Grading Educational Information Technology

Students at California's East Bakersfield High School run a computerized business office as part of a school-to-work program that educators say has improved graduation and job placement rates.

In New York City's Ralph Bunche School, 120 students using computers in a collaborative learning project outscored a control group by 10 percent on the city's standard math exam. And in Georgia's Carrollton City school district, educators say new computer learning programs are why they have had a 14 percent decline in dropout rates.

Buoyed by these and similar cases, American public elementary and secondary schools are on a high-tech shopping spree. In the 1995-1996 school year alone, they rang up nearly $4 billion in purchases of computer and network hardware, software and support. That has helped put a computer within reach of every 7.3 U.S. students, reports Market Data Retrieval, a Shelton, Conn., research firm-a figure still far short of the four to five students per computer that many consider an ideal minimum.

That, in part, explains why spending on educational technology shows few signs of slowing down: the Clinton administration's Technology Literacy Challenge Fund, part of its 1996 Goals 2000 education program, provides states $2 billion in matching funds for educational technology programs. A Commerce Department program will mete out $21.5 million more for networks, and last year's Telecommunications Act will grant some school districts discounts of 20 percent to 90 percent on networks, Internet access and inside wiring. The view that computer technology is the best available stimulus for reversing lagging test scores, graduation rates and U.S. school competitiveness is part of the reason for the rising stakes. But even more compelling is the belief that interactive computer technology and the Internet are the most effective teaching tools ever devised.

"We have students who can go deeper and more broadly into every curriculum area because through networking they can reach experts outside of the classroom," said Linda Roberts, director of the Education Department's Office of Educational Technology. "They can get to original source documents, whether we're talking about data from Mars or Shakespeare."

Yet despite the good mood, some in the education community are warning that much of the high-technology investment may pile up in school cloakrooms unless more attention is paid to training teachers how to use and assimilate new technology in classrooms and lesson plans. Furthermore, schools face the sober reality that public enthusiasm for funding more high-tech investments may wane unless better means are developed for measuring just how well the new tools are performing.

"If you put in a new Pentium and the latest and greatest in software, it's not going to buy you a lick of educational improvement if the teachers are not appropriately and adequately trained-not just in how to turn on the stuff but how to really use it as part of the curriculum," said David Byer, director of government affairs for the Software Publishers Association, which represents more than 750 companies that sell educational software for the home and school markets.

Roberts acknowledged "a mixed record of success so far" with computers in education, largely because the educational technology revolution is just breaking. "I don't think we should be surprised by [the results]," she said. "Some schools have been much more successful in producing compelling results. In every single one of those cases, there has been a very clear investment in both technology and teachers."

Teaching the Teachers

According to a 1995 report from the federal Office of Technology Assessment, most teachers feel inadequately trained to use computer-based technologies. An Education Department study earlier this year suggested why: Only 13 percent of public schools require training for teachers in advanced telecommunications; 31 percent provide incentives to encourage obtaining such training; and in about half the schools, it was left up to teachers to initiate training.

"We've been running to buy the technology because the district down the way has it," said Connie Stout, director of the Texas Education Network (TENet), a statewide advisory network for teachers that assists Texas school districts with technology and training problems. "You wire, but you don't know what to do with it."

To help address the problem, TENet, which counts as its members about 60,000 of the state's 250,000 teachers, has shifted its emphasis from infrastructure development to teacher training and support. In one program, they are studying the teaching habits of 22 teachers who were given laptop computers and trained at the University of Texas during two one-week visits.

Aside from making time for training, schools are taking measures to encourage "teacher buy-in," so technology-based curriculums will develop from within the classroom, not imposed from above.

"You can buy all the computers you want, but if the teachers do not buy into it, it's not going to work," said Jeanie Brachear, the assistant principal for curriculum at East Bakersfield High, which has a highly touted technology program.

At East Bakersfield, principal John Gibson has allowed teachers to take computers home so they can become familiar with them over summer breaks. "I've heard principals say, "Oh, I wouldn't let my equipment go out,' but how are you going to practice on it, how are you going to learn?" Brachear asked. "They don't have time during the day."

Developing an IT-Based Curriculum

Getting teachers familiar with computer technology may be a first hurdle, but it only sets up the greater challenge of designing a curriculum that actively uses the Internet and new software as tools for research and collaboration. Part of the problem, educators said, is that even young teachers now joining the work force frequently have not been prepared to use the tools by university education faculties trained in the pre-computer era.

"Colleges of education have been trying to deal with this, but they have a long way to go," said Kathleen Fulton, associate director of the Center for Learning and Educational Technology at the University of Maryland. "They weren't trained with technology, so it's not how they would model their programs."

But even teachers well-versed in the new technology face problems designing lesson plans with tools as powerful-and as undisciplined-as the Internet. That's because it simply puts more information-and sometimes just data smog-into the hands of students, thereby challenging teachers to stay one step ahead of them on an infinite variety of subjects. It is therefore both a blessing and a curse.

Susan Pelchat, a technology coordinator in the Torrington, Conn., school district and the 1997 Connecticut Teacher of the Year, says having technology available for teachers can cut both ways: Teachers can use it as an electronic babysitter or as a powerful teaching tool. The difference comes down to training. "There is a tremendous amount of training needed to get [teachers] to a greater level of comfort," Pelchat said.

"We're nowhere near that. The technology has gone miles and miles and miles. The students have gone miles, and the teachers have probably gone yards."

