Special Report

New Challenges

By Lori Meyer — May 10, 2001 11 min read
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As computer access spreads, schools look for ways to use technology to raise achievement.

With record gains being made in providing students with access to computers and the Internet, more schools are shifting their priorities toward other areas that have been simmering on the back burner—namely, figuring out how to integrate technology into the curriculum in meaningful ways.

But that’s not the only challenge, according to a review by Education Week of data on technology access, capacity, and use in schools. To begin with, many schools are still using older, less sophisticated machines—a reality often masked by improving student-to-computer ratios. And, beyond that, access to first-rate technologies—such as Internet-connected and multimedia computers—is still greater in schools in wealthier communities and those with small percentages of minority children.

Technology is also being more closely examined for its role in the movement for higher academic standards. Should states have educational technology standards for teachers and administrators as well as students? If they do, what should those standards measure?

Positive Trends

Public schools are leaping forward in their efforts to make computer technology more readily available to students. In 1997, the President’s Committee of Advisers on Science and Technology declared four to five students for every school computer the magic ratio for effective use of technology for learning. At the time, the average student-to-computer ratio for the nation’s schools was about 7-to-1, according to Market Data Retrieval, a Shelton, Conn., market research firm.

In just three years, that ratio reached an all-time low of 4.9-to-1 last year, according to the most recent figures from mdr. Wyoming topped the list with three students for each computer, while California’s ratio of 7. 2 students per computer earned the state the worst ranking for the third consecutive year.

Moreover, mdr figures show high-poverty schools have an average of one computer for every 5.3 students—only slightly more than the average for low-poverty schools.

For schools enrolling high percentages of minority students, the ratio is 5.5 students for each computer, not much larger than the 4.6 average for low-minority schools.

Still, many questions linger. For instance, how sophisticated are the computers used in schools today?

According to the latest mdr figures, just over half of schools’ inventories are 586-level machines, computers that use Pentium processors, or Power Macs—making them capable of running more sophisticated applications, larger amounts of data, and better computer graphics, all at faster speeds. They are also capable of running several applications simultaneously, something less powerful computers cannot do.

Between 1999 and 2000, the most notable change was the increasing deployment in schools of Pentium II-quality and even more sophisticated computers. The proportion of schools having at least one of those machines doubled from 11 percent to 22 percent over those two years. Still, about 28 percent of schools have some older 486-level machines or regular Macs, which are unable to perform as fast or handle as much data as the newer models; and roughly one-fifth of schools are using 286- or 386-level machines, or Apple IIs, which are among the oldest computers in schools today.

Even so, students now have greater access than ever before to multimedia and Internet-connected computers. The most dramatic improvement is the student-to-multimedia-computer ratio, which dropped from 21.2-to-1 to 7.9- to-1 over a three-year period. Multimedia computers, because they have sound and video features, allow students to use more advanced instructional software.

The number of students per Internet-connected computer also saw a big drop from 13.6 in 1999 to just fewer than eight last year.

Despite the progress, difficulties remain. Underneath the widely improving access figures are numbers showing that poor and minority children are still losing out compared to wealthier and white students. That is especially so when examining the use of more sophisticated technologies, such as Internet-connected computers. In high-minority schools, there is an average of one Internet-connected computer for every 10.5 students, while in low-minority schools, the average is 7.6, according to mdr.

And some states seem to be having more difficulty than others in providing equal access to all students. In New York, for example, students in high- poverty schools have one Internet-connected computer for roughly 15 students, but in low-poverty schools, the figure is just under nine students. New York shows similar differences between high-minority and low- minority schools.

According to mdr, there are, on average, 16.6 students per Internet- connected computer in schools with large minority populations, compared with 8.4 for those with small percentages of minority students.

Mississippi, in contrast to New York, has essentially the same ratio, 12.7 to each computer, compared to 12.4, respectively, in both high- and low- poverty schools. When it comes to Internet-connected computer ratios, high- minority schools are similarly equipped as low-minority schools in Mississippi, both having just under 13 students per computer.

The National Center for Education Statistics, which also tracks Internet access in the public schools, paints a picture of a divide in its most recent data collection from 1999. In schools where less than 11 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, 74 percent of instructional rooms have Internet access. In schools where 71 percent or more of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, only 39 percent of instructional rooms have such access.

Technology experts tracking those trends see both bad and good news.

“We’ve definitely seen evidence that the digital divide exists, but trends that it is improving,” says Kathleen Brantley, the director of product development at mdr.

Shifting Priorities

As access to computers has improved, a growing number of schools have begun to focus on other elements of incorporating technology into everyday learning. One of those areas is technology-related professional development for educators—something teachers say they desperately need.

“Across the board, the level of conversation around professional development is certainly more of a focus now than just talking about hardware and infrastructure,” says Ann Flynn, the director of education technology partnerships for the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va.

So far, teachers say, schools aren’t doing enough to fill that void. In a report last September from the National Center for Education Statistics, “ Teachers’ Tools for the 21st Century,” 82 percent of teachers said they were not given enough time outside their regular teaching duties to learn, practice, or plan how to use computers and other technologies.

