E.D. Officials Rebut Criticisms Leveled At Technology Plan
Washington--The U.S. Education Department (ED) last week began its defense of a four-year, $16-million initiative to help improve the quality and availability of educational computer software following charges made by a national conservative weekly newspaper that the effort undercuts President Reagan's education policies.
Donald J. Senese, assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, said he had sent a letter to the editors of Human Events rebutting the newspaper's allegations that Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell's "technology initiative" would perpetuate "the centralization of curriculum information and development under the aegis of" the National Education Association (NEA) and other "left-oriented groups."
Mr. Bell's technology initiative, which is scheduled to be unveiled during a nationwide "teleconference" scheduled for June 22, has several goals, according to Mr. Senese.
First, he explained, Mr. Bell intends to use his position as secretary of education as "a bully pulpit" for the purpose of heightening school officials' awareness of the uses of computer technology as an instructional aid.
Second, Mr. Senese continued, Mr. Bell's initiative is intended to bring together local school officials and representatives of textbook-publishing and computer firms in order to aid in the development of effective educational computer programs that will supplement the cur-riculum materials that are currently available.
Finally, he said, Mr. Bell intends to advocate the creation of a federal clearinghouse, similar in some respects to the National Institute of Education's Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC), to help local school officials locate computer programs that will suit their school district's individual needs.
'Dependence on Technology'
In its May 22 edition, however, Human Events published a lengthy article claiming that "it is precisely such dependence on technology at the expense of basic drill in the fundamentals that is chiefly responsible for the declining achievements of recent years."
"For Secretary Bell to promote such an approach in the name of basic education is mind boggling," the article continued.
The article also claimed that the organization providing the technical support for ed's June 22 teleconference--Project best of the Washington-based Association for Edu-cation Communications and Technology--is an NEA "spin-off group" that hopes to "concentrate the development and control of curriculum materials in the very network of interest groups that has been responsible for the decline of the schools over the past two decades."
Organizations like the NEA will be given "extraordinary power to control or manipulate the future direction of American public education, all courtesy of tax monies made available by Bell's education department," according to the article.
"[This effort], which so thoroughly undercuts the president's goals, is not merely peripheral," it continued. "Rather, it is the very cutting edge of Bell's program as secretary." For this reason, the article said, Mr. Bell must be replaced as secretary of education "and the sooner the better."
"Otherwise, the President's plans for returning control of education to parents and local officials seems des-tined for total failure," it concluded.
According to Mr. Senese, however, the Human Events article seriously misstates the true goals of Mr. Bell's technology initiative.
In a written 15-point rebuttal, Mr. Senese pointed out that "there is nothing in the technology initiative which would 'perpetuate centralized control' of education 'by the educationist network"' as claimed in the article.
The initiative, he said, "encourages a partnership between the schools and the private sector" and "is consistent with the Reagan Administration program to aid states and localities during a time of transition to the block-grant approach."
Mr. Senese also pointed out that Project best "is not an affiliate presently" of the NEA and that "it is not involved in any of the NEA political goals."
In fact, he continued, the Association for Education Communications and Technology, Project best's parent group, broke off from the NEA in 1969 because it believed the teachers' organization "was more interested in unionizing teachers and hostile to technology in education, seeing it as a threat to teachers."
The secretary's technology initiative, Mr. Senese explained during an interview, "is not an attempt to produce another high-cost federal program of the 1960's."
"The federal government plans to maintain a non-intrusive role in its development; it will limit its participation to a role of leadership and impetus," he said.
Mr. Senese said the secretary's initiative was developed following a series of three meetings that Mr. Bell held in Washington during the last year with school officials, textbook publishers, and computer-corporation executives.
"Out of those meetings, we learned that the textbook publishers were hesitant to invest in high technology because they were unsure what the financial return to them would be," he explained. "The school officials, on the other hand, were telling us that they needed more in-formation on computer software" in order to avoid investing in costly equipment that they would have to replace in a short time.
The schools, he said, were afraid of finding themselves in a situation similar to the type they encountered when buying record players in the late 1940's and early 1950's.
"Then, they were buying 78 r.p.m. record players, and in a few years all they could get were 33 r.p.m. records," he continued. "Today, they are saying they want computer programs that will last a long time and will be compatible with a wide variety of computer hardware."
"High technology is not a fad" as was suggested in the Human Events article, Mr. Senese pointed out.
"Look at the number of teen-agers that are putting out millions of dollars for Pac-Man and Space Invaders," he explained. "Children as young as 2 and 3 are learning to use small computers. They already understand what high technology is all about.
"All that we are saying," he continued, "is 'let's put that knowledge to use in a more productive manner.' Technology is not a thing of the future, it's here now. More and more jobs in the future will require technical skills, and we need to train children to apply that knowledge."