You won’t find a discussion of education reform today that doesn’t feature at least a few words about technology. Rabid techie fans are everywhere. Publishers are pumping out Internet guides for educators, lawmakers are beefing up technology budgets for schools, and thousands of volunteers nationwide are turning out to wire schools for the future. And with the presidency on the line last fall, Bill Clinton made his “computer in every classroom” promise a stump-speech standard, the modern political equivalent of “a chicken in every pot.”
But will technology live up to all the hype and magically transform schools? Maybe. But there is good reason to be skeptical. Larry Cuban, a professor of education at Stanford University, notes that “techno-reformers” have touted gadgetry as an education curative since the introduction of intercoms in the 1920s. But while teachers have slowly added a few modern technologies—computers, CD-ROMs, and the like—to their repertoires, the “persistent dream of technology driving school and classroom changes,” he points out, “has continually foundered in transforming teaching practices.” One reason: Teachers lack the access, knowledge, and skills—not to mention the will—to use the high-tech machines.
The stories that follow feature teachers who have dipped a toe in the waters of technology and now say, “Come on in.” We first visit Tupelo, Mississippi, where the success of the school system’s three-year technology plan is riding on the leadership of a few teachers who believe in the computer’s capacity to change schools. Then we offer three profiles of teachers who have successfully harnessed technology: a Richmond, Virginia, technology fiend who is putting his students on the cutting edge of digital-image processing; a Kingman, Arizona, elementary school standout who was verging on burnout before computers rekindled her love of the classroom; and a 25-year veteran in Freemansburg, Pennsylvania, who tapped technology to help reach students who speak little English.
While these stories should ease the fears of most classroom technophobes, they also make clear that teachers are the ground troops in the technological revolution. Other reform efforts have ignored the teacher’s key role, and that can be a fatal mistake.