Schools Need A Lot More Than Computers

The Internet is doing so much to change Corporate America, why not use it in the schools to solve education's big problems? In the high-tech era, a big infusion of computers and the Net are the obvious way to educate kids for the New Economy. Too obvious. "E-learning" has the potential for bringing the world's resources to each and every child, tying parents directly to teachers, replacing rote learning with exciting interactive study, and cutting administrative costs. But high tech is no panacea for public education, especially in the inner-city K-12 grades. At best, it is a tool that facilitates sweeping change. At worst, it is a distraction from the much harder issues of bureaucracy, teacher-training, and politics.

In well-off suburban and private schools, technology holds the brightest immediate promise. In a growing number of these schools, students are researching on the Web and downloading material from all over the world for their reports. They're traveling through virtual European museums, watching NASA rocket launches, and examining molecular structures in three dimensions. Well-trained teachers in these schools tend to have PCs at home and feel comfortable surfing the Net. In the classroom, they use the new technology as a tool to introduce serious content and promote analytical thinking and problem-solving. Kids go home to spend hours instant-messaging pals and watch their parents put in long hours on the PC. In this environment, e-learning can flourish.

But it will take more than high tech to fix inner-city schools. In Union City, N.J., a low-income enclave across the Hudson River from New York, it took a doubling of the school budget, 40 additional hours a year of teacher training, restructuring and lengthening of classes, and remaking the curriculum--plus computers--to even begin. Now the most wired urban school district in the U.S., Union City is first among New Jersey cities on state tests. The lesson is that in inner cities, technology can help only if combined with administrative changes that often are opposed by teachers' unions. Some of the best examples of technology improving student performance are in charter schools, which replace seniority with merit systems and rote learning with analytical thinking. These charter schools often meet union opposition.

Put computers into boring, stultifying schools and odds are nothing much will improve. Many teachers are simply using computers to subject kids to hours of repetitive "drill and kill" software programs to raise state test scores, not to master thinking skills. It's just traditional rote-learning methodology in digitalized form. Technology has great transformative powers. But to work in the schools requires the breakup of the sclerotic bureaucracy that dulls the minds of so many children.