What’s more, when asked how much time they spent in technology-related professional development during a three-year period just prior to 1999, 10 percent of teachers reported having spent no time at all, and 43 percent reported just one to eight hours of training over the three-year period. Only 12 percent said they had received more than 32 hours of training.

Yet the study found that the more hours teachers had spent in training, the more prepared they felt to use computers and the Internet for instruction.

Experts point to subtle signs that schools are making headway. According to mdr, the percentage of teachers rated as having “beginner” technology skills—meaning they are just learning how to use basic programs such as word processing software—appears to be dropping. Last year, 28 percent of schools reported that a majority of their teachers were at the beginner level, compared with 35 percent of schools in 1999.

Also, mdr found that spending for professional development increased by 3 percent between 1999 and 2000, with schools estimating they would spend roughly 17 percent of their technology funding on staff development.

But in a 2001 poll of the 50 states, Education Week found that states’ requirements for technology-related training were sometimes few and far between for teachers:

n Twenty-six states require teachers to have technology training before being licensed to teach.

n Only Idaho, Michigan, and North Carolina require a technology test for prospective teachers.

n Of the 20 states that require schools or districts to set aside time for professional development for teachers, just Arkansas, Florida, Tennessee, and West Virginia have such a requirement for technology-related professional development.

n While 38 states have recertification requirements for teachers, only Connecticut, Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia include technology as a part of those requirements.

A number of organizations, led by the International Society for Technology in Education, based in Eugene, Ore., are taking part in the Technology Standards for School Administrators Collaborative, which is focusing on establishing standards for what superintendents and principals should know and be able to do in technology.

The group has drawn up a set of standards that is scheduled to be released in October. A draft of the standards was released in March of this year.

A number of states are also offering professional or financial incentives to teachers and administrators to encourage them to use technology—15 states for teachers and 11 for administrators. The incentives vary by state, ranging from paying for educators to take technology classes to buying hardware and software for them to use. South Dakota, for example, has a two-week, all-expenses-paid “technology” summer academy for administrators.

How Technology Is Used

In an Education Week/mdr/Harris Interactive survey conducted nationwide earlier this year, students in grades 7-12 were asked about what types of tasks they use computers for in school.

While 96 percent of the respondents use school computers for research, and 91 percent to write papers, only 60 percent use computers to help them visualize concepts they are studying in class. And while 62 percent have used school computers to do homework, a somewhat smaller proportion—44 percent—said they used them to get help on homework. Twenty percent reported using computers to take exams.

“It’s not sufficient that kids know how to use the equipment,” says Cheryl Lemke, the chief executive officer of the Metiri Group, a national learning-technologies consulting firm in Los Angeles. “The important thing is can they use it in a meaningful, productive way that solves problems for them, so it becomes one of the tools in their repertoire?”

As is the case in other areas, how computers are used has a lot to do with the level of poverty in a school.

The nces study, for instance, found that 51 percent of teachers who have computers at school reported assigning students to use the Internet to conduct class research. However, that figure drops to 35 percent in schools where 71 percent or more of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. In schools where fewer than 11 percent of students are eligible for subsidized lunches, the proportion of teachers making such assignments is 61 percent.

In efforts to level the playing field, more states have set standards for what students should know about using technology. In a 2001 poll of the 50 states, Education Week found that 35 states have standards for students that include technology.

But the breadth and depth of which states have incorporated technology into their standards varies. Some states give technology a brief mention, but not much else. Missouri, for instance, has a cursory reference to technology in its science standards, but that’s it. Other states—Virginia, for example—have separate standards that specifically address technology. Maryland has taken yet another route by integrating technology expectations into the standards that cover core academic areas.

States are also making attempts to assess how well students are using technology. In its poll of the 50 states, Education Week found that Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Virginia are using statewide assessments to gauge students’ technology knowledge and skills.

As more states look for ways to assess students’ technology skills, the question arises: What are teachers already doing to help youngsters acquire those skills?

The Education Week/mdr/Harris Interactive survey sheds some light on that question. When asked about the types of tasks their teachers had demonstrated, 89 percent of the students responding said a teacher had demonstrated how to do research, and 86 percent said a teacher had shown them how to use computers to write papers. About half the students surveyed reported that a teacher had demonstrated how to use technology to help them visualize new concepts.

New data from mdr also reveal that teachers are using technology more and more for a variety of tasks. In 76 percent of schools, a majority (50 percent or more) of teachers are using computers daily for planning or teaching; in 63 percent of schools, a majority of teachers are using the Internet for instruction; and 77 percent of schools reported that a majority of their teachers have e-mail addresses—up from 39 percent in 1998.

Technology advocates acknowledge that progress is being made. But they say schools need to do a better job addressing the human factors, such as training teachers and figuring out how technology fits within the standards movement.

Keith Krueger, the executive director of the Consortium for School Networking, a Washington-based nonprofit group that promotes the use of telecommunications to improve learning, says that until those issues are dealt with, technology “is not going to … have the fundamental impact on school reform that we need—it will just be a separate activity instead of a core function.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 10, 2001 edition of Education Week as New Challenges


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