Star Schools Proposal Rekindles Debate on Educational TV

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WASHINGTON--A Senate measure that would pump $100 million over the next five years into educational-telecommunications projects has rekindled the debate among educators over the effectiveness of television as an instructional tool.

Supporters of the so-called "star schools'' bill, which has been attached to a widely supported trade bill, are hailing it as "the most exciting thing to come out of Washington'' in years.

Critics, meanwhile, say that the promises of instructional television are being "oversold,'' and that the bill is little more than a "boondoggle'' for public and private enterprises that sell televised lessons and related services to schools.

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who is sponsoring the bill, has argued that, by helping schools employ televised instruction in mathematics, science, and foreign languages, the measure would help equalize educational opportunities for the poor, alleviate teacher shortages, and boost students' readiness to compete in an increasingly technological economy.

The measure would provide funds to alliances of schools, colleges, state agencies, public broadcasters, and businesses interested in establishing educational-telecommunications networks on a statewide or interstate basis. At least half of the funds would have to benefit school districts eligible for grants under the federal Chapter 1 program for disadvantaged students.

Recipients could use the money for equipment, teacher training, technical assistance, and programming.

Organizations with existing educational-television networks could apply for programming funds, but priority would be given to areas that currently are not served by such groups ,according to Amanda Brown, a Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee aide who was instrumental in drafting the bill. Groups interested in connecting existing small, regional networks would probably be considered more favorably, Ms. Brown said.

"We are trying to get instruction to students who don't have access to it now for economic reasons or because they are in rural areas,'' she said.

Merits Overstated

According to some observers active in educational telecommunications, the merits of "long-distance learning''--which is already in use in as many as two-thirds of the states--is being overstated by the bill's supporters. Senator Kennedy's initiative will assist relatively few school districts, they said, many of them in his home state.

"There's a large gap in credibility between what is promised and what is possible,'' said Chalmers Marquis, a lobbyist for the National Association of Public Television Stations. The proposal "is getting so much attention, it obscures other things going on that have more potential,'' he said.

Long-distance learning "is a distinct tool that can answer specific problems,'' noted Forrest L. Morris, executive director of the Mississippi Authority for Educational Television.

For example, he said, long-distance learning is ideal for teaching illiterate adults who would be too embarrassed to attend a class in person.

However, he continued, Mississippi districts that have tried televised teaching in the past found that it worked best where a local instructor prepared students for the lessons and then followed up on them.

"If you're talking massive solutions to massive problems, [long-distance learning] is oversold,'' he said.

Observers' support for Senator Kennedy's legislation appears related both to their enthusiasm for the concept of televised teaching and the extent to which they think their area or their projects could benefit.

Will Kitchen, vice president of the Minnesota-based Tele-Systems Associates, a company that specializes in helping consortia of school districts to set up regional educational-communications networks, said the bill "is the most exciting thing to come out of Washington in some time.'' He said educators in 12 states have told him that they are interested in applying for star-schools funding.

One of them is New York, where 350 school districts are involved in 65 long-distance learning projects, according to Peter Stoll, assistant director of the state education department's center for learning technologies. Mr. Stoll said state officials are eager to expand and link the regional networks and to forge links with networks outside the state.

The legislation's staunchest proponents include the Massachusetts Corporation for Educational Telecommunications, a nonprofit institution officially incorporated by the state legislature in 1983.

Originally envisioned as a network linking Boston University and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, the M.C.E.T. has since grown into a sweeping proposal--already documented for federal consideration--to tie every school district in the state into a satellite network that could eventually be expanded to the rest of New England.

The universities would also operate technology centers that would help create programming and provide technical assistance to districts.

The M.C.E.T. has launched several pilot projects, using existing such broadcast facilities as excess capacity on cable-television networks, said Richard Borten, the corporation's executive director. It has sponsored conferences via television on ways schools can deal with the issues raised by acquired immune deficiency syndrome, on the education of deaf children, and on the teaching of physics.

The project's estimated cost is $20 million, the maximum grant allowed under the star-schools bill, which contains a provision that would permit funding for projects similar to the M.C.E.T.

One of the legislation's more outspoken critics, Mr. Morris of Mississippi, bluntly called it a "boondoggle,'' a sentiment echoed privately by several other observers.

"It hurts to a certain extent to hear that, because our needs are real,'' Mr. Borten said. "Those who think of us as slick urbanites don't know the [New England] region at all. New Hampshire and Maine will be [involved] very soon.''

He noted that New England is especially dependent on high-technology industries for economic survival, and that it is not only rural schools that are being forced to cut back on advanced mathematics and foreign-language courses.

Mr. Morris agrees that the M.C.E.T. project probably will be beneficial.

However, he and other critics said funding to produce educational programming is more urgently needed.

Henry J. Cauthen, president of the South Carolina Educational Television Network, made the same point in testimony on the star-schools bill.

"I don't see the need to experiment in the hardware area,'' he said later.

"The technology is already there,'' he said, noting that 26 states have statewide educational television networks that could be adapted to provide interactive long-distance learning. "There should be more emphasis on the development of programming, training expert teachers, getting [classroom] teachers involved.''

South Carolina's broadcast system has been offering college courses via television for more than 20 years, Mr. Cauthen said, and more than half the graduate business degrees conferred by the University of South Carolina are earned through such courses.

The state's elementary and secondary schools have only recently become interested in the technology, he said, and long-distance learning will soon be used to provide courses for gifted students and to assist schools that have trouble attracting teachers.

Districts' Experiences

Educators who have experimented with instruction-by-satellite agree that the method can prove ideal for poor, isolated districts with a handful of students interested in such advanced courses as calculus, but without the wherewithal to provide them.

However, they hasten to add, this technology will not replace live teachers or solve larger problems facing American education.

"I have a lot of good things to say about [long-distance learning], but I won't say to suburban districts, 'Run out and buy a [satellite dish],''' said Sue Meier, who managed a trial telecommunications project in the Greece Central School District in upstate New York. "I would say to rural districts, 'Go and do it, because now you can offer calculus.'''

The New York district used the services of the TI-IN Network, a private Texas company that sells televised instruction in a variety of subjects. Students at more than 200 sites in 18 states take courses taught by instructors in the network's San Antonio studio, communicating with the teachers and each other over the telephone.

The Culverson County, Tex., public schools have also used the services of the TI-IN Network with positive results, according to school officials there.

With 3,851 square miles to cover, it is geographically the largest school district in the state, according to Lewis Rogers, the district's superintendent.. But the county, located in the vast, arid western reaches of the state, has less than one resident per square mile, and the district enrolls only 850 students.

"We've had a very good experience,'' Mr. Rogers said. "It's not even beginning to reach its potential, in our opinion.''

The long-distance learning concept has worked so well in west Texas, Mr. Rogers said, that superintendents in 15 other Texas districts are working out a plan to acquire a shared broadcast facility from which high-school courses in English, mathematics, and social studies can be taught.

"We could potentially cover the whole area with three teachers,'' he said. While Mr. Rogers does not think his district can replace large numbers of its teachers with television sets, "we could save a vast amount of money,'' he said.

Vol. 06, Issue 39

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