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The Governors and Their Stone Age Schools

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With the chalk in one hand and their backs to the slate board, American teachers' main technology can be said to be Neolithic. They write upon one rock with another.

Stone upon stone, chalk upon slate, our teachers and students trudge into the information age. Hypoallergenic chalk and simulated slate pass for technology innovations in schools stalled near the on-ramps to the information highway. Last year there were 5.5 million computers in schools and 50 million in homes, and the gap is growing. One in 10 school computers has a CD-ROM drive, which is likely to be single speed. One of three home computers has a CD-ROM drive that runs at double speed or better.

Educators and students have not been given the tools to keep current with the rest of their society or to produce the dramatic academic gains that were called for in the 1983 report A Nation at Risk, which were re-emphasized at the national education summit in 1989 and will be reasserted at the governors' summit scheduled for next month. (See Education Week, Feb. 14, 1996.) In those rare cases where educators and students have been given adequate technology, training, and support, classrooms hum with new energy and higher productivity.

The 50 state governors confront a dilemma at their March summit on education technology and standards/assessment/accountability. On the one hand, education technology is the catalyst that can put American students back into the international academic competition. On the other hand, school technology is seriously underimagined and underinvested. Of the $37 billion needed nationally to put the system in place, only about $5.4 billion has been spent. The "cybergap" between schools and the rest of the society is getting worse, not better.

There is so much trendy attention to the isolated examples of exciting school technology that the anemic condition of the average school goes unnoticed. The Wall Street Journal, in a special report last November on educational technology, stated: "Almost everybody agrees that technology can revolutionize education. But after spending millions of dollars to bring computing to the classroom, most schools deserve, at best, a grade of incomplete."

Based upon my visits during last fall to 20 states and my review of their technology status, I would have to agree with the Journal's grade of incomplete. But an "incomplete" is not an F; the student has an opportunity to complete the missing exam or paper and get a final grade. At least the student knows what is missing and can focus on that deficiency. The same could not be said for the education-technology movement in public schools. In too many places, there is no game plan and no clear idea of what is missing.

Our governors must address the following issues to enable education technology to fulfill its potential.

  • Produce a practical vision. Some things--rural electricity, the GI Bill, the Marshall Plan, and the interstate highway system--must be believed to be seen. America is richer, stronger, and more caring because our leaders challenged us to invest in these initiatives. The governors must produce a credible education-technology vision with expectations powerful enough to win support and guide planning. These include:

    Employability: Students with computer skills are greatly advantaged in the national and global job markets. Workers with computer and technology skills find it easier to get and stay employed, they earn about 15 percent more for the same job a peer does without technology, and they are more likely to be promoted.

    Academic achievement: Technology supports the active learning that produces academic results and the habits of mind essential for current and future requirements of the family, citizenship, and employability. Our ability to compete academically with other developed nations will turn on how successfully we use technology in the learning process.

    Systemic reform: The lesson of the school reforms of the 1960s, '70s, and '80s is that no one strategy alone will produce the dramatic student-performance gains we need. The power of technology is as a catalyst for standards, assessment, and accountability; for professional development; for active, motivated students; for parent engagement; and for decentralization. The requirements for information and communication in a fast-moving, fast-changing school are enormous. Technology is the only way to support the extensive restructuring of American education.

    Management information: At every level educators need better information, quicker. Teachers need to know about state performance standards as well as the student who just showed up in their classroom. Parents, governors, school boards, and school councils need easy access to school-accountability data. An airline reservation clerk has much, much better access to customer-service data than a principal has to student-service information.

  • Create and fund education-technology game plans. Every state has a technology plan. No self-respecting governor, schools chief, or state board could be without one. But look into those plans and you will find them long on enthusiasm and rhetoric and short on specifics. Without clear commitments they cannot be budgeted, and without budgets they don't happen.

    The importance of a good game plan was made clear to me between 1991 and 1995 when, as Kentucky's commissioner of education, I managed the design and first implementation phases of the Kentucky Educational Technology System. With strong legislative insistence and support, we were forced to think through the system elements and put price tags on them. Because of open architecture, uniform standards, and competitive acquisition, savings of 30 percent on hardware and 50 percent on software were realized in the first two years. The essentials included a state communications backbone, building wiring, and hardware, software, networks, training, and maintenance costs. The total cost will be $600 million for 600,000 students over a decade.

