Computers and Equity

Will Poor Kids Be Left Behind on the Information Highway?

By Leon Lynn

Illustrator: Susan Lina Ruggles

Photo: Susan Lina Ruggles

If someone handed Marc Salzman a blank check, he’d run out and buy a Macintosh PowerBook for every single student at the middle school in Spanish Harlem he helps direct. They’d be loaded with color monitors, modems, the works.

He’d equip every classroom at the school, the Academy of Environmental Science, with a desktop computer system complete with color scanner and CD-ROM drive. All the rooms would be wired together into a local area network, a first class districtwide bulletin board service and, of course, a user-friendly link to the Internet. Everyone — staff members, students and students’ families — would get plenty of training on how to use all that cutting-edge technology, and plenty of time to experiment with it and learn for themselves what it can do.

This is the fantasy Salzman brings with him each day to a 270-student school equipped with a grand total of two computers, both low-end Macintoshes which are used almost as much for administrative record keeping as they are for student work. When students do use them, they usually write stories or print banners, barely scratching the surface of what computers and related technology can offer in an educational setting.

Salzman is hoping for enough outside funding this year “to buy one decent printer,” he said, and a couple of laptops. And if the school gets them? “The staff decided that if and when we get computers, the students will be taught word processing skills,” he said. “Why? Most staff don’t know the real potential of the technology.”

Sadly, this scene is far from rare. During the past decade, the explosive development of computers and telecommunications has spawned an awesome array of new education tools. With the right equipment and the right support, students can immerse themselves in multimedia lessons as engaging as any Nintendo game, or sit in on a discussion or a dance recital taking place at a school half a world away. A student writing a research paper can “surf” for information through a global network of databases, information services, and archives that is staggering in its scope and growing every day.

But in most schools, that magic combination of tools and support simply doesn’t exist, and students never reach that potential. That’s especially true for students of color and those from lower-income families, who are less likely to have computers at home.

The current wave of technology is still in its infancy, and many educators hope that as it develops, it can become a powerful weapon against the inequities that now plague our education system. But others fear that the advent of new technology will only widen the existing gaps between students from different backgrounds. Last year U.S. Rep. Edward Markey of Massachusetts warned of a potential “information apartheid.”

Among the major problems:

  • New technology costs a lot of money, creating new financial burdens that disproportionately affect poor school districts already struggling to make ends meet.
  • Technology alone won’t transform schools that presently suffer from a shortsighted or flawed educational vision. Computers can be adapted to shallow, irrelevant lessons as easily as they can be used for nobler pursuits.
  • Even teachers committed to delivering high-quality instruction often lack the training and experience they need to use technology effectively. Poor schools again find themselves on the short end of the stick in this realm.
  • Because the so-called Information Superhighway will be built with heavy reliance on private, profit-seeking companies, less desirable markets and less profitable services may get slighted, even if they stand to deliver significant social benefits.

Where education technology is well funded, well conceived, and carefully implemented, great things can happen.

Look, for example at the largest school district (geographically) in the United States, the North Slope Borough School District in Alaska, encompassing more than 80,000 square miles. Teachers, using technology funded through handsome local oil revenues, use a network of computers and satellites to reach 2,000 students in remote villages scattered across the district, conducting lessons with the help of teachers on site. Students and district personnel also use computers to access the Internet, and to communicate with their friends and colleagues through the district’s wide area network.

In Community Consolidated School District 59, which serves four suburban Chicago villages near O’Hare International Airport, students armed with digital cameras take pictures during field trips, write stories to accompany the photos and post their work on the district’s World Wide Web home page, where it is available to a truly worldwide audience. The home page also includes extensive demographic data about the district and its community, notes about school programs and upcoming events, and detailed profiles of district personnel, among other information.

Each of the district’s 6,000 K-8 students uses a computer for an hour each day, said Robert Bortnick, the associate superintendent for instruction.

But these glowing examples are the exception, not the rule. A recent study by the U.S. General Accounting Office found that most schools lack the critical “technology elements,” such as computers, modems, phone lines, or in-school networks, they will need to make full use of education technology. What’s more, “schools in central cities or schools with a minority population of over 50% are more likely than others to have insufficient technology elements,” the study said.

Other recent studies tell a similar tale of inequity. A 1993 article in the Teachers College Record, for example, detailed research that showed students from high-income families have greater access to computers in school than students from low-income families. African-American students used computers in school less than white students did, and students whose native language wasn’t English used computers less often than native English speakers, the study said. Again, this inequity is compounded by unequal access to computers in students’ homes.

The High Cost of Connecting

This problem will only grow worse as schools seek to acquire newer — and more expensive — technologies. The installation of fiber-optic cables, for example, which can be used to transmit high-quality video signals and massive streams of data, can easily run $100,000 or more for a single school. Add in related costs, such as upgrading an electrical system to run six computers in a classroom originally fitted with a single outlet, and that bill can double. And that doesn’t include the cost of hardware and software to make use of the cable, teacher training costs, and access fees charged by service providers.

