technology must be in place to make comparisons.

"Integrating technology's resources and tools means first of all getting it to the classroom," Ms. Roberts said. "You have to drive the technology down to where the teachers and the kids are."

In his classes, Nellen is convinced that e-mail provides advantages over traditional discussions with a large number of students. Typically, he explained, teachers ask a question and wait for students' hands to shoot into the air. "You have the kids who don't say anything," he said, "and the kids who won't shut up."

Isa Lopez is also confident that the computer is having a positive effect. "This is better," she said, scanning the half-dozen messages that had just appeared on her screen. "We can't talk to everybody in a regular English class. You never talk about what people think; you just don't have time."

That worries David Abram, a cultural ecologist and author of "The Spell of the Sensuous," a 1996 book that delves into the need for learning through physical experience. "We are skipping over a layer of experience that can only be cultivated through face-to-face speaking, conversation, storytelling," Abram said.

Encouraging students to use e-mail in class brings new distractions as well. "I send e-mail, but it's mostly to my friends," admitted Nepheny Garcia. Besides, "I already know the answers," she added, pointing to the dozens of responses to Nellen's questions that her peers had already posted.

Eighty miles away, in South Philadelphia, another inner-city school is experimenting with technology. Thirty-five juniors and seniors in St. Maria Goretti High School are sitting in front of 35 computers in a computer applications course.

The girls, each wearing a uniform of black, red and white, are staring intently at their screens. Their backs are straight. Their hands grip the mice at their keyboards. Sister Rita Lenihan strides past the rows. She wants her students to demonstrate what they have learned in the last week: the art of setting tabs in the popular word-processing program Microsoft Word.

"Shrink the margins," she said loudly. "Space up."

"Be careful of your tabulations," she continued. "Let's try to get this on one sheet of paper."

The girls click obediently. The task is to put three charts, full of tabulated figures, into one document. Among other skills they have learned are how to open documents, how to set margins on the ruler, how to cut and paste new material into neat, evenly spaced rows. Sister Lenihan's goal is for her students to pass a series of tests in the Microsoft Office User Specialist certification program, known as MOUS. Earning the certificates, which are essential for some office jobs, is not required for the course but clearly desired. "They're right on task," Sister Lenihan said. "I taught them from the ground up."

Microsoft did not donate software or equipment to the school, so St. Maria Goretti has raised its own money. The school won a $121,000 grant from the Connelly Foundation, a private organization in Philadelphia, to cover the costs of computers, furniture and Microsoft Windows 2000 software. As required by that grant, the school raised another $21,000 from its alumni, advisory board and annual Valentine's Day dance. Nivo International, the company that administers the certification tests, has donated the cost of 50 tests, but once that supply runs out, the company will charge its usual $50 for each additional student tested.

Nevertheless, St. Maria Goretti High School has decided to integrate MOUS into its entire curriculum. Every teacher, whatever the class, is expected to use Microsoft applications when computer projects are assigned. Students creating presentations for a science or a business class are encouraged to use Microsoft's Power Point program. Students in math and statistics classes use Microsoft's spreadsheet program, Excel.

More than 60 schools teach MOUS in some classes and have become testing sites for the Microsoft certification programs. Across Philadelphia to the north, Jules E. Mastbaum Vocational High School has started to teach its students Microsoft applications that are part of MOUS tests. Each student has a thick, hardcover textbook full of examples of how to use Microsoft Word. The courses are replacing outdated ones, like typing and shorthand.

"We were using old electric typewriters," said Donna Velez, a senior at Mastbaum.

Teaching students how to set tabs is not exactly what most educators have in mind when speaking about integrating technology into the curriculum. Instead of teaching children how to turn on computers, how to surf the Web or how to master software, most proponents of educational technology say they see computers as a springboard for learning math, science, literature and history. They want students to use the Internet for creating their own projects instead of learning the mechanics of a particular application. They want children to use software that will reinforce lessons they have been taught by their teachers.

Teachers and students at both Mastbaum and St. Maria Goretti defend their insistence on Microsoft training.

