Education Opinion

How One District Is Coping With Computers

By Charlotte K. Frank — April 09, 1986 7 min read

Will educators’ fascination with computers be remembered as a passing fancy, or will computers become a vital force for educational change? If computer education is seen only as an isolated subject, it may indeed be a flash in the pan. If, on the other hand, administrators help teachers integrate computers into the whole range of subject areas--and emphasize their use in thinking and problem-solving--this technology will make a lasting difference in how teachers teach and students learn.

We have been dealing with this issue in the New York City public schools since 1982, when the city’s board of education began its first centrally coordinated initiative in computer education. We were entering largely uncharted waters, and we had pressing financial and pedagogical issues to face.

We do not claim to have found solutions to all the problems a school district might confront in moving into the computer age. However, a look at some of the strategies adopted by the nation’s largest public school system may provide other systems with some guideposts that will withstand the test of trends in computer education.

Support and coordination are essential to the success of any systemwide educational initiative--whether it is in the New York City system (which includes almost 1 million students and 60,000 teachers and supervisors, located in nearly 1,000 buildings--or in a much smaller urban or rural district.

To spearhead its efforts in computer education, New York City created a central support team that became the cornerstone for our citywide efforts. This team--the computer and information-sciences unit--was composed of teachers and supervisors who had shown their expertise not only in computer education, but also in the various subject areas.

The mission of this team was to provide much-needed staff development, curriculum development, and technical assistance to teachers and administrators in the city’s schools. Besides offering advice on planning and implementing computer education, the members of the team worked to identify and coordinate the grass-roots expertise that was beginning to appear throughout the system.

Here are some specific approaches that worked well for us in implementing our systemwide program:

Staff development: special needs and accessibility. Few staff-development programs in the history of the New York City system have had a response and impact equal to our efforts in computer education. Planners elsewhere may want to consider the elements that made our staff training a success.

First, we offered a diversity of computer courses, led by teachers from within the system who were sensitive to both the specific needs of our teachers and supervisors and to different types of teaching applications. For example, mathematics teachers taught mathematics teachers; English teachers taught English teachers.

Second, the classes were accessible and inexpensive. A wide range of inservice courses was offered at more than 60 schools throughout the city. Teachers paid a $25 registration fee. In addition, we negotiated reduced rates for teachers wishing to enter cooperatively planned computer programs at area universities.

Curriculum development: customized and “off the shelf” materials. With special funds budgeted by the city, the division of curriculum and instruction was able to develop its own curriculum guides for the elementary grades through high school. These guides--written by members of the school-based staff to meet the city’s distinct needs--emphasize the development of reasoning skills.

Our latest curricular projects show a growing emphasis on using computers to enhance the existing subject-area curricula. These projects include efforts to infuse the use of computers into the social studies, science, English, math, and special education. In planning our course offerings for each term, we have worked to develop courses that specifically integrate computers into the subject areas.

For districts that do not have the money or time to involve teachers in creating a customized computer-education curriculum, copies of materials developed by other school systems and commercially produced teaching guides and software are readily available for review. A committee of supervisors and teachers could preview the materials and make recommendations with the special needs of their schools in mind.

Even school systems that produce customized materials are likely to use “off the shelf” products as well. In New York City, we submit all commercial software to a rigorous review process before approving it for purchase by our schools. Other systems would find it valuable to adopt such procedures.

In reviewing content-area software, we’ve found it’s extremely important to select evaluators who are both content-area experts and knowledgeable about computers-- not computer experts who merely have a passing knowledge of the various subjects. Evaluations are attached to the software packages, which are then catalogued in our central and regional software libraries. Teachers and supervisors can then preview software--and see the evaluations-- before making purchases.

As a way of sharing information and instructional methods, we created COMPUNET, an electronic bulletin board that is easily accessible to staff members through a citywide telecommunications network.

Technical assistance: centralized and decentralized support. Accessibility is one of the greatest assets in helping school staffs adapt to a new emphasis on computers. Technical-assistance centers can help make essential staff-development services available to school personnel after their initial training. A small district may need only one center; New York City has five--one in each of the boroughs. These centers serve as focal points for the family of schools in each borough, and have encouraged networking among schools.

The need for other kinds of support services was underscored when recent funding from the city provided for the installation of computer labs in our high schools. This influx of computers made it necessary not only to make major modifications to school buildings, but also to prepare a large number of staff members to assume new teaching and supervisory responsibilities in a short period. These efforts were coordinated by a new office of technology.

Recognizing the importance of principals as educational leaders and the value of their support in introducing new programs, the office of technology organized two overnight retreats for the principal and a computer coordinator from each high school. Our central subject-area curriculum directors demonstrated the applications of software programs on the four major types of hardware our schools are using.

We then held additional workshops--including specific computer-application exercises-- in each of eight subject areas for a supervisor and two teachers from every high school. This massive staff-development effort was geared to create school subject- area leadership teams (SALT’S), which would help coordinate the use of the new computer labs in their instructional areas.

Now that computers are becoming integral to instruction, it is important to ensure that they are well maintained. New York City is establishing a citywide computer-repair program to enable school staff members and students to provide first-line diagnostic and preventive maintenance on all equipment. To handle more sophisticated maintenance, we’re setting up a repair center in a vocational high school; students there will gain practical experience in computer repair as part of their vocational training.

New York City’s recent initiatives in computer education are just the beginning of a process that will require constant monitoring and modification. For example, despite a significant computer-education program on the elementary and junior-high levels, we still need funds to establish additional K-8 programs so that there will be greater continuity in our youngsters’ access to computers as they progress through their schooling.

But while we don’t yet have all the answers in computer-age schooling, we are convinced that the methods New York City has already found to be successful can be adapted to meet the needs of a variety of school districts.

From the bank to the boutique to the boardroom, the computer is with us. Teachers and students throughout the country are motivated to make good use of this technology. Success now depends on the ability of educational leaders to consciously guide their districts--rather than let them slide helter-skelter--into the computer age.

A version of this article appeared in the April 09, 1986 edition of Education Week