Wired Schools

A technology revolution is about to sweep America's classrooms

In 1989, the schools in Union City, N.J., an impoverished Cuban enclave along the Hudson River across from Manhattan, were among the nation's worst. They received failing marks in 44 of the 52 categories New Jersey used to assess schools, and state officials warned they would seize control if Union City didn't shape up. The threat prompted many changes in Union City, including a technological transformation of its entire educational system. Aided by Bell Atlantic Corp., officials equipped the schools and students' homes with a network of computers, creating "one of the most, if not the most, wired urban school district in the U.S.," says Margaret Honey, director of the Center for Children & Technology in New York City.

But Union City did far more than simply buy computers. The school day was restructured into longer classes; teachers were given 40 hours of training a year, up from 8; the district's school budget more than doubled; and the traditional curriculum, emphasizing rote learning, was scrapped so students could work on joint projects such as researching a report on inventions. "The dynamics have changed tremendously," says Mary Ann Sakoutis, a 37-year veteran social studies teacher at Union City's Emerson High School, whose U.S. history students now spend much of their time on the Net researching such events as the Spanish-American War. "The kids are more involved, and I am no longer force-feeding them." It shows. Last year, Union City topped all New Jersey cities on state tests. The number of graduates accepted at top institutions such as Yale University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology has jumped from 8 in 1997, the last class taught the old-fashioned way, to 63 in 1999.

BLUEPRINT. True, Union City is hardly typical, now that it's on the cutting edge. Most of America's 53 million children in kindergarten through 12th grade still attend schools designed for the industrial, if not the agrarian, era. Everything from the school calendar, which still reflects the rhythms of farm life, to chalk-and-textbook instruction are better suited to preparing kids for the past than the future. But from Union City to the suburbs of Silicon Valley and the hollows of West Virginia, dozens of state-of-the-art schools have used technology as a catalyst to reinvent themselves in many ways, creating the blueprint for a new type of American school.

Call them schools for the New Economy. Over the next 5 to 10 years, the same technologies that have forced corporations to remake themselves for e-commerce hold the potential to similarly transform U.S. education. With many of America's schools, especially in urban areas, failing to properly educate many of their students--and often literally falling apart--it's hard to believe such a grandiose vision could ever come to pass. But a decade or so ago, "we had the same controversy about whether the computer would transform work, and critics argued that all those investments were a waste," recalls Harvard Business School Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter. Today, with the New Economy shredding old assumptions about productivity and growth, "it's hard to imagine anyone saying this," she says.

Of course, reinventing America's schools will involve far more than buying expensive gadgets. Just to keep classrooms staffed, the nation will have to hire and train 2.5 million new teachers over the coming decade. Given record low unemployment, recruiting quality replacements will require better-paid and better-trained teachers. And that's just the beginning. Schools increasingly will be ratcheting up standards for graduates. Thousands of school buildings will have to be repaired or replaced altogether. And radical structural reforms, including a healthy dose of competition from for-profit and charter schools, which are publicly funded but allowed to operate independently, will surely be shaking up resistant local bureaucracies across the country. Both Presidential candidates are running hard on promises to fix education. Al Gore would spend $115 billion over 10 years, more than twice the amount George W. Bush would, but both would give Washington a larger role.

MOM'S WATCHING. Still, as Union City shows, technology can be a crucial tool to spur change. Just as the Net has allowed companies to tailor products for individuals, the Web can be harnessed to individualize instruction. Where e-mail has allowed people to work far more effectively with distant colleagues, so it can allow teachers to pool their knowledge online with colleagues around the country. Similarly, emerging technologies will allow parents to plug into their children's lives as never before, by exchanging e-mails with teachers and even watching Webcasts of their kids at school. And in the same way that e-business has slashed corporate overhead, technology can attack the administrative costs that now eat up so much of school spending.

The impact on the quality of public education could be profound. Today, with few exceptions, kids in wealthier neighborhoods tend to get the best education. But "the Internet will democratize education," predicts Jonathan Carson, CEO of the K-12 division of Learning Network, a unit of Pearson PLC, giving students even in poor communities access to the best libraries, to instructors from around the world, and to a far richer menu of courses, many of which will be delivered over the Web.