How much will it cost to connect all U.S. schools to the Information Superhighway? Estimates vary widely, but even the most conservative guesses, such as that of Education Secretary Richard Riley, start at $10 billion. Other observers suggest the actual price tag will be in the hundreds of billions, not including the ongoing costs of training and access.

In Wisconsin, a state with just under a million students, a legislative committee recently estimated that wiring up the state’s schools would cost about $105 million. But providing all students with complete access to the Information Superhighway, including the necessary purchases of hardware and software, would cost more than $5.4 billion.

It’s hard to see where such tremendous sums could be found in a national school system that, according to another GAO report, would need more than $110 billion just to patch roofs, correct electrical system code violations and make other basic repairs to buildings. These repairs have been put off for years, in many cases, by districts that couldn’t afford them.

Given the anti-tax sentiment that now pervades in Washington and in many local school districts, it seems unlikely much new money will be available from government sources, at least in the near future. Vice president Al Gore recently suggested using revenues from government sales of new electronic communication licenses, which is expected to net billions of dollars, but other pols anxious to cut taxes and balance the federal budget have set their eyes on that money, too.

While the “computer gap” between different types of students is disturbing, some observers point out optimistically that it was far worse a few short years ago. Federal figures show that in 1984, twice as many white high school students used computers as minorities. By 1989, a Census Bureau study found that 48% of white students used computers at school, compared to 35% of black students, a significant but smaller gap. A recent study by the federal Office of Technology Assessment found that during the past decade, schools nationwide have added between 300,000 and 400,000 computers per year to their inventories. Total public K-12 technology expenditures for 1993 were estimated at $2.13 billion.

But simply counting computers doesn’t tell the whole story. Even where statistics on computer access are similar for different types of students, students of color and poorer students are far less likely to receive high-quality computer based instruction. Instead, they’re more likely to learn basic skills, such as typing. A 1992 study by Macworld magazine reported that on average, training in keyboarding and programming constituted 30% of computer use in high schools. But in many poor schools the figure was closer to 60%. In other words, while students in some wealthier schools learn to surf the Internet, or to design buildings using computer-assisted design techniques, students in some poorer schools are being prepared for data-entry jobs.

In many schools that predominately serve poor and minority students, “student skill levels are typically lower, so administrators and teachers see their priority as building basic skills,” said Leigh Zeitz, director of technology for the College of Education at the University of Northern Iowa.

This creates “an increasing schism,” he said. “They assume that low-income kids aren’t going to be going for CEO jobs.

They’re well intended but shortsighted.”

“Drill and Kill” Technology

In many cases, these schools use computers to run students through long, repetitive “drill and kill” exercises, such as lists of math problems. These do little or nothing to promote a student’s intellectual growth or computer literacy, but can raise test scores a few points and thus provide school officials with some political benefit.

Computers, which never get bored (unlike students), “are very useful for that type of material,” Zeitz said.

Even where teachers are committed to promoting high-quality instruction for all students, teachers often fail to use technology effectively. The Office of Technology Assessment blames this on a lack of effective and meaningful teacher training. “When teachers’ needs are discussed, the focus is often on providing short-term, one-shot training to familiarize teachers with a specific application or encourage general computer literacy,” OTA’s recent report said. “Seldom have policy discussions or initiatives centered on the relationship between technology and the teacher’s role. Seldom have they articulated a vision of how technology can empower teachers to carry out all parts of their jobs— not only the teaching, but administrative tasks, communication with parents, and continuing professional development.”

Good training costs money, but computer-savvy educators agree it makes a difference. “We do a lot of it; we see it as a big priority,” said Robert Bortnick of Community Consolidated School District 59 in Illinois. His teachers get paid technology training sessions during the summer months and release days during the school year.

Bortnick says he frequently gets questions from school districts “who say they just bought some computers and they want to learn how to use them. I say that’s a backward question. You need to have a good plan for how you’re going to use the technology before you start buying.”

Lawrence L. Smith, chairman of the department of elementary education at Ball State University, agrees that teachers should be spending far more time exploring what computers can do, and how they can support the delivery of high-quality instruction. “The typical teacher has about 10 hours of staff development training on technology,” he said. “They need probably 1,000 hours to be up on what’s out there now.” And the situation will get worse he said, as new technologies get developed and become available. “I tell people, hang onto your hat, you haven’t seen anything yet!”

Salzman, from the Academy of Environmental Science in Spanish Harlem, agreed. “Time is important to both learn the equipment and just to fool around,” he said. “Time must be when teachers and others can use it and not when it is assigned.”

