. . . Schools around the nation are beginning to realize that in the information society, the two required languages will be English and computer.--John Naisbitt, "Megatrends"
In the headlong national race to computerize classrooms, a complex high-technology version of an ageless social problem is emerging: Poor kids are being left behind.
The number of microcomputers in U.S. public schools tripled last year. It is expected to reach 500,000 by next June and surge to 2 million by June 1988. A University of Minnesota study projects that 85 percent of the nation's school districts will have computers available to pupils this year, up from 58 percent last year.
But the Minnesota study, done for the National Science Foundation, said youngsters in the nation's 12,000 most affluent school districts are four times more likely than students in the 12,000 poorest districts to have access to a computer.
The Johns Hopkins University Center for Social Organization of Schools reported in April that "whereas two-thirds of public schools in the better-off districts have microcomputers, only 41 percent of the schools in the least wealthy districts have any."
Sociologist Ronald E. Anderson, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Social Research, said, "To the extent computer literacy and computer expertise are necessary for success in getting and keeping jobs, computer inequity is a serious problem. It threatens to separate groups and communities by giving some people more effective tools for living in the computer age."
The congressional Office of Technology Assessment issued a similiar warning last fall, stating that "if the technologies are primarily designed for and made available to middle-class families, they could increase rather than diminish the gap between the educationally advantaged and disadvantaged."
Alvin Toffler, author of "Future Shock" and "The Third Wave," wrote last year that "kids who know how to use them computers will have an edge over those who don't, and this means that, unless conscious steps are taken, white middle-class children will start out, once more, with an edge that the less affluent lack."
The problem is not just availability of computers, but how they tend to be used.
Commenting on the remedial drill-and-practice that tends to be done on computers in poorer schools as opposed to program writing and problem-solving in more affluent schools, Ruth Cossey of the University of California's Lawrence Hall of Science said, "One group tells the computer what to do; the other sees it as a taskmaster. The group that has the power will get ahead."
And some educators see still a third problem--partly remediable, and having to do with equity--with the rush to computerize. They say computers are impeding the back-to-basics movement.
As A. Daniel Peck, education professor at San Francisco State University and founder of the Committee of Basic Skills Education, said:
"We're in a computer religion explosion to the detriment of basic-skills education . . . the best we can hope for is some degree of sanity."
Minnesota has distinguished itself in the fight against institutionalized inequity. As the result of a state-wide commitment, 63.4 percent of its schools last year had at least one microcomputer, the personal computer commonly used in homes and offices.
The Minnesota Educational Computer Consortium, a nonprofit, state-run organization, guides the state's efforts and designs its own software, or course material. It is considered a model for educators.
Executive Director Kenneth Brumbaugh estimates that a million copies of its materials are distributed each year to education systems, not only in the United States but in countries as diverse as Kenya, Australia and Saudi Arabia.
The socio-economic differences between wealthy and poor schools are illustrated in how they obtain microcomputers. Poor schools must usually depend on the district's revenues or the largesse of computer companies' donations, which some observers speculate are less likely to go to poor schools because they do not represent as rich a potential market for subsequent purchases, by schools or parents, as wealthier districts.
More affluent districts tend to have richer budgets for buying computers, are thought to be more attractive to corporations in the selection of gift sites and can rely on parents, community associations and teacher-parent organizations to make contributions.
But while computer equity might be the crux of the problem, keeping up with the computer explosion while focusing on basics is no less troublesome to educators.
Teachers who are slow to adjust to the computer keyboard are another factor in the computer equation. They run the risk of being less effective in the electronic classroom than they are in traditional ones.
Educators are entangled in an electronic thicket. The computer, hailed as an electronic wizard honing the abstract reasoning skills of a new generation of problem solvers, is unfamiliar and even frightening to some teachers who view it as a disrupter of proven conventional methods.
But faced with legions of anxious parents, teachers and administrators find themselves hard-pressed to resist computers.
Critics complain that the current emphasis placed on putting computers in the hands of American children is driving educators to distraction, not only from teaching basic skills, but as they try to become comfortable with the machines.
Computer anxiety, a fairly common adult malady outside the teaching profession as well, ranks high on the list of distractions. "High Technology" magazine reported last spring that "Although teachers' colleges are gearing up as fast as they can to produce computer-literate teachers, this won't affect schools for years.
"Most teachers have found themselves totally unequipped to teach about or with computers and are scrambling to catch up with their computer-wise students."
Some teachers blame their school systems for exacerbating the problem. At the National Educational Computing Conference in June, "Technology Illustrated" magazine reported, some teachers "complained of school systems that spent thousands of dollars on mirocomputers but provided no training and no software, with the predictable result that teachers became hostile to the computers and refused to use them."
The National Education Association took a comprehensive look at computers in its members' classrooms in June. "In just a year or two," NEA Today reported, "the whole picture has changed. Few teachers still assert that computers are just another passing fad in education . . . ."
Those teachers who have become proficient using computers have become big fans of them. "In fact," the NEA reported, "a very common complaint has become, 'We don't have enough of them.'
"A 1982 NEA survey showed that 70 percent of teachers who reported computers' effects on students said the machines improve interest, motivation, attention span, self-confidence and cognitive learning. Half the teachers surveyed said computer learning would become common and be considered basic."
To help, the NEA is starting a computer service this fall to offer computers, their accessories and software at discount prices to members and to provide exact descriptions of how it all works.
Clearly the highly touted man-made wonders are creating as many problems as they are solving in education. Educators, having decided that computers are the answer, now want to work out the solutions for themselves.
"Where will it end?" NEA Today asked in June. "Nobody knows. But in school--as in industry and daily life--computer use is clearly taking root and growing fast.
"Teachers are not about to leave to others the important decisions about that growth--how to use computers, and how to offer all students the benefits of that use."