"Any job you go for now, Microsoft programs are what are used," said Dana Cocco, a senior at St. Maria Goretti who works part time in a dental office, where she has already started using Microsoft Excel. She passed the MOUS test for Excel in November. Elissa Calabro, another senior, passed the Word test. "It boosted my confidence a lot," she said.

Roseann Whelan, the chairwoman of the health and physical education department at St. Maria Goretti, said that its focus has propelled the school into a new era. Encircled by a chain-link fence, it stands in the middle of a working-class community. For years, the number of students was dwindling. But now it is teaching skills sought by students and parents, and enrollment has started to go up.

To Ms. Whelan, teaching Microsoft programs is exactly what a high school should be doing -- even if it means teaching students to put tabs in a document. "The computer is about problem-solving," she said. "It's teaching them to find the resources needed to solve problems."

Skeptics counter that computers are much more about companies making profits than about education. Who, they ask, gains the most from MOUS? The students -- who are learning skills that may be outdated in a few years -- or Microsoft and the companies that need people who are trained on its software?

Rukeyser of Learning in the Real World has a hunch. "Sounds like the next generation of linotype operators," he said.

In 1993, a few years before Clinton set his year 2000 deadline for computers in the classroom, a group of governors gathered in Charlottesville, Va., to draw up a list of goals pegged to the dawn of the century. That list, called Goals 2000, outlined eight lofty education objectives, including the eradication of violence in schools, vast improvements in student competency in a wide range of subjects and an increase in graduation rates to 90 percent of high-school students. Today, as efforts to wire classrooms have largely succeeded, the expectations set by Goals 2000 are still far from being realized. The difference in the two initiatives' progress makes many teachers wince, even those who are pioneering computer use. It also fuels arguments that the money used to wire schools could have been better spent elsewhere.

Nellen of Murry Bergtraum High School, for one, votes for much smaller classes. "If I had a class of four or five students," he said, "I wouldn't need computers." He uses them, he said, as a counterattack against an educational system that puts 35 students in his classroom. Ms. Pepe of Sapphire Elementary would rather have a reduction to 18 students a class. "I would choose that over more computers," she said.

Ms. Roberts, of the Clinton administration, balks at even considering this an either/or situation. "We shouldn't have to make those kinds of choices," she said. Instead, she points to success stories.

One is the Advanced Technologies Academy, a new high school in Las Vegas with gleaming hallways, high-speed Internet connections and more computers than students. In 1996, when Vice President Gore was looking for a school to spotlight as an example of how computer technology can enhance education, he visited the academy.

At A-Tech, as it is called, the Internet and computer are incorporated into almost every class. Students in business communications classes use computers to present charts and use the Internet to research collaborative projects that are published on the Web. Students in chemistry classes create animated examples of atomic theories they have learned in class.

Computers in the Classroom
Many educators, politicians and parents believe that the classroom of the 21st century should be wired, and that lessons be technologically savvy. Here is a look at the state of computer technology in public schools today.
More significantly, the school has achieved academic success. Last year, every senior passed a proficiency test, mandated by the state, that permits them to graduate. A-Tech was one of three high schools of Clark County's 26 with a 100 percent graduation rate.

Whether computers are responsible for A-Tech's success is an open question. The school is situated in a part of Las Vegas with diverse income levels, and has won its share of attention from school-district budget makers. The school oozes money. The floors are shining and spotless; the ficus trees in the atrium have been freshly trimmed; the computers are top of the line.

"If you put all these computers into the schools, you are at least setting the stage for students to advance themselves," said Carvin, of the Benton Foundation, the communications policy group.

His hope, he said, is that A-Tech's academic success can be replicated at schools across the country. But unless teachers are given the training to use the technology appropriately, his fear is that the 8.2 million computers now sitting in public schools might go to waste.

"It really makes you wonder," Carvin said. "If you are going to spend billions of dollars wiring all these classrooms, is it going to make any difference if teachers are still going to teach the way they did 30 years ago?"

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company