“Although some schools have made progress in helping teachers use basic technological tools such as word processing,” the OTA report said, “they still struggle with curriculum integration, which is central if technology is to become a truly effective educational resource. Yet integration is a difficult, time-consuming, and resource-intensive endeavor.” Once again, poor schools will face additional barriers to getting the most out of new technology.

Another critical factor in the equity equation: Access to the Information Superhighway, or National Information Infrastructure, now being developed by various private companies and public agencies. These systems will transmit data to consumers through massive new networks of fiber optic cables and other hardware, which communications companies now plan to install in cities across the nation.

Some consumer advocates have accused private firms, notably the “Baby Bell” communications companies, of “electronic redlining:” that is, intentionally bypassing low-income and minority neighborhoods as they begin to hook up their systems. In May 1994 the Washington-based Center for Media Education rapped several regional phone companies for alleged redlining, including U.S. West’s operations in Denver and Ameritech’s in Chicago.

Officials with some of the phone companies tagged as redliners by CME angrily denied the charges, though some officials admitted that early deployment of these networks would be done in neighborhoods judged to be better, more profitable markets, meaning upscale white neighborhoods.

The CME charges raised important questions about how these burgeoning networks will be developed in communities, such as many low-income and minority neighborhoods, that may present less desirable markets for profit-minded businesses. Unlike the banking and insurance industries, no federal statute prohibits discrimination.

“The real issue is: When these services move beyond the testing stage, will they still be targeted primarily at affluent areas?” Eli Noam, director of the Columbia University Business School’s Institute for Tele-Information, told the NewYorkTimes. “We still don’t have a clear policy to deal with how advanced electronic services are going to be supplied to places where the market does not on its own, or how we as a society are going to pay for it.”

Market forces alone won’t insure that schools will have access to the coming wave of information technology, said Reed Hundt, who chairs the Federal Communications Commission. “If the natural working of the marketplace was going to build networks into the classrooms, then it already would have happened,” he said in a recent interview with Education Week. “Without a specific policy, it’s not going to happen.”

CME filed a formal complaint with the Federal Communications Commission. No action has been taken yet, but the question of redlining has come up several times in Congress as lawmakers seek to complete a major overhaul of the Communications Act of 1934. Some proposed legislation has included anti-redlining provisions, though they may not fare well in a Congress dominated by deregulation-minded Republicans. Similar legislation, which perhaps went further to require equality of access, died last year in Congress. Democrats, who then controlled the Senate, said the legislation was doomed in the face of strong lobbying by telephone companies.

Deregulation in Wisconsin

The deregulated development of this infrastructure creates other problems as well. In Wisconsin, for example, Ameritech agreed to provide fiber optic cable access to schools, hospitals, libraries and other community resources, as part of its lobbying effort to win approval for changes in state law that removed some pricing and service regulations.

Sometime after Gov. Tommy Thompson signed the bill into law in July 1994, Ameritech “clarified” its position, saying it would run wires “to the doorstep” of 461 sites in its service area, including middle schools and high schools, but not to any of the 1,200 elementary schools. Ameritech believes that older, more sophisticated students will get more use out of the advanced data transfer technology made possible by fiber optics, said Flamont Butler, a spokesman for the company’s Wisconsin operation.

Several prominent public officials protested the move.

Ken Cole, president of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, referred to it as an example of “bait and switch” tactics, a charge Butler denied. Finally, Ameritech agreed to provide cable access to elementary schools, but only if a particular school sends a “letter of intent” indicating their plans to invest in new technology, Butler said.

Cole was pleased by Ameritech’s decision but not overly so. “Access for all elementary schools would make more sense, given the importance new technology will play in the lives of the youngest school children,” he said. “They’re going to need it a lot more than you and me.”

“This will also limit access for children from lower-income homes, who are less likely to have computers and telecommunications access at home,” Cole said.

Broader access also would give more school personnel the opportunity that Bortnick in Illinois, Salzman in New York, and other educators describe as so important: The chance to play around with the technology and learn what it can do before committing to any expensive or restrictive plans.

Also worrisome is whether the skewing of these networks to upscale commercial audiences will put more emphasis on some uses for the technology, such as video on demand or home shopping, while perhaps de-emphasizing other worthwhile possibilities, such as town meetings and access to civic data.

These technologies and systems are still in their infancy, of course, and it’s still too early to tell how the various social and market forces will influence their development.

But it does seem clear that computers and telecommunications will play a major new role in our society in coming years, and that children of color and those from lower-income families face greater obstacles to meeting that new age with the tools and training they will need to succeed.

Unless society comes to grips with the inequities in technology education, the gap between the “haves” and “have-nots” will surely widen, and the “information apartheid” that Rep. Markey warned about will be upon us.

Leon Lynn is a journalist and education reporter who lives in Milwaukee.