School Technology Captures Public’s Fascination, States’ Dollars

By Kerry A. White — July 09, 1997 5 min read
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‘Fancy Typewriters’?

This year’s legislative season--as did last year’s--has seen massive school technology initiatives from Massachusetts to California.

“I’ve never worked on an issue where there was more interest of governors, legislators, corporate leaders, school officials, and parents,” said Julie Davis Bell, an education policy analyst at the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures. “This is a key issue that everyone agrees is no longer a luxury [for students].”

State champions of technology programs contend that there are no limits to what computers can accomplish in classrooms. New technology, they say, is as important a component of education reform as tougher academic standards and assessments.

In recent years, these advocates have amplified their support for technology with dollars--billions of them.

The nation’s K-12 schools spent an unprecedented $4.34 billion on computers last year, an amount that is expected to double by 2000, according to IDC/Link, a market research company based in New York City.

Whether the technology investment has been good for student achievement is still a matter of debate. Although recent scores from the Third International Math and Science Study showed that U.S 4th graders were performing as well as or better than students from other high-achieving countries, most experts say that technology is one of a number of factors contributing to American students’ academic success; others argue that it is too soon to assess technology’s impact on learning and achievement. (See Education Week, June 18, 1997.)

But in states and even the White House--Vice President Al Gore recently announced a new multimillion-dollar private-sector project to create an Internet link between parents and teachers--school technology has captured the imagination.

State Initiatives

Lawmakers plan on implementing several broad school technology programs this year:

  • In Nevada, Gov. Bob Miller and several state legislators recently announced an education reform plan that would provide $36.1 million for computers and related technology to public schools across the state, a measure the governor said will help children master “the basics--math, science, writing, social studies--with greater proficiency.”

“In order for our children to have the high-wage jobs of tomorrow, they must have strong technology skills. There is no doubt educational technology is essential,” Gov. Miller, a Democrat, told lawmakers in mid-May.

  • In California, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson this year proposed a four-year, $1 billion technology initiative to put more computers in high school classrooms. Last year, Mr. Wilson’s budget earmarked $100 million for school technology.
  • “We must not delay in preparing our schools and our kids ... to harness the incredible power and riches offered by the high technology of this information age,” the governor said in his State of the State Address in January.

  • And in Massachusetts, the Senate recently approved $45 million in spending for school technology programs--funds in addition to the $30 million for school technology approved by the legislature last year.
  • On average, states provide about 20 percent of total school technology funding; local districts underwrite about 40 percent; the federal government furnishes about 25 percent; and private donations finance about 15 percent; according to the NCSL.

    States typically pay for three kinds of technology needs: facility upgrades--retrofitting school buildings with wiring, outlets, and circuit breakers; the initial investment for computer hardware and software; and ongoing expenditures for upgrades and training.

    Most states are in the beginning stages of outfitting schools with technology, according to Ms. Davis Bell of the NCSL. A recent study by the Rand corporation, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based think tank, estimated front-end costs for a typical, 1,000-student school to be about $2.3 million.

    To see a real return on all this investment, some observers argue that technology programs must be linked to state and local educational goals and comprehensive, continuing teacher training.

    “Teacher prep programs are critical to successful programs,” said Charlie Ericksen, a spokesman for the National Education Association’s headquarters office in Washington. “Teachers need to be taught how to integrate these systems into the curriculum.”

    Lack of attention to professional development is the only thing that will prevent technology from achieving its potential in school reform, added Ms. Davis Bell.

    That view is echoed by a new report from the Benton Foundation, which reminds schools that they must build the “human infrastructure” needed to use computers well. (See related story, page 8.)

    Over the past year, state leaders have been placing more emphasis on professional development in technology, earmarking specific portions of technology bills for teacher training, and requiring technology training as part of their teacher certification program.

    ‘Fancy Typewriters’?

    Experts say much of the impetus for states’ recent activity on school technology programs has come from Louis V. Gerstner Jr., the chairman and chief executive officer of the International Business Machines Corp. Mr. Gerstner, whose company is the world’s largest computer maker, has worked diligently to persuade state leaders and their constituents that public schools are “low-tech institutions in a high-tech society"--a phrase he has repeated over the years.

    “The same changes that have brought cataclysmic change to every facet of business can improve the way we teach students and teachers,” Mr. Gerstner told state leaders assembled at a 1995 National Governors’ Association meeting.

    School technology--along with standards and assessments--was a central theme of the national education summit Mr. Gerstner helped organize last year. (See Education Week, April 3, 1996.)

    But critics of the emphasis on school computers point to statistics on education achievement, arguing that while the ratio of students to computers has improved dramatically over the past several years--in 1983 there were about 125 students for each school computer; in 1996 there were fewer than 10--student achievement has not.

    Larry Cuban, a professor of education at Stanford University, compares the " romance for computers in schools” to that for various earlier technologies: the radios and film projectors of the 1920s and ‘30s and the televisions of the 1950s and ‘60s. All were touted as the “next big thing” in education, but before long, the fervor died down, Mr. Cuban says.

    Like the technologies of yore, “computers have been a disappointment,” Mr. Cuban argued. Much of the problem, he said, lies not with the technology itself, but with the fact that students and teachers are using computers as “little more than fancy typewriters.”

    A version of this article appeared in the July 09, 1997 edition of Education Week


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