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Students' Access to Computers Said a Function of School's Wealth

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Students from poor districts are less likely to receive instruction on a computer than students from wealthy districts, but there is no significant inequality based on race or gender, a federally funded study has found.

It goes on to say, however, that "to the extent that computer literacy and computer expertise are necessary for success in getting and keeping jobs, computer inequity is a serious problem." The report does not attempt to assess whether computers in fact will be crucial to students' future job prospects.

The study, which was funded by the National Science Foundation, was based on answers to questions in a 1981-82 survey of 18,000 9-, 13-, and 17-year-old students. Wayne W. Welch, professor of education at the University of Minnesota, conducted the survey with the assistance of the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 1981 and 1982.

Academic Progress Slower

The report appears to confirm the fears of many educators, who say the academic progress of students from poor districts may be slower than that of students in districts where computers are increasingly used in the classroom. These educators argue that poor districts not only have fewer computers but also tend to use them in less educationally effective ways. (See Education Week, March 2, 1983.)

The study was written by Mr. Welch; Ronald E. Anderson, associate professor of sociology and director of the university's Center for Social Research; and Linda J. Harris, a research associate at the center.

About 11 percent of the 17-year-old students asked in 1982 about their education program said they had studied computer programming for at least one semester. At the same time, only 7 percent of the students in schools receiving Chapter 1 aid said they had had such instruction.

The differences were greater for 13-year-old students. Twenty-three percent of all students of that age surveyed said they had used computers in school. About 32 percent of the students in what the report called "urban-rich" areas reported school computer use, compared with 17 percent of the students in poor areas of cities or rural areas.

But the report said the findings of inequality did not extend to differences due to race or gender.

For example, 26 percent of all black male students surveyed in 1978 said they had used computers in school--compared with 24 percent of all white males. Twenty-two percent of both black and white female students in the three age groups reported using computers that year.

By 1982, 34 percent of all white males surveyed reported using computers, compared with 30 percent of all black males. Meanwhile, the proportion of all white females using computers jumped to 34 percent while the percentage of all black females increased to 28.

The percentage of 17-year-old male students who had taken programming courses rose from 9 percent in 1978 to 14 percent in 1982. For 17-year-old female students, the figures are 5 percent and 9 percent, respectively.

The findings on race might "seem to be inconsistent" with the conclusion that there is inequity in computer use by economic class, the report said. The authors call for further research of the issue, but suggest that federal and state programs directed at minorities could explain why blacks have had fair access to computers.

The report also questions whether the computer software used by minority students is as "worthwhile" as that used by other students. "[S]ome educators have bemoaned the extensive use of highly rigid drills for minority students," the report says, adding that other students have "more opportunities for creative inquiry and discovery."

Perhaps as significant as the dif-ferences among economic classes, the report suggests, are differences among students in districts of different sizes.

Smaller communities offer students fewer opportunities for computing than do larger ones. For example, only 18 percent of junior-high-school students in small towns report using computers in school, while 26 percent of students in large schools have access to them.

And in 1982, 17 percent of suburban high-school students had enrolled in computer programming for at least one semester, compared with only 6 percent of students in rural schools.

Public policy can reduce those inequities, the report argues. Pointing to the programs of the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium, a quasi-governmental body, the report said there were no "large, substantial differences" among schools of different sizes in Minnesota.--ce

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