Technology could also help make education more relevant. Today's schools generally "do not prepare students to prosper in tomorrow's workplace," according to the CEO Forum on Education & Technology, a group of business executives and educators pushing for high-tech schools. But the new "digital learning environments" will be geared toward such vital New Economy skills as rapidly finding and assessing information and working in teams to solve problems.

Make no mistake: Tremendous obstacles must be overcome before technology can deliver on such high-flown promises. Yes, educators have moved with surprising speed to join the high-tech revolution. Some 95% of public schools are wired to the Internet, vs. 35% in 1994 (chart, page 126). And the computer-to-student ratio has doubled since 1996. But the ratio is still just 1 to 5. The average school spends $133 a year per student on technology, less than 2% of the $360 billion annual public education budget--hardly enough to make a huge difference. The average student uses a computer less than an hour a day in school. "We're still in the dabbling phase," asserts America Online Inc. CEO Stephen M. Case, whose new AOL@School aims to guide teachers through the explosion of digital content. "Teachers have added the Internet like they're adding salt to a dish."

Indeed, training teachers to use the new technology is one key problem. Only 30% of teachers require students to use the Internet to do research, and just 16% use it for lesson planning, according to a recent report by the CEO Forum. And schools devote just 8% of tech spending to training teachers how to navigate with the new tools. Even Bob Chase, head of the National Education Assn., the largest teacher's union, estimates that just a third of all teachers are well-prepared to use technology effectively. Warns IBM CEO Louis V. Gerstner Jr., who sees education as a huge growth opportunity for his company: If we "simply parachute computers and broadband into the schools and then walk away, there would be no real progress."

DEARTH OF RESEARCH. And even if all the hurdles can be jumped, some critics question whether high tech is the best answer for America's schools. "Boosters have been claiming technology will make learning fast, fun, and easy" for decades, says William L. Rukeyser, chief coordinator of Learning in the Real World, a group of education-technology critics in Woodland, Calif. Yet so far, argues Stanford University education professor Larry Cuban, "there is no substantial body of evidence that computers have transformed teaching or learning."

One worry is about the learning process itself, particularly among young children. "Sitting still and looking at a screen is not a very effective way of learning" in elementary school, says Joan Almon, coordinator of the Alliance for Childhood, a group of critics based in College Park, Md. And although Edison Schools, a for-profit education company, gives every student in its 133 schools a computer beginning in third grade, Chief Information Officer Donald Sunderland agrees that "reading, writing, and arithmetic can't be turned entirely over to a machine. We're considering deemphasizing computers in kindergarten through second grade."

The fact is, little research has been done on the effects of computers on learning, so most educators are only guessing. One 1998 study by Harold Wenglinsky of Educational Testing Service found that "drill and kill" programs, those repetitive drills used for decades, lowered math scores. In contrast, students who used the computer for more sophisticated math games and simulations registered solid improvements. But the studies are few. "If this were a new drug, you'd have a fairly hefty percentage of the costs spent on research and development," says Rukeyser. "But that has not happened with education technology." Indeed, less than 0.5% of K-12 spending has gone into research.

Still, the vast majority of the education Establishment--from the teachers' unions to administrators to the Education Dept.--is jumping on the bandwagon, if for no other reason than the sweeping impact technology has already had on society. And action is urgent. A decade after the nation set ambitious education goals, only 40% of high school seniors are proficient in reading. Seniors rank below most other industrial countries in math and science. "We need a leap forward comparable to the G.I. Bill," which gave World War II veterans a college education, asserts Senator Bob Kerry (D-Neb.), chair of the Congress-appointed Web-Based Education Commission.

It's no surprise that high-tech corporations are cheering educators on. Annual school technology spending has tripled, to $6.2 billion since 1992 and is expected to at least double again within four years. To tap the vast new market, IBM has marshaled top research scientists into its Reinventing Education project. Intel Corp. and Microsoft Corp. are teaming up to train 100,000 U.S. teachers--and 400,000 worldwide--on how to use technology. Intel alone plans to spend some $100 million on the project.

The lure of riches has also spawned a host of startups, attracting nearly $1 billion in venture capital since early 1999, figures Merrill Lynch & Co. analyst Michael T. Moe (table, page 120). To push the high-tech agenda, Apple Computer Inc., America Online Inc., and more than 20 other companies formed the CEO Forum on Education & Technology in Washington, D.C. In part, these companies are banking on a revolution in computing technology, from broadband to voice recognition and the wireless Web. Before the decade is out, "every student will have multiple devices to access the Net anytime, anywhere," predicts Toby Richards, director of education for Microsoft. And many of the new devices--from eBooks to Palm-like portables--will be cheaper and easier to use than today's PCs.

