Back To The Future

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The Belridge School in McKittrick, Calif., is an oasis in a desert. Surrounded by scrub-covered mountains and miles of oil fields where pumps—like mechanical vultures—suck oil from the sand, it is virtually isolated from the rest of the world.

The tiny K-8 school district struck it rich in 1988. Tax revenues from oil development allowed officials to buy every teacher and student at Belridge a computer for school and another for home use. The building was endowed with laserdisc players, a television station, videocassette recorders, sophisticated music equipment, and enough software to keep the machinery whirring constantly. The ambitious project—called “District and Community of Tomorrow Today,” DACOTT 21/20 for short—was supposed to propel Belridge into the next century.

The goal was to develop a “community of learners”—including students, teachers, and parents—who could use technology to tap into vast sources of information. The district was perfect for such a venture. The school was blessed with small class sizes, and parental involvement seemed to be high; one school board member reports that 70 percent of the parents participated in technology training classes offered by the school.

Once a week, students were sent home an hour early and teachers gave up an hour of their free time to take part in two hours of inservice training that helped them become proficient with their new tools.

The student body also became involved in ambitious projects: Some wrote, edited, and produced a news show for the school's local TV channel; 7th and 8th graders buddied up with younger students to work on thematic projects on computers; and 5th and 6th graders held their own presidential election, registering voters, designing and printing ballots, and tabulating votes on computer.

But two years later, the dream had become a nightmare. Unhappy parents were picketing outside the school, complaining that their children were not learning and threatening to pile their home computers on the schoolyard lawn. The community elected two new school board members. Their mandate: to hire a new “back to basics” principal. Computers were removed from students' desks and pushed to the back of the classroom. The school sold 25 workstations and an Integrated Learning System. DACOTT, for all practical purposes, was dead.

Matt Revenaugh, who assisted the two developers of DACOTT and who is now the technology coordinator for the school, has spent long hours trying to understand what went wrong. He can cite several factors: differences of opinion on the best learning environment for students, misunderstandings about the significance of standardized test scores, and the fact that the district had to go it alone with DACOTT, without the support of policymakers or guidance from earlier successful projects.

Revenaugh thinks that some members of the community disagreed with DACOTT's approach to teaching, which emphasized students working collaboratively on meaningful work—thinking and constructing ideas rather than just memorizing facts.

But it was student scores on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills that really raised the battle cry from parents who carried placards that read, “Can you read this? My child can't!” The jury is still out on what the standardized test results really mean. It's true that the students didn't perform well: The composite score for the 1988-89 school year was slightly below the national median. But then, Belridge students had performed no better in previous years.

Revenaugh believes the parents may have reacted too quickly. The project had only been up and running for a year when the students were tested, hardly enough time for them to feel comfortable with the equipment and for school officials to iron out the glitches. But when parents saw rapid technological development, he says, they expected radical academic improvement.

Much of the hoopla was over one class of students, 1st graders who were really too young to be evaluated accurately, according to Maryl Gearhart, an independent evaluator from the Center for Technology Assessment at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Besides, says parent and former school board member Mike Reeves, DACOTT was developing skills that can't be measured by standardized tests. “Technology gave children the ability to go beyond what the teacher planned,” he explains. “Students had immediate access to enormous amounts of information. There was no way to evaluate their gains with the traditional battery of tests.”

But parent and current school board member Lauretta Waldron says the scores painted a very different picture of what was going on in the school. “They weren't using computers as tools,” she says. “They were cramming computers down kids throats. Kids got so tired of it that they never wanted to look at a computer again.” Many parents, she remembers, complained that their children were never given spelling tests or homework.

Some observers say that it was only a handful of parents who latched on to the scores and hammered away until the project folded. This small but vocal group, they say, was able to exert disproportionate control over the fate of DACOTT because of the nature of the community—and the nature of the project itself.

The town has been characterized by some of its residents as a “Peyton Place,” a tight-knit community of about 50 homes where gossip travels like wildfire and personal, professional, and political lives are interwoven. Half of the parents work for Shell Oil; the other half, who were not involved in the upheaval, are Hispanic farm workers.

A pioneering project like DACOTT, Revenaugh says, is especially vulnerable in this kind of environment. The project's members knew of no other school that had succeeded in a similar venture, so they could not point to examples of long-term success. They had no road map of the obstacles, so they couldn't prepare everyone for the rough times. They were bound to make mistakes because no one they knew had ever gone through it.

