Teacher training is key to success
By Courtney Macavinta
October 16, 1997, 6:00 a.m. PT
special report EAST PALO ALTO, California--Michelle Williams knows better than anyone the benefits of computers in the classroom.
Last year, when her school got a shipment of PCs, the third-grade teacher taught her students to produce a bilingual school newspaper, analyze survey data, and create brochures and products for pretend companies they launched.
But Williams doesn't owe her expertise to the school district. She brought her own knowledge to her class at César Chávez Academy, having used computers and email in college during her studies as a marketing major.
"Some see the computer as a word-processing box. They don't have hours to get sucked into it to see what it can do," said Page McDonald, a part-time technology trainer at Walter Hays Elementary School in neighboring Palo Alto, who uses one-on-one sessions to help teachers plan projects that incorporate computers. "If they have a bag of teaching tricks this needs to be added, but until they're at the point that they are comfortable, and not frustrated, it's not going to work well."
There are time-held uses for books and pencils in the classroom, but weaving computers and the Net into teaching the three Rs is still uncharted territory for many K-12 educators. And even if they do get adequate training, teachers often find little technical support when their PCs or servers crash or encounter other problems.
Various grants are now tied to some form of basic preparation, but in many cases there is no mandatory training for effectively integrating technological tools into traditional lessons. Schools admit that training is often an afterthought for them, as well as for the corporate donors and politicians who are pushing to wire America's classrooms.
According to the Education Department, only 20 percent of public school teachers use advanced telecommunications for teaching, which includes computers, the Net, broadcast media, and videoconferencing. About 16 percent of teachers use the same technology for professional development and curriculum development.
"Training is the component they are just waking up to," said Bob Waller, chief executive officer at Education Access, a 26-state education reseller. In the past, schools were mired in short-term thinking. "I want X number of servers and Y number of desktops. You'd sell a box and get out of there."
This year California passed a new law revising state teaching credential requirements to include "basic competency in the use of computers in the classroom" after January 1, 2000. When it comes to existing educators, some schools are designating a tech-guru teacher to train others in basic applications and eventually help them through class projects.
In addition, many schools are moving away from the segregation of a computer lab setting, trying instead to guide teachers toward incorporating PCs into daily lessons. Some of these instructors don?t know basic programs or how to navigate around common operating systems. Others never think of them for such uses as creating lesson plans or keeping grades, let alone multimedia learning applications.
If administrators don't address the issue of basic computer training and curriculum development, the estimated 2 million new teachers that will be hired over the next decade won't be capable of putting the huge public-private investment to work, according to the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education.
Only 13 percent of the country's teacher certification programs require minimum computer literacy levels, leaving even young teachers without much exposure to the machines in the context of learning, according to a report by the Educational Testing Service. That means teachers have to find the time and the opportunities to learn.
But no amount of training will help if the computers don't work. In many cases teachers double as system administrators. Machines go untouched for days until they are fixed. Sometimes one of a handful of district-wide tech support workers comes to the rescue.
At Walter Hays, for example, the task of troubleshooting has fallen to the school librarian. When three of Williams's computers were down at César Chávez, a friend who works in high-tech industry helped fix them.
"We don't have the luxury of the schools up on the hill, whose parents work at technology companies. Most of the parents here work clerical jobs or shipping and receiving jobs," said Dinice Maiden, technology coordinator for the Ravenswood District, which oversees César Chávez and ten other schools.
Ravenswood managed to find a local businessman to come on as a consultant for $15,000 to get the district server up and running and maintained--and the price includes training for one district employee. Originally the server alone would have cost $14,000, according to the district.
"It's not a gift if it doesn't work well," said Gale Herringer-Brock, Walter Hays's library media teacher. "Politicians need to fund long-term teacher training and keep the computers running or they'll end up in a closet."
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