In turn, ubiquitous access to the Net could spark the greatest revolution in education since the Gutenberg press mass-produced books, argues futurist David Thornburg. The old classroom standby--the textbook--will morph into a digital version that can be constantly updated. It will be supplemented by oceans of content. "The biggest change is that information now comes from the entire world" rather than being limited to what's in the school library, says Linda Roberts, head of education technology at the U.S. Education Dept.

Consider how the world opened up to the 144 students at Hundred High School, in Hundred, W.Va., a remote hamlet of 350 residents. Just two years ago, the school relied on a tiny school library where some books dated from the 1930s, says Andrew Hunt, who graduated from Hundred in June. But in 1998, Hundred hired NetSchools to give every student a rugged laptop with wireless Net access. Before, "these students would have been victims of the Digital Divide," says Superintendent Martha Dean, who won government grants to pay for most of the $450,000 cost of the NetSchools program. "Now, they've got access to up-to-date information anytime." For example, agricultural students use their laptops for everything from "managing the school's commercial greenhouse to studying the latest university research on plant and animal diseases," says teacher Virgil Wilkins. And it's paying off. Last spring, students at Hundred "scored higher and ranked above the national mean in every subject" on the SAT-9 national skills tests, says Dean.

VIRTUAL HIGH. Being wired also makes possible all sorts of collaborations among educators. Virtual High School, the nation's largest Web-based school, based in Concord, Mass., recruits top high school teachers to offer courses over the Net. In return for their services, each participating school can enroll up to 20 students for each course a teacher at that school contributes. Hudson High outside Boston signed up in 1998. The school has only 900 students, but through VHS it has added 200 courses, from anatomy to the history of the Vietnam War. "Students have to be self-motivated to succeed," cautions Peggy Collins, who combines her regular job of teaching physics at Hudson with teaching astronomy through VHS. But it's a gold mine for bright students such as Nick Servio, who graduated from Hudson last spring with an interest in marine biology. He was able to take an evolution seminar with a Cleveland-based teacher who had been to the Galapagos Islands three times. VHS expects to sign up more than 4,000 students in 30 states this fall, up from about 300 three years ago.

Distance learning will also help cash-strapped schools fill in some holes. Up to 40% of public schools can't afford to set up advanced-placement courses, so Bellevue (Wash.)-based Apex Learning Inc. sells virtual AP classes to 165 schools. And when kids need tutoring, there will be an expanded universe of experts to learn from. "Students will get tutorials from graduate students and retired people from all over the world," says Stanford University education professor Mike Smith.

Used appropriately, technology can also help change the way children learn by facilitating a shift from passive learning to a more ambitious, project-centered approach that combines various disciplines. At Mantua Elementary School in Fairfax, Va., sixth-graders this year were asked to compete on a new design and use for an unsightly school courtyard. Working in teams of four, students spent two weeks doing everything from interviewing landscapers to visiting Home Depot Inc. and doing research on the Web. The precocious 12-year-olds prepared Web pages, videos, and Powerpoint presentations to explain their proposals to a jury of outside adults. Now, Mantua hopes to obtain a grant to build the winning idea--an outdoor amphitheater for school performances.

Or look at Kanawha City Elementary School near Charleston, W.Va., where fifth- and sixth-graders use the Net to build Web pages about arthropods; each student chooses a different one, from lobsters to centipedes. "A textbook would not have offered anywhere near as many choices," says computer teacher April Bowles. Similarly, the New York-based Center for Children & Technology is working with the Library of Congress to help teachers use its digitized collections--from Civil War photographs to recorded oral histories--to immerse students in the raw material of U.S. history. "It's helping kids do history, not just learn the facts," says the Center's Bill Tally.

"ALMOST LIKE A FAMILY." The real question, though, is whether students learn anything more than they do with paper and pencils. So far, computers have hardly produced a huge national payoff, in part because they're used so sparingly--and often as a stand-alone--in many schools. But in places where educators use technology to change the way they teach, they're discovering how it can help to engage students from even the poorest families, where motivation tends to be lower. At the Accelerated Learning Laboratory, a public school in Worcester, Mass., kindergartners use a state-of-the-art television studio to help produce programs seen by parents and peers alike. Principal Carol A. Schilinsky says that parents, some of whom are so poor that 80% of kids qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch, have told her: "I didn't like school, but I would have if I'd had this."