Cindy Everest-Bouch, one of the architects of DACOTT who has since left the school, believes that state or federal leadership could have alleviated DACOTT's isolation and saved the project. “We didn't have any research to fall back on,” Everest-Bouch points out. “No authorities at that time were saying that standardized tests may not be able to measure the depth of learning that can take place with technology.”

All along, there were parents who believed in what DACOTT was trying to do. These stalwart supporters provided Revenaugh with enough incentive to stay at the school and work to push the pendulum back toward technology. Still, he had his work cut out for him.

After the downfall of DACOTT, half of the teaching staff either quit or retired, and the new principal didn't look for replacements who knew how to use computers. Until the end of last school year—when Revenaugh hosted a one-week inservice program on technology—formal computer training consisted of three words: Go ask Matt. Teacher interest, Revenaugh remembers, was sporadic at best. As a result, the 150 pieces of high-tech equipment lay dormant for most of last year.

This year, Revenaugh has been more assertive, actually enticing teachers to use the equipment. He knows, however, that it is important not to upset the community or school administration. His winning formula, he says, is “behind the scenes” and “one on one.”

He started by dropping hints to car-pool companions during the 45-minute drive to and from Bakersfield. He sat in on their classes and suggested computer programs that could enhance what they were already teaching. “I began slowly,” he says, “getting teachers to buy in on their own.”

Pam Martinez, a new teacher in the school, appreciates the down-to-earth style of her jeans-and-sneaker clad colleague. “He's good at coming in and teaching me the one thing that gets me to go forward,” she says. Martinez is uneasy with technology, but her 7th and 8th graders seem comfortable with it. They confidently use their classroom computers for spelling, word processing, and journal and essay writing.

Recently, Revenaugh coaxed Martinez to venture beyond computers. Since her class is studying the constitution, she presented a laserdisc video segment on the Bill of Rights. As the students watched, one commented, “I'm worried; I'm really enjoying this.”

Says Martinez: “I'm starting to realize how much information is available through technology. When we are learning about freedom of speech and I show a segment on the Ku Klux Klan, the students ask themselves, `Should they be allowed to exist?' It becomes real to them; it's not just words on a page.”

Down the hall, bright blue computer screens compete with colored construction-paper displays on the walls of the 1st and 2nd grade classroom. Revenaugh has recently recommended some math software to teacher Kathy Niino that, she says, challenges students on their own level. “I can help a kid who really needs me, while the others do their thing,” says Niino, who has one student who is performing at the 4th grade level and another who is doing kindergarten work.

These little successes please Revenaugh, but he is quick to point out that there are problems, as well. For example, his efforts to re-introduce technology have been hampered by an obstacle that has little to do with the school's history: Teachers are frustrated with software programs that don't give them what they need. Revenaugh believes the situation is a result of software developers' fundamental lack of understanding of real classroom dynamics.

“Companies sincerely think they are in touch with teachers, but I'm not sure they really know what it's like to use technology in the classroom,” says Revenaugh, who regularly teaches computer classes at Belridge. “Teachers need to be able to turn to the computer for more than a one-shot deal. It's not enough to thrill a student for an hour. The programs have to be adaptable to all the topics a teacher covers over the course of a semester.”

Martinez voices another complaint raised by many teachers trying to use technology: She doesn't have enough time to find out what programs fit with her curriculum. State-mandated goals determine what Martinez teaches her 7th and 8th graders, but the teacher has no list of software programs that match those mandates.

Revenaugh would like to see textbooks start citing laserdisc and software programs that teachers can use to enhance the material. “I know what it's like to work with the same kids on the same problems for a week until you see some headway,” he says. “I want to know what tools are out there to help me get the point across in half the time.”

Thus far, the administration and community haven't complained about Revenaugh's new activities. Given the history, he's not sure why but offers several possible reasons. For one, the school has had a nine month “drying out” period. Also, some of the students whose parents objected to DACOTT have gone on to high school. In addition, a number of parents have become more involved in the school and now have a better understanding of what the teachers are trying to do. The son of one of the most vocal anti-technology parents has begun to show a special interest in computers, checking software out of the school library about once a week. Revenaugh is glad to see the change. “You must get parents on your side,” he says. “If there is anything you can try, it's worth it.”

Despite Revenaugh's rocky experience with Belridge, he is convinced that the movement toward technology in schools is inevitable. “You can bet your bones that, after graduation, students are going face a world saturated with technology,” he says. “Five or ten years from now, a teacher who isn't using technology will be really missing the boat.”

Vol. 03, Issue 04, Pages 19-21

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