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Reversal of fortunes

EAST PALO ALTO, California--On a golden October morning, fourth-grader Krystal Monje sits at one of about 30 computers in her school's lab in East Palo Alto, California. Touch-typing confidently, the 10-year-old composes a speech she'll deliver that afternoon to her César Chávez Academy classmates. Monje's computer isn't obsolete; it isn't even that old. But soon it will be replaced by one of the brand-new Pentium PCs stacked in the corner waiting to be wired to a high-speed T1 line.

    Reversal of fortunes
    By Margie Wylie
    October 16, 1997, 6:00 a.m. PT

    Commentary: Margie Wylie
    On a golden October morning, fourth-grader Krystal Monje sits at one of about 30 computers in her school's lab in East Palo Alto, California. Touch-typing confidently, the 10-year-old composes a speech she'll deliver that afternoon to her César Chávez Academy classmates. Monje's computer isn't obsolete; it isn't even that old. But soon it will be replaced by one of the brand-new Pentium PCs stacked in the corner waiting to be wired to a high-speed T1 line.

    Across U.S. highway 101 at Walter Hays Elementary, teacher Joyce deRussy is struggling with an ancient laser printer.

    Minority students like Krystal Monje, 10, report getting more instruction in using school computers for rote tasks than for learning tasks.
    She tells her students to go to recess while it thinks about spitting out their documents. She points out several donated PCs rebuilt by prison inmates. The machines spend almost as much time in the big house being repaired as they do in the schoolhouse, she laughs ruefully. Down the hall six restless first-graders are learning to play an educational game on 10-year-old Apple IIe computers.

    Guess which school serves more "at risk" students?

    If you guessed Walter Hays with its array of aging equipment, you would be wrong. As a matter of fact, Hays is located in Palo Alto, one of the poshest school districts in Silicon Valley.

    Since the first Apple computers made their way into well-to-do schools a decade ago, social commentators have worried aloud about the potential for creating an underclass of technology have-nots in communities that can't afford the best equipment. But as NetDay 97 rolls around next week, the educational landscape looks quite different from what we feared it might 10 or even two years ago.

    As it turns out, disadvantaged schools these days often have more access to computer equipment than their richer counterparts. But access to equipment isn't turning out to automatically equal access to education and opportunity. While these schools often have newer stuff, they rarely have as much access to know-how.

    "If you're looking within a school district, the schools serving more disadvantaged kids had more computers, and there are often more network computers and integrated learning systems," said Tom Glennan, author of a recent RAND study on technology's role in public schools.

    Because a big portion of Chávez's 840 Poorer schools often have more access to newer equipment. students are classified as "at risk," the school has applied for and won $45,000 federal block grants two years in a row. This year it spent $35,000 of that on new computer equipment. In addition, the school was awarded $10,000 in new laser printers and scanners from a Hewlett-Packard/Annenberg grant.

    But while Walter Hays may not have the fastest, newest PCs, teachers have more access to the know-how that makes them useful. Every class has a full-time class aide, computer curriculum planning help, parent volunteers, and the assistance of a "technology integrator" for training and tech support. And because Hays has been acquiring and using computers for ten years, it simply has more equipment of all kinds, even if it isn't all state-of-the-art.

    At Chávez, teachers struggle to integrate their islands of computers into coursework with little guidance and support. Lots of cans of tuna, no can openers.

    A recent study by ETS Research reported that minority and low-income students used computers more often than their classmates. But by their senior year, minority students were the least likely to use a computer in class to solve math problems. They were also less likely to use them in English courses. Yet they were more likely to have taken data-processing and computer-programming courses.

    In other words, these students are using computers more, but they're using them to learn mostly rote skills: the equivalent of shorthand and stenography for the 21st century.

    Of course, the world needs key-punchers and Cobol programmers. Will the technology haves become the education have-nots? And not everyone is cut out for college. But computers were supposed to enrich disadvantaged schools. The promise of the wired classroom was that it would level the playing field, offering everyone an equal chance to rise into the professional ranks by becoming knowledge workers. It wasn't merely supposed to churn out a mass of low-wage computer-literate service workers.

    Until they have the resources to integrate computers into a rich curriculum, low-income schools may be better off without computers at all. Given the choice, some teachers at Chávez and other schools would rather have books, art supplies, musical instruments, and teachers. But the truth is that they mostly don't have a choice. A lot of the money schools get, especially when it comes from technology companies, is tied to buying computers. Many of the teachers we spoke to in researching our special education report said that's where private corporations can step in more.

    But many teachers also said they don't want their kids to go without computers entirely. They simply need more help, more training, more support, and more balance in splitting education dollars between technology and other needs. Even the best computers on every desk will do little for students who can't read and teachers who don't know what to do with them.

    Maybe someday Krystal will make it across the freeway to attend Stanford University in Palo Alto. Maybe it will be due to the experiences she's having at Chávez today. But, if we aren't more thoughtful in shaping those experiences, today's new technology haves like Krystal may turn out to be tomorrow's education have-nots.  

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