    In the abstract this is a large number, but it amounts to about 2 percent of Kentucky's 10-year public education expenditures. Employing productivity gains from business uses of technology, economists at the Milken Institute for Job and Capital Formation have estimated that the return on that investment will be 400 percent.

  • Insist on academic achievement. Before it invests in technology, every state, every district, and every school should be required to have a clear idea of how it will use the resources for basic skills, for projects and simulations, for student portfolios, for electronic-mail and Internet access, and for computer skills development. There is no one right answer for all schools, but until a faculty has grappled with these issues and related them to specific student performance gains, it will not make an insightful and committed implementation.

    One would think the easiest part of goal-setting would be identifying target student computer skills, such as keyboarding, word processing, databases, spreadsheets, graphics, and the Internet. In fact, it is quite rare to see these skills set forth and almost unheard of to measure them and hold anyone accountable.

    Without an academic-achievement strategy it is impossible to size the system. Does every student need a computer? Every teacher? What software is needed and how powerful are the computers? Do they need to be networked within the classroom and building? Is Internet access essential? What teacher training is needed?

  • Advocate for education technology. In the recent "Assignment Incomplete" report of Public Agenda, the New York City-based public-opinion research organization, parents, teachers, the public, and the leadership all ranked "computer skills and media technology" third among the goals of public education. The public knows that this generation of students must be technologically effective. Not much is being done to convert that belief into political action. The computer and telecommunications companies, which stand to gain greatly from such an initiative, are competing too intensely to have much energy to cooperate on selling the public on an investment in technology. The governors must create the resources and leadership to build awareness and support for technology in schools.
  • Enlist "edutainment." "Serious play," the learning children create from electronic games and simulations, is one of the surest ways to advance student motivation and thinking at home and at school. Children with a choice at home are already migrating from television to computers and the Internet. Seven-year-olds at the turn of the century are likely to be on their home computers playing the 1999 equivalent of either "Mortal Kombat" or "Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?" Whether CD-ROM and Internet software are dominated by the violent or the educational will have a huge impact on the psyche, spirit, and intellect that students bring to school.

Currently students spend 900 hours per year in school and 1,820 hours watching television. As interactive media become more pervasive, their influence will exceed even that of television. As one state schools chief put it, "Someone has got to do something about the filth and the fluff."

Now is the time for the governors to make common cause with educators in enlisting the emerging edutainment industry to generate products that are exciting and constructive. The governors should call another summit, this one to be attended by themselves, educators, and edutainment entrepreneurs, to determine just how to make our children's electronic future as educational and positive as possible.

But the governors cannot assume that an alliance with the edutainment industry will be fully effective. With the nearly infinite choices of the Internet, it becomes essential for parents to be able to screen in programming that is exciting and challenging as well as wholesome. Software to screen out the vile already exists, but no one has the system of program levels that also limits the vacuous and welcomes the virtuous. The governors need to create an optional, free parental-guidance and control system for the interactive world of computers and the Internet.

It must:

  • Screen-in exciting, challenging education, entertainment, and information.
  • Screen-out everything that has not passed muster, including most of what is dull, passive, or offensive.
  • Give parents choices among programming levels with different mixes of the virtuous, the vile, and the vacuous.
  • Stay current, easily accessible, and affordable.
  • Be financed, governed, and administered by a credible coalition of foundations, religious institutions, and agencies with an interest and expertise in children's education and character.

To propel our schools into the information age will require leadership from within the education establishment as well as outside intervention. Business and political leaders must demand that vision, resources, and discipline be brought to bear on this opportunity. The governors gathered at the summit next month should step up to this challenge.

Thomas C. Boysen was Kentucky's commissioner of education from 1991 to 1995 and is now senior vice president, education, at the Milken Family Foundation in Santa Monica, Calif. From 1970 to 1990 he served as a school district superintendent in Washington and New York states and California.

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