Key to Change, Teachers Are Trained as 'Managers of Instruction'
While the subject continues to be debated elsewhere, the Houston Independent School District is, according to Billy R. Reagan, superintendent of schools, "totally and completely sold" on the merits of technology in education.
"We think," he said, "that five years from now we should be able to teach 50 percent of what we're teaching now in cognitive skills with microcomputers, after a child learns to read."
But Mr. Reagan and other Houston school officials who view the microcomputer as "the most effective aid to a classroom teacher" say they recognize that teachers must also be convinced before a districtwide technology effort can be successful.
Training the Teachers
"A lot of school districts across the country are appropriating money for technology," said Patricia Sturdivant, the associate superintendent in charge of Houston's department of technology. "What is unique about Houston, in my estimation, is the whole support system for making it work."
Included in that effort, she said, is staff training.
In addition to hands-on, orientation, and workshop classes for teachers and all other public-school employees, the department runs a "teacher technologist" program for selected teachers.
Through a 296-hour inservice and self-study training course, teachers learn about computer applications, computer literacy, computer languages, and ways to plan for and implement programs involving educational technology.
It is with the help of the technology specialists that department officials hope to revolutionize the traditional education system and allay the fears of some administrators and teachers about the advent of technology in their schools.
"The philosophy we've embraced," Ms. Sturdivant said, "is that we have to redefine the role of the teacher from a lecturer who conveys information to a manager of instruction."
Instead of 30 sets of desks and chairs facing a blackboard, the "classroom of the future," she said, will contain several work stations where students use computers, videotapes, and electronic hand-held devices--such as programmable computers and robotic arms--to study individual lesson "modules" that do not require much teacher instruction.
In addition to existing computer laboratories, such "classrooms of the future" have been established at 37 middle schools and 11 of the district's 29 high schools, according to Robert L. Eicholz, a project coordinator with the department. All high schools will have a "model classroom" by next year, he said.
Dena Burns, who is studying to become a teacher technologist, acknowledged that she once had fears about computers in the classroom.
"About four years ago," she said, "my principal twisted my arm and said: 'I'm getting you a computer for your classroom.' I went into it very skeptical. I wasn't going to like it. I had made up my mind. But after I went to my first session with the computer, I went home and asked my husband when he was going to buy me a computer."
When Ms. Burns becomes a teacher technologist, the district will be one step closer to reaching its goal: one specialist in each of its 245 schools. So far, 173 teachers have finished, or are undergoing, the comprehensive training.
A Bonus Incentive
The district offers an incentive to retain those who receive comprehensive training and might be lured by higher salaries in the private sector--a problem that was recently documented in California by the Rand Corporation. Technologists are eligible for a $2,000 bonus each year that they upgrade their skills with 30 hours of training through the department.
In addition, before they are accepted into the training program, applicants are interviewed by a panel of four department officials who listen for signs that the teachers are committed to continued teaching in Houston.
Among their responsibilities, "teacher technologists" are required to train teachers, parents, and students in the uses of the computer and other technological devices; train building staff in the selection and use of appropriate software; address hardware and software problems in their schools; coordinate computer-oriented activities at their schools, such as computer clubs and speakers' bureaus; and coordinate the purchase of computer resource materials for their school libraries.
"Teacher technologists" are also responsible for teaching computer- literacy courses. Beginning next year, the Texas Education Agency will require students to take a computer-literacy course by the 7th or 8th grade.
In Houston, computers have already been integrated into the K-12 curriculum. They are also used as drill-and-practice tutorials in regular reading and mathematics lessons.
In elementary school, Ms. Sturdivant said, computer literacy, which focuses on knowledge about computers, is "infused" into the five major content areas. A history lesson, for example, might concern the future of technology.
In middle school, she said, computer literacy focuses on the use of the computer as a tool. By the end of the 7th grade, she said, a student must know how to write and edit with the use of a word-processing software program developed by the department.
Middle-grade students are also taught how to "synthesize, analyze, scan, and retrieve" information that is filed electronically in databases, Ms. Sturdivant said. These lessons are incorporated into the regular curriculum.
"Instead of solely using books or reference material, they use compu-ter databases," the associate superintendent said. "If they need some information about a new political development in Nicaragua, they can actually call up the United Press International's data-access service and get the information on-line [electronically]."
In high school, she added, students have the option to take more advanced computer courses.
Success Still Unmeasured
Although they can point to isolated examples of success, school officials have not yet sought to measure the effects of computers on student achievement.
"We haven't evaluated that yet," said Jane Stone, technical-applications manager for the technology department. "We're just trying to get the process in place."
Nevertheless, Mr. Reagan, who is credited with spearheading the technology effort in Houston, is convinced the district's fiscal and organizational commitment will show results.
"For the first time in the history of education," he said, "we have the potential to individualize instruction, something we've talked about for 100 years."