Despite fiscal belt-tightening and the recent decline in the technology sector of the U.S. economy, states still made great strides over the past year in helping students get access to computers in schools.
According to the most recent data from Market Data Retrieval, a Shelton, Conn.-based market research firm, the number of students per instructional computer improved in nearly every state last year. Nationally, in 2001, there were just over four students for every instructional school computer, and the number of students per Internet-connected computer in schools dropped from 7.9 in 2000 to 6.8 in 2001.
Still, other trends related to training and the use of technology are lagging. Spending on staff development and training decreased as a percentage of school technology budgets from 2000 to 2001. The percentage of schools where a majority of teachers use computers daily for planning or teaching rose slightly across schools overall, but remained flat in schools where more than half the students are members of racial or ethnic minorities.
Data from the 2000 National Assessment of Educational Progress show that more than half of 8th graders reported that they didn’t use computers in their mathematics classes. Among those who did say they use computers, the machines were most often used for playing games or engaging in drill-and-practice activities, rather than more sophisticated uses such as simulations or demonstrations of new topics.
Those data underscore the point that purchasing computers and improving Internet connections are just part of what it takes to make technology an integral part of teaching and learning. Preparing teachers to use and integrate technology into their work in meaningful ways remains a challenge.
This year’s access numbers paint a picture of across-the-board improvement. Technology Counts 2002 includes many state-by-state indicators, a number of which pay particular attention to technology access in highpoverty and high-minority-enrollment schools. In those schools, and across public schools generally, there are now more higher-quality computers accessible to students in a variety of settings.
In 2001, 61 percent of instructional computers had high-speed processors, up from 53 percent in 2000, according to MDR. The number of computers per student in classrooms, computer labs, and libraries also improved.
In fact, public schools are approaching universal access to the Internet, with 98 percent of schools now connected, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Access to the Internet in classrooms is also improving steadily. Data from the Education Department indicate that 77 percent of classrooms had Internet access in 2000. In schools where 75 percent or more of the students were eligible for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program, 60 percent of the classrooms were wired in 2000.
Still, while disparities in access to technology based on poverty and minority enrollment diminished in schools in 2001, several indicators suggest a wider digital divide at home.
Overall, only 22 percent of 4th graders and 16 percent of 8th graders reported not having a computer available at home, according to NAEP data. Among students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, however, 38 percent of 4th graders and 33 percent of 8th graders did not have computers at home.
That’s where schools come in, says Amanda Lenhart, a research specialist for the Pew Internet & American Life Project, a nonprofit organization based in Washington that supports research into the Internet’s impact on society.
“School is filling a void for kids whose families can’t afford, or for other reasons don’t have, the Internet at home,” she says.
Training Teachers and Administrators
According to John P. Bailey, the director of education technology for the Department of Education, “You can have the fastest Internet connection, the best computer, and the most sophisticated curriculum software, but if the teachers aren’t trained in how to use it, it’s not going to make a difference in the classroom.”
But data from MDR indicate that staff development is not as high a funding priority as hardware—accounting for only 14 percent of school technology spending in 2001, compared with 17 percent in 2000. Hardware accounted for two-thirds of spending, and software spending remained at 20 percent.
Bailey points out that states receiving technology funds under the federal “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 must spend at least 25 percent of that money on professional development. But he also emphasizes that technology is mentioned throughout the act, giving states the flexibility to dedicate funds from other curriculum- content programs.
Professional-development funding under the No Child Left Behind Act can also be used for administrators, Bailey says. “So there is a commitment to recognizing that teachers need to be trained, but there’s also a commitment that school leaders … need to receive training in how to make decisions and how to use technology to support education,” he adds.
Currently, 26 states and the District of Columbia require technology training for initial teacher licensure. Thirteen states offer incentives, such as free laptop computers, or continuing education credits, for teachers to use technology in their classrooms. Up from 11 states last year, 22 states are now offering incentives for principals and administrators to use technology in their jobs. Most of the increase was due to states taking advantage of state challenge grants for leadership development from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
How Technology Is Used
Despite an increase in access to computers, indicators on the use of computers in school are mixed.
Data from MDR show an increase from 2000 to 2001 in the number of schools reporting that a majority of their teachers used the Internet for instruction. The increase was even more pronounced in high-poverty and high-minority- enrollment schools. But apart from the increased use of the Internet, general use of computers in the classroom appears to be stagnant.
As part of the 1996 and 2000 NAEP surveys, students were asked how often they used computers for mathematics in school. In 1996, a third of 4th graders and about a quarter of 8th graders reported that they used computers at least once or twice a week. Four years later, the reported levels of use were unchanged.
Questions to teachers about how computers are incorporated into math classes also reveal no change between 1996 and 2000. Surveys in both years found that teachers of about a quarter of 4th graders, and just over half of 8th graders, reported not using computers at all in class—and among those who did use them, the most frequently reported uses were playing math games and engaging in drill-and-practice activities. Tasks that promote higher-order- thinking skills were used much less frequently.
In 2000, the teachers of only 3 percent of 4th graders and 8 percent of 8th graders reported using computers to demonstrate new topics. The teachers of only 6 percent of 4th graders and 12 percent of 8th graders reported running math simulations or applications on computers in class.
Over that same period, the NAEP data suggest an increase in the proportion of students reporting that they use a computer at home for schoolwork. The percent of 4th graders reporting use of a home computer for schoolwork at least once or twice a week rose from 19 percent to 23 percent, and the percent of 8th graders using home computers for schoolwork increased from 29 percent to 48 percent between 1996 and 2000.
But NAEP data reveal an immense gap in use of the Internet at home between high-poverty students and their better-off peers.
Thirty-three percent of 4th graders and 41 percent of 8th graders eligible for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program reported in 2000 that they used the Internet at home. Among those not eligible for subsidized lunch, 61 percent of 4th graders and 72 percent of 8th graders reported home use.
Beyond access, teaching teachers and students to use computers to enhance learning is a critical step in integrating technology into the curriculum. In speaking to students whose teachers use technology in the classroom, Lenhart of the Pew Internet & American Life Project finds that students are skeptical of teachers who force technology into their lesson plans.
“Not just using technology for technology’s sake, but using it effectively, is something which we all should be talking about,” says Lenhart.
A version of this article appeared in the May 09, 2002 edition of Education Week