The year is 1987. With the help of a computer, a first grader in a District elementary school is learning to spell.Down the hall, a fifth-grade science class is using commercial computer programs, called software, to graphically help them classify insects. Across town at a junior high school, students in an English II class are taking an exam with other students city-wide on the school system's central computer.
With the help of computers, teaching and teaching tools may change drastically the way the city's public schools are run five years from now, say a group of education planners who recently completed a report on the role of computers in education.
"Clearly, the need for some degree of computer literacy has become necessary to function as a useful citizen," states the Computer Literacy Five-Year Plan, 1982-87, prepared by 25 city school officials for the D.C. Public Schools.
"Computer technology that seemed far, far away in another galaxy has suddenly made a quantum leap into the here and now in the District of Columbia Public Schools," the report said.
Gordon Lewis, math supervisor for the city's public schools, said 12 percent of the schools now have computers. Next year, he said, the goal is to have at least one computer at every school.
Lewis said only five senior high schools have computer science classes. In January, the school system hopes to have computer tutorial labs in 50 elementary schools to help students learn reading, math and language arts, he said. Students will learn computer programming in 30 computer labs throughout the city, he said.
High technology has made such a quantum leap in the past few years that it has left some teachers behind. Many have never used a computer, unlike their students, who have become better acquainted with today's high technology through video games and home computers.
To help, the Computer Literacy Training Laboratory, begun in July, has trained 400 teachers and administrators in computer basics.
The five-year computer literacy plan, not yet approved by the school board, would require every student to understand who to use computers and how they perform before completing junior high school. That requirement would be effective for 1987 junior high school graduates.
To some, however, the possible effects of high technology on education are a cause for concern. "Education gets caught up so much in fads that I'm afraid a lot of the reaction to this new technology is to go hustling after computers," said David Braneman, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Braneman, speaking earlier this month before a forum sponsored by the D.C. Public Citizens for a Better Public Education, said school systems must downplay the importance of high technology in education.
"It's still the basic skills of reading, writing and math that remain of greatent significance," he said. Schools would be "cheating students if they're not given a basic high school education," he said.
Technological skills a student learns in 1982 may become obsolete by 1987, Braneman noted. "If they can't cope with the transition [because of a lack of basic education], then I think we're generating a society of walking wounded."
Yet Braneman acknowledged, "We do have to incorporate computers in schools -- not as a replacement of teachers but an addition."
The forum brought together teachers and parents concerned about the implications of computer technology in the District school system. Some expressed concern that students will be trained to gather information quickly but won't know what to do with that information.
"You have to be basically literate before you can become technology literate," said Miles Mark Fisher IV, president of the D.C. Citizens for a Better Public Education.
Teachers also were concerned about the effect computers may have on education. "I'm fearful of the system being misused," said math supervisor Lewis. "I know some math teachers who teach computer programming instead of basic math."
Braneman said companies involved in high technology also are worried that too much technological education will be of no use. "Corporations feel they can teach the skills of high technology. But they don't want to have to teach the basic skills, such as basic math and writing proper sentences," he said.