Promises Promises

By Elizabeth Schulz — January 01, 1992 7 min read

High school senior Tana Holloway feels comfortable with technology. As a member of the computer-magnet program at Denver’s George Washington High School, she has learned word processing, programming, computer-aided design, and computer graphics.

But Tana is not satisfied.

Even though she’s in a model technology program, computers are nowhere in sight on a typical day in five out of six of her classes.

Take her two-period Advanced Placement chemistry class, for example. It’s Monday morning and the students are tracing the footsteps of Niels Bohr as they measure the wavelength of light emitted from hydrogen molecules and make scientific calculations. The setting for the experiment is also reminiscent of Bohr’s time; the equipment in the classroom has more in common with labs of the 1920s than a modern research environment. Black-top lab tables surround school desks that face forward. The most prominent tools are textbooks, pen and paper, chalk and blackboard. There are no computers in the classroom.

This should come as no surprise. According to a 1988 survey of 3rd, 7th, and 11th grade students by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, computers in schools are seldom used in regular subject areas; they’re largely confined to computing classes. Fewer than 15 percent of students surveyed, for example, said they used computers in science.

Tana’s AP chemistry classroom is not entirely devoid of technology. As teacher Andrew Kramer stands at the board writing scientific equations, two students argue over the calculations. “Get a new calculator, man!” admonishes one. Tana, who wants to study medicine in college, says she couldn’t get by in the class without a calculator. Luckily, she had the money to buy one because the school doesn’t provide calculators. The Denver public school system, like many others, is feeling the crunch of hard times.

The chemistry class will go to a computer lab once this year, Kramer says, to study a database on the periodic table of elements. The computer program graphs relationships between the elements, showing students the trends underlying the organization of the table. In the past, the students drew similar graphs by hand. But the task was tedious, making it difficult for them to focus on the graphs’ meaning. The software program is the kind of powerful teaching tool that Kramer would like to use more often, but it’s difficult to get access to the computer labs—and the school doesn’t have appropriate software.

If Kramer had his way, each student in his classroom would have a computer. But he is not sanguine. “Unless there is some federal funding,” he says, “it’s not going to happen.” In the mid1980s, George Washington High got federal grants totaling more than $2 million to beef up its computer program. But, Kramer says, this kind of support should be ongoing. “After a grand infusion of money, a school can coast for three to five years,” he notes. “Then, the equipment needs to be updated, and repair costs soar.”

After chemistry, Tana crosses into the domain that gives her school its “computer magnet” label. Entering the lab for her Computer-Aided Design, or CAD, class is like stepping into another world. Students in front of sophisticated color monitors manipulate keyboard and mouse, drawing, erasing, and flipping lines so quickly that it looks like animation. But their work is far from child’s play; engineers in more than 4,000 workplaces worldwide use the same equipment.

The majority of George Washington’s 225 IBM or IBM-compatible computers are relegated to nine computer labs. The students enrolled in the computer-magnet program—about a fifth of the school’s total population—must take at least one of 30 computer courses offered each semester. Other students can sign up for courses as they wish. But even the labs are not exempt from the district’s tight budget. Every semester, Tana and other students taking a computer course must pay a $15 fee to cover the costs of disks and repairs.

As Tana demonstrates two ways to create a curve on the CAD screen, she explains how her computer classes differ from the others: After a brief introduction to computer functions, students learn by doing. In this class, for example, the students progress through various workbook tasks, such as drawing parts of a telescope or robot, at their own pace. The teacher roams the room, coaching and troubleshooting. “I haven’t heard one person complain about this kind of class,” Tana says. “Some students go far, and we all learn the basics.”

Without a doubt, Tana’s working knowledge of technology is unusual among high school students. She has learned word processing, is familiar with several computer languages, and knows how to use a spreadsheet to keep a budget. In her favorite class, Business Computers, she even learned to design a brochure and newspaper ad, using a software program called DrawPerfect. “I’m not very good at drawing, but I’m a perfectionist,” she says. “The computer lets me do something well that I wouldn’t be able to do normally.”

In Tana’s mind, familiarity with technology is a necessity, not a frill. “In order to be considered educated today,” she insists, “you have to know computers.” If that’s the case, many public school students are woefully unprepared. Less than half of the students surveyed for the NAEP study knew that a computer program tells the computer what to do. Although most 11th graders had some knowledge of word processing, few had a good comprehension of graphing functions or databases. Computer illiteracy is worse in the lower grades; a third of the 7th graders surveyed did not even know what a cursor does.

Before heading off to her drama class, Tana stops by her locker. “Drama has nothing to do with computers,” she shouts over the din in the hallway.

But she has to eat her words. The day’s assignment is to sketch a set design for the play The Elephant Man. Tana immediately recognizes that she could create a precise blueprint for the set on the CAD equipment—if there were computers in the classroom or available in a lab. One reason the drama students don’t have access to the appropriate equipment is that the teacher, Nancy Priest, doesn’t know how to do computer-aided design and doesn’t have time to learn during the school year. But realizing the potential for clean, exact sketches, Priest allows students to do the work in the CAD lab during their free time. And she encourages students who are familiar with graphics software to use it to make banners, programs, and flyers for the school plays.

Tana’s Spanish teacher is the only “academic” teacher who regularly uses computers. Every other Monday, Sue Lashinsky leads the Spanish class from her traditional classroom to a computer lab, hands the students disks, tells them what to type on the keyboard, and has them work independently on review programs.

While waiting for the Spanish program to boot up, Tana recounts how computers have been employed in her other academic subjects: They were never used in social studies and economics; her physics class once used a flight simulator; and her biology and math teachers occasionally used a computer to show graphs. “In most classes, we weren’t allowed to use computers,” Tana explains, “because teachers think they do the work for you.”

Once Tana gets the program going, a paragraph about subjunctive and imperative moods flashes on the screen; she reads it and then answers questions. Although Tana likes doing just about anything on computer, she says the Spanish software has some flaws. “The computer gives you the answer,” she says, a little disgusted. “In a program we used before, you had to think.”

None of the computer screens display attractive graphics. Lashinsky says she prefers software that takes a straightforward, academic approach. “I’m not a game person,” the teacher explains, “so I think using computers for games is a waste of time.” But the teacher is impressed at the way computers hold the kids’ attention, even through the repetitious tasks necessary to learn a language. The students are quiet in the lab, obviously engrossed in their work.

Tana spends the last period of the day at a desk, reading a chapter in an English textbook and answering questions on a worksheet. A third of the class is off at the library, working on research papers. Most likely, their searches will center on the card catalog. The school is hooked up electronically to a statewide network of public and university libraries, but the librarian doesn’t know how to use the network.

Elizabeth Feldman, Tana’s English teacher, wishes her classroom was equipped with word processors; she thinks they would give students who have trouble writing expressively a big boost. Tana believes that they would help the average students, as well. “I think better when I get on a computer,” she says. “Both hands are working, and my fingers can almost keep up with my brain.”

Tana, like the vast majority of students in the NAEP survey, enjoys working with computers and wishes she could use them more often. She’s grateful that she has had the opportunity to become computer literate, but she’s disappointed that so few of her academic courses take advantage of computer technology.

“It’s easier for me to study on the computer,” Tana says. “When I’m watching TV and a show on medicine comes on, I’m glued. I understand things better when they are on a screen.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1992 edition of Teacher as Promises Promises