At times I have the unhappy feeling that the president of the United States is suffering from computer illiteracy. He doesn't seem to speak the lingo of LOGO. He keeps talking about going back to basics instead of forward to BASIC.
Anyone following his political teach- in across the country these weeks--if this is Wednesday, it must be Louisville--would suspect that he is living in the Misinformation Age. He maintains our education problems won't be solved by more money but by getting our money's worth for what we already spend. The target may be excellence but it's not one he thinks we should throw dollars at.
From where I sit, however, in front of a video display terminal, the notion that he can cut the federal funds for education and raise the tide of mediocrity qualifies as Voodoo Education.
It's true that money can't buy the love of learning. There is much that can be done with no more loose change than a change of mind. But if you want a hint of the true cost of getting our education system up to date and up to speed, try computing it.
There's little doubt about the need and value of preparing the next generation for their high-tech futures. Even the president noted it in his State of the Union Address last winter.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), the high-tech son of a man who worked in a textile mill that doesn't exist any longer, also talked about it in a speech to the Senate this month. He brought it down to the academic level. "In an age that demands computer literacy," he said, "a school without a computer is like a school without a library."
At the moment, there are a lot of schools without these "libraries." For all the talk of an "explosion" of computer use in education, there are no more than 250,000 terminals and microcomputers for 45 million schoolchildren. If kids are to get skills in using computers as a tool--which is what a vast proportion will do as adults--they need more than a few minutes a week, more than one computer for every 180 students.
Marc Tucker of the Carnegie Project on Information Technology and Education calculates the idea formula this way: "Suppose we want a reasonably capable computer for every four students and we have 40 million children in public schools. We need, then, 10 million work stations. With that kind of market, the price of this machinery might go to, say, $1,000 a station. That adds up to $10 billion. Assume again, that the state and local people pay for half. The bill still comes to $5 billion."
This may be pie-in-the-sky stuff, but any significant plan is going to cost plenty. As Tucker says, "There is no way on God's green Earth that we'll be able to do this without very significant federal assistance."
Computers are obviously not the magic solution to the woes of education. It's as easy to misuse a computer as a slide projector. Computers are just machines, and schools are just day-care centers if they don't attract high-quality teachers and caring administrators. But they do offer one small, concrete example of real costs.
The cost of buying this hardware and software also says something about fairness, about the gap between rich kids and poor kids and how they are affected by the gap between rich schools and poor schools.
Lautenberg, who comes from a state with the third highest per-capita income and some of the poorest cities, notes that a full 70 percent of wealthy schools in the country have computers, while 60 percent of poor schools have none. Not surprisingly, the school systems in wealthy and technologically sophisticated areas are gaining an advantage, increasing their side of the gap.
What's the role of the federal government in this? Since the early '60s, the government has played a part in equalizing opportunities, narrowing the gap. The Reagan administration has turned away from that role in and out of education, but it's a part of our heritage and our future.
Most of us talk about computers as education tools and as part of the transforming economy. The two--national education and the national economy--are simply inseparable.
Ideally, as Marc Tucker fantasizes the future, "If they were the right sort of machines, designed to be used in schools, with trained teachers, we'd have an extraordinary improvement in reading and writing. Kids would be able to handle data, use it, analyze it, understand it, which would make an extraordinary contribution to our ability to compete with other countries."
You can't do that with mirrors.