At the Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School, Rudolph Hines and Raymond Tucker stand up, compose themselves and take a minute to look at the words. Then they read aloud long sentences they have never seen before and do not understand.
The sentences contain words like "statistical" and "significance," but they pronounce the words correctly and read along fluently. Rudolph and Raymond are only seven years old.
In kindergarten, 5-year-old Tiana Henry writes a story about the computer she uses every day. "The computer talks to me. I can mis and the computer will say ouch ouch ouch," Tiana writes. Still other kindergarteners flock to school principal William Dalton, begging for permission to read their stories aloud.
Their school, located in a poorer area of Washington, D.C., is employing a powerful new educational tool with the potential of solving some of the nation's toughest educational problems, its supporters say.
This tool is the computer and its software programs, which are now being used to help teach reading and writing and other academic subjects to students, a long educational step forward from the introductory courses in programming and data processing that have formed the initial courseware for many classroom computers.
In 15 schools in the D.C. public school system, thousands of kindergarteners and first graders over the past few years have taken a course of IBM Corp.'s called Writing to Read. Using simple computer games, the program teaches kindergarteners to write words phonetically, based on the sounds of words, enabling the children to use the several thousand words that typically are in their vocabularies at that age.
"What you saw these children doing, there are some first and second graders who can't do that," said Thelma Michaels, coordinator of Writing to Read for the D.C. public schools. "It's exciting in that you don't on a normal basis find 5-year-olds constructing sentences and writing stories."
After testing thousands of children using conventional and Writing to Read teaching methods, the Educational Testing Service, of Princeton, N.J., concluded Writing to Read helped boost children's reading test scores by an average 15 percent. Developed writing was achieved by 15 percent of the students, which is "a level that is considerably in advance of normal expectations for beginning readers."
"For the first time in history since the invention of the printing press we have the opportunity to revolutionize education," said Bruce Merrifield, assistant secretary for productivity, technology and innovation at the Commerce Department, who is putting together a consortia of experts to develop new software. "The national interest involved is overwhelming -- in ten years wecan turn around three generations of poverty in the inner city schools."
"In the global sense we are in a transition from a petrochemical industry to one of information products, but the school curriculum was defined at the turn of the century," said John Sculley, president of Apple Computer Inc. "The computer will make that transition easier."
But many stumbling blocks must be overcome before computers are fully integrated into the classroom, say educators and analysts:
More software that supplements existing curricula must be developed by software houses, teachers must be trained to use computers, and new systems developed to permit a wide interchange of computers and programs from different manufacturers.
Students in elementary and secondary schools can now benefit from computer software data bases on American Presidents, from complex computer simulations that teach analytical thinking, and from software drill and practice that improves learning rates.
But teachers find they must spend precious time integrating these resources into the curriculum because the lack of textbook publisher and computer software publisher coordination means standard curricula cannot be easily augmented by the computer.
Some teachers are concerned about the gaps in software programming -- pupils who make rapid progress with computers in early grades may be stranded by the lack of programming in later grades. "I pride myself on the best and I believe in progress," said Arlene Killings, a kindergarten teacher at Leckie Elementary School in Washington. "But then after the first year how would the kid feel?"
"The software and textbook publishers don't really coordinate because that costs dollars," said Jay Sivin, coordinator of microcourseware evaluation for the New York-based Educational Products Information Exchange. "Now, some of the textbook publishers are saying 'let's get software for our books,' but we don't see a tutorial that coordinates with these pages of McGraw Hill and these pages of Houghton Miflin -- teachers would like that." Only about 5 percent of the software available on the market could be termed highly educational, he said.
A lack of consistent software standardization also plagues the industry, said Hilda Uribe, a senior analyst with Future Computing Inc., a Texas market research firm. "If a software publisher publishes for the Apple and the school district only has Tandys or Commodores or IBMs, they have to publish a different type for the machine -- those questions are still floating," she said.
"What we basically need to do," said Merrifield, "is standardize the hardware so people who write the software can market it, and also upgrade the content of the software in terms of both the graphic quality and content," he said.
Funding also remains an eternal problem. "I'm excited about it," said John Harps, prinicipal of the Leckie school. "It's so challenging, I want to introduce it, but we can't afford it."
