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Bell Backs Federal Software Initiative

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Washington--Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell last week called for a "Manhattan Project" to develop computer software for schools, but he stopped short of saying how much money the federal government should devote to the effort or what form it should take.

In testimony before the House Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, Mr. Bell said only the federal government can ensure that schools receive the kind of educational software they need to use computers effectively.

Officials from industry, government, and education testified at the two-day hearings on the use of computers in schools. They appeared to agree that a shortage of good software and an apparent disparity between wealthy and poor districts were the biggest problems limiting educational uses of the advanced technology--and that federal initiatives are required to counter those problems.

Among those who testified were Edmund G. Brown Jr., former governor of California; Edward A. Knapp, director of the National Science Foundation; Seymour Papert, professor of mathematics and education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Joe B. Wyatt, chancellor of Vanderbilt University; and Robert P. Taylor, associate professor of computing and education at Columbia University's Teachers College.

Secretary Bell appeared to surprise many members of the subcommittee with his strong endorsement of a federal role in software development. If the federal government does take a strong position, Mr. Bell said, computer-assisted instructional programs could dramatically improve the teaching of basic subjects.

The Secretary did not say what form such a federal role should take. He said the National Institute of Education (nie) would be able to coordinate software development if the Administration were given more control over its resources.

Mr. Bell also said he would consider a proposal by Mr. Wyatt of Vanderbilt to establish a "comsat-type" public corporation to underwrite individual software projects. Mr. Wyatt said the creation of such a corporation, which he recommended supplying with an annual budget of $100 million for five years, "may be the most important action that may be taken."

Former Governor Brown, now chairman of the nonprofit National Commission on Industrial Innovation, placed less emphasis on the development of software. He urged the federal government to evaluate software, but expressed optimism that the private sector would develop enough material for the schools.

Mr. Brown also called for federal tax credits for companies that donate computers to schools and for the establishment of federal centers for teacher training.

"I can't think of any one single thing that we can do for the schools over three years that would do more than a tax credit," Mr. Brown said. "This is a decentralized, nonbureaucratic [approach]. There are no objections to this except for the revenue loss, which is less than what buying machines would involve."

Such a program, he said, would address the unequal distribution of computers in schools. Many educators have said that students in poorer districts will be placed at a continuing educational disadvantage if they do not have access to computers.

Mr. Brown, who as a governor signed state tax-credit legislation into law, said most decisions the credits would make possible should be left to school districts and computer companies. Teachers voluntarily formed a California organization called Computer-Using Educators, which has been the foundation of the state's efforts in the area, he said.

"I believe people are smart enough to figure out what works and what doesn't work," he added.

Secretary Bell said he has been "pleading" during the past several months--"both inside and outside of the Administration"--for a more active federal role in software development.

An Education Department survey of the 50 states' educational systems now under way, Mr. Bell said, has found "enormously varied" performances among them in all areas of education. That, he said, is evidence that a federal research role for technology is appropriate.

"If we don't develop software that meets [the standards of educators] by bringing together the best resources we have ..., it's not going to get done," the Secretary said. "I'd put [software development] ahead of many areas in research and development."

Mr. Bell said the nie so far has been unable to make the development of educational software a top priority because the research agency's resources are tied to specific projects. And he asserted that the Administration should have greater control over nie projects.

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