Performance Measurement

Despite all the money being spent on computers, software and training, educators point out that it still represents a sliver of the total $250 billion spent on elementary- and secondary-school education every year.

"There is a misconception that we're putting billions and billions of dollars in schools, as if this is 50 percent of the budget," Roberts said. "It's important to understand that the investment we have made for the most part is less than 1 percent of the school's total annual operating budget. At the high end, "technology-rich schools," with computers in every classroom, spend about 6 percent, Roberts said.

Although the figures may be small when viewed in the big picture, they have a different order of magnitude in the day-to-day life of a schoolroom: Several thousand dollars for computers must be weighed against the demand for books, field trips, art supplies or additional teachers. Education money also must compete against other demands for public funds, such as more police officers or new recreational centers.

"It has to prove itself," said Karen Orlansky, director of the Office of Legislative Oversight in Montgomery County, Md. The problem is, few methods exist to measure or "prove" how well a technology investment is performing to the satisfaction of legislators agonizing over competing school and civic budgets.

At the very least, some school districts are beginning to tie investment to specific curriculum aims. "We have been encouraging them to build benchmarks into the strategic-planning process and encouraging people to look at the results," Roberts said.

Such studies have been difficult to carry out, she said, because of the rapid evolution of technology and what, until the last few years, has been a very limited distribution of school computers. "You can't measure when there are a handful of 10-year-old computers in the schools and ask, `what's changed?' "

Performance Measures Are Key

Still, Roberts is pushing for an increased emphasis on performance measurement, and in late July she convened experts from throughout the country to discuss the topic. "There is an intention on the part of the states and the federal government and the private sector to really seriously measure the impact of the technology as we move along," she said. "My only caution on all of this is that this takes time. There are no quick, simple answers."

To help compel such answers, however, the federal government has attached conditions to some of its grant programs requiring states to have long-term educational technology financing plans in place. In turn, local school districts, which apply to the states for many of these grants, must include their own plan addressing the types of technologies need to be acquired, how they would be integrated into the curriculum and how technology would be used for improving the curriculum.

"I credit the federal government for requiring states to have a plan," Fulton said. "I think the very process of planning is a positive one. Where people have been most creative with technology is when educators have taken it as an opportunity to rethink the education itself, because technology costs so much and because it changes the dynamic in the classroom by decentralizing the expertise. I think by developing a plan and involving all the users, you can think through what they want for eduction."

Independently, some local governments are devising ways to measure the impact of IT on education, in part to help gauge how much money should be spent in the future. In a joint project of the County Council, the Board of Education in Montgomery County, Md., set up a 13-member task force composed of educators, politicians and industry officials and asked them to come up with a set of performance measures for the county.

"When we started the project, we looked around to see if there were models we could use, but we pretty quickly turned around and decided to do it for ourselves," Orlansky said. "What we found was that there were plenty of people saying, `We've got to figure out how to measure this stuff,' but we didn't find someone else who had built a performance measurement for educational technology that worked for us."

Ultimately, the team recommended a set of 22 measurements, divided into four broad categories: technology; staff use; teaching and learning; and fiscal indicators (see sidebar). The fiscal indicators include the ratio of students to workstations; ratio of training dollars to infrastructure dollars; and growth in the quality of students' work, to be measured by a review panel selecting samples of work from a number of disciplines.

County officials will choose among the measurements to create a one-year pilot project to begin this fall and expect it to be expanded as an ongoing evaluation program. The data, officials hope, will help guide them in their planning and spending. Elsewhere, some groups are looking at the technology itself. The California Technology Instruction Clearinghouse examines educational software based on a long list of criteria, including how well it fits in with the state's curriculum standards, whether it meets its stated educational objectives and whether it is easy to use.

Based on the rating system devised by the clearinghouse, teachers can search for interactive materials on a topic and receive the top-rated CD-ROMs on the subject, including titles, prices, publishers and the appropriate grade level for the item. Suggestions also are offered on how to incorporate the material into a curriculum.

Success Factors

East Bakersfield High, which has 10 computer labs, is one of several technology-rich schools cited in a 1996 Rand Corp. report on education that identified factors leading to a successful IT-based curriculum. Among the common threads, each school was "learner-centered, with an emphasis on tailoring education to individual needs and abilities; each had a higher density of computers than average classrooms; and each spent three to five times as much as the average school on technology and related expenses. While these factors may be a source of frustration to Bakersfield's technology-poor cousins, it shouldn't be overstated. "If we've learned anything, it's that technology alone is not going to change everything," Roberts said.

-- Vicki White is a free-lance writer based in Iverness, Fla. She can be reached at sffvjw@citrus.infi.net.

* * * * *

A Sample of Montgomery County, Md., Performance Measures

1. Percentage of students using networked computers during a marking period.

2. Percentage of computers with local-area network and wide-area network connections.

3. Workstation downtime.

4. Percentage of teaching areas with networked stations with printing capability.

5. Ratio of students to workstations.

6. Percentage of staff performing online administrative functions.

7. Staff participation in technology training.

8. Teacher satisfaction with technology.

9. Growth in the quality of student work (to be measured by selecting samples of work from a number of disciplines, with a review panel to judge growth in complexity).

10. Availability of computers to students outside of scheduled class periods.

11. Reports from system graduates on whether the technology skills they learned were relevant to the workplace or higher education.

12. Percentage of time students engaged in active learning (that is, working on student-directed research, for example, rather than passively listening to a lecture).

13. Ratio of training dollars to infrastructure dollars.

14. Changes in administrative overhead costs.

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