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Urban Districts Found Lagging in Computerized Instruction

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The country's largest city school systems have been innovators in the administrative uses of computers, but urban districts are lagging behind other types of districts in the number of computers available for student use and in the level of instruction offered on the machines, a survey by the Council of Great City Schools has found.

Most of the 32 districts surveyed are spending significantly more money on administrative uses of computers than on classroom applications, although all but three have moved to incorporate educational technology into their curricula, the sur-vey indicated. It also found that responsibility for the administration of computer-training efforts usually is divided among several departments in a district, and that in many districts students are familiarized with computers through exposure to computer-assisted instructional programs rather than in special classes.

The survey, conducted last summer and published recently, is the first comprehensive review of large districts' approaches to educational technology.

The authors of the report--Michael D. Casserly, a legislative and research associate, and Patricia Hamilton, a consultant--interviewed "at length" district officials with primary responsibility for computer use.

They found that urban schools have far fewer computers available for student use than do U.S. schools as a whole. The ratio of students to computers is 863-to-1 in big-city elementary schools and 186-to-1 in urban secondary schools, the survey found. A recent survey by the Center for the Social Organization of Schools at The Johns Hopkins University found that those ratios for all U.S. schools were 183-to-1 and 88-to-1.

A Surprising Difference

"Inner-city kids never have much of anything, but we just thought this would be one area where there would be not so much of a difference," said Mr. Casserly. "What surprised me is that [disparities developed] so fast."

Mr. Casserly said few big-city districts have used federal block-grant money under Chapter 2 of the Education Consolidation and Improvement Act of 1981 to finance computer-education programs because they have used the money to comply with desegregation orders. Suburban and rural districts, he said, have used Chapter 2 money extensively to pay for computer-education programs.

He said the disparities suggest a need for federal legislation similar to the so-called "Apple bill," under which computer manufacturers would receive federal tax credits for donating machines to schools. But he said the legislation should include incentives to encourage companies to donate computers to poor school districts. (The Apple bill and other similar such measures introduced in the Congress last year have been opposed by the Reagan Administration as too costly; none has received approval in both the House and Senate.)

Most of the districts reported spending significantly more money for administrative uses than for educational uses of computers. Dade County, Fla., for example, reported spending $6 million for administrative computing but less than $1 million for instructional computing during the 1981-82 school year, the last year for which figures were available. The way the districts use computers administratively is undergoing a major change, the study found. City schools "seem to have the edge on other kinds of school systems in terms of numbers and sophistication of computer applications," the report noted. (See Education Week, March 23, 1983.)

Now, the report said, computerized administration appears to be shifting downward from the central office, in which large mainframe computers perform a range of analytical and record-keeping functions, to individual school buildings, in which microcomputers are increasingly being used for scheduling, keeping student records, and developing individual-education plans for handicapped students.

Big-city schools are also using their microcomputers to develop "networks" with the districts' mainframe computers and other microcomputers in the system, the report said.

The survey found that large districts vary widely in the ways they organize and administer programs involving computers; the responsibility for computer education in districts is distributed among as many as five offices, officials reported, and teacher-training programs range from afternoon seminars to intensive summer courses.

Management Decentralizing

Historically, computer projects have been managed by a central data-processing or administrative office in the district, the great-city schools report said. But now only 21 percent of the districts' computer initiatives are administered by a single department, the survey revealed. Sixty percent are run by two departments, and the rest are run by several departments.

The survey found that most districts do not offer many courses in "computer literacy," but instead expect their students to learn about computers from using computer-assisted-instruction programs. Courses in programming predominate in high schools.

A "disturbing" finding, the report said, was that many districts bought computer equipment without prior curricular planning. And while four-fifths of the districts have now finished or begun to work on districtwide plans for computer use, only a small number of those plans so far include vocational or special-education proposals, according to the study.

A related finding was that districts were most satisfied with instructional software that they had developed themselves because those computer programs were tailored to the specific needs of teachers. But only four of the districts surveyed regularly developed such software.

Most of those surveyed praised the software available from the Minnesota Education Computing Consortium but generally preferred to purchase that produced by commercial publishers because, according to the report, it is thought to be "more relevant to curricular goals and basal textbooks."

About half of the districts said they had funds specifically allocated for instructional technology; the other half purchased computers and courseware out of their instructional-materials and equipment budgets. Parent-teacher associations were reported to be the most frequent outside contributors; very little support came from the private sector, according to the report. (Washington, D.C., Minneapolis, Columbus, Ohio, and California are areas the private sector "has taken an active role in providing equipment," the survey found.)

Training Varies Widely

The amount of training that big-city schools offer their teachers varies widely, the survey indicated. The number of teachers who took part in training programs ranged from 50 to 6,000, it found. The training ranged from one-day "overviews" of educational technology for administrators in Dade County, Fla., to intensive six-week summer courses for teachers in Oakland, Calif.

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