Congress is currently turning a deaf ear to funding the introduction of computers into schools, though tax writeoffs for donations of computers to schools have been been obtained in some states.
"People are looking to cut back right now and, regardless of the merits of the proposal, the first question is how much does it cost?" said an aide to Rep. Fortney H. (Pete) Stark (D-Calif.). "To put a classroom of computers in every school in the country you are talking about a lot of money."
Schools grasp the importance of the new computer tool at varying rates, said Apple's Sculley. "There is a wide range of degrees of enlightenment among teachers and schools . . . teachers are generally embracing it," he said.
Both the D.C. public schools and the Houston Independent School District, for example, have set up computer labs run by professionals who train teachers and administrators to use computers and sample the software available on the market.
Teachers at the D.C. public schools are learning how to use office software like electronic spread sheets, data bases and word processing and are looking at ways to blend these programs into the curriculum, for example letting students use a computer spread sheet to plot a demographics chart for social studies.
"It is a matter of finding the software and being creative enough and innovative enough to integrate it into the curriculum," said Jenelle V. Leonard, director of the computer literacy training lab for the D.C. public schools.
But solid "courseware" or software that goes with textbooks, teacher manuals and workbooks is hard to come by. "Computer companies say education commands 20 percent of their total market -- we really don't have a voice and that's why we are using business application programs in education," said Leonard.
Meanwhile, computer manufacturers are forming joint ventures with software developers and spending millions in training teachers, perhaps the most important key to making the process work.
In the late 1970s computers were sold to schools that did not have software to go with them. "I am not a great fan of what's happened with micros microcomputers in schools up until now -- they have been dropped off by people interested in selling them, period," said Walter Bruning, president of the United School Services of America, a wholly owned subsidiary of Minneapolis-based Control Data Corp.
"Our whole approach at USSA is to bring to the schools a systematic program for training and involving the teachers," he said. Control Data has also formed a joint venture with Wicat Systems Co., of Orem, Utah, to extend its Plato educational system for high schools to kindergarten through eighth grades.
IBM has formed a business unit in Atlanta specifically to provide computers, courseware and services to elementary, vocational and technical schools and has spent $20 million over the past few years on educational programs. Likewise, Apple has made millions available in scholarships for teacher training and all the manufacturers have donated computers to schools.
There are 104,000 schools in the country, including colleges and universities, and each school district has at least one computer, the firm said.
The leading supplier to schools, is Apple, benefitting from its early start. "Apple's expectations have been exceeded," said Anne Wujcik, director of educational research for Talmis, a New York research firm. "Apple considers the market one of their major ones, it makes up 25 to 30 percent of their business."
"IBM on the other hand may have had initially unrealistic expectations about how rapidly their machine was going to be accepted," she said. IBM is a household word in officeware but schools have not had a good reason to use the computers, she added.
"Computers are selling well, the software is another story," she said. There are about 650 educational software publishers in the market and both the software publishers and computer manufacturers who develop software are working with educators to develop new programs. Textbook publishers are just beginning to reference computer software in teacher manuals.
"It's the chicken and the egg syndrome," said Carol Trawick, assistant director of the National Education Association's educational computer service. "Curriculum is the next step -- publishers need to know dollars will be spent before they make the products.
"It is a hesitant market. When the publishers see teachers integrating computer programs into the curriculum and that the dollars are committed by the district to buy the hardware and software it will speed up the development of courses to meet those needs."
Teachers are only beginning to voice what they need and lack of hardware in the schools is still the bottom line, said Marylyn Rosenbloom, vice president for product development for CBS Software, a CBS Inc. division formed in 1982 that is coordinating software development with the textbooks that Holt, Rhinehart & Winston, a publishing house also owned by CBS.
"Teachers are a little bit uncertain how they are going to integrate software into the curriculum . . . . The issue of one computer to 25 kids is the most serious barrier," she said.
"We are thinking about software that dovetails into the curriculum. Publishers like Holt are used to creating products ancillary to textbooks, like a filmstrip or videotape or piece of software -- there is an entirely different way of looking at it as an enrichment tool that should be used alongside the teaching," she said.