Similarly, half the AP English students at Gilroy High School, in Gilroy, Calif., used to drop the course, says teacher Teri Freedman. So last year, she required them to build a Web page to post their work. "They got a lot more involved as they began getting feedback from fellow students," she says. The result? This year, 39 students took the AP exam, up from three just five years ago. And 100% were accepted at four-year colleges, up from 75% before the program.

High tech also holds promise for boosting parental involvement, which virtually every study shows is a vital predictor of how well students will do. Most parents do little but meet with their child's teachers a few times a year. But look at what has happened at Roosevelt-Edison Charter School in Colorado Springs, Colo. In 1997, the school put computers in the homes of nearly all 650 students (except a few who declined) and wired them to an intranet run by Edison Schools. Now, teachers post homework and messages, and parents debate such issues as school uniforms. The level of communication is "almost like a family," says Angela Haig, who has a child at Roosevelt-Edison. Volunteerism at the low-income school has skyrocketed 1,000% since the program began, says Principal Vicki Axford, "and 98% of our parents attend teacher conferences."

Teacher quality is even more important to student success. "But traditionally, teachers have been incredibly isolated," says Stanley Litow, who oversees IBM's Reinventing Education Project. Like most teachers, "I had to do all my lesson plans by myself," says Nora Dotson, an English teacher at Sherman Junior High in Seth, W.Va., a poverty-ridden backwater in the region's coal country. Then, Dotson got involved in an IBM-supported project to develop lessons online with 11 other English teachers from around the state. She drafted a three-week literature unit, online colleagues suggested changes, and then they tested the plan before submitting it to a jury of master teachers. The final product was posted on the Web, where it and others like it are expected to be used by thousands of teachers statewide this year. "Now, I have access to the best practices of other teachers," says Dotson. "And I have grown enormously."

Think about the possibility of reviving education's often sclerotic bureaucracies. Most school administrators manage with scant data about what goes on in their classrooms. But that's changing, too. IBM has zeroed in on this market, in particular. In 1996, IBM began helping Florida's Broward County computerize its school administration. At the time, administrators still manually reviewed tests scores of all 250,000 students. They were always months behind, and even then they could do only crude analysis. But since IBM installed a data warehouse, "we get just-in-time data about how the kids are performing," says former Broward County Associate Superintendent Carmen V. Russo, who recently became the chief of Baltimore City Schools. "Problems show up sooner, and we address them sooner." Such intervention was one factor that helped to remove all 25 county schools on Florida's list of failing schools within three years, she says.

POCKETS OF SUCCESS. Even critics acknowledge that the best high-tech schools have achieved some remarkable results. Perhaps most impressive is West Virginia, which in 1990 launched a statewide effort to use technology to improve its struggling schools. Computers were gradually integrated into classes, beginning with the earliest grades, while teachers received extensive training. The result? "Over seven years, they made more gains than any other Southern state," says Dale Mann, a professor at Columbia University's Teachers College who led a 1999 study of the West Virginia effort. West Virginia jumped to 11th, from 33rd, on national achievement tests, even as the state remained mired near the bottom economically.

But while the U.S. has pockets of tech education excellence, "the real challenge is how to extend these state-of-the-art approaches to every school," says John Anderson, vice-chairman of New American Schools, a school-reform group in Washington, D.C. Problem No. 1: money. A 1997 Presidential report called for devoting 5% of K-12 spending to technology. That would require nearly tripling current spending, to some $18 billion annually. It would also require a major shift in spending priorities at a time when many schools still have crumbling infrastructure. Many model schools have skirted difficult choices by finding new revenue. For example, Virginia's Mantua Elementary School went high tech after a financial settlement from a nearby oil spill.

Critics worry that more schools may turn to advertising as a way out. ZapMe! Corp. in San Ramon, Calif., offers schools free computer labs, complete with satellite Net access, in return for showing ads on the computers. ZapMe! has labs in 2,200 schools, up from 200 in 1999, and a waiting list of 2,000 more. "They're turning schools into advertising delivery factories," fumes Gary Ruskin, head of Commercial Alert, which opposes commercialism in schools. ZapMe! CEO Rick Inatome responds that "when you go to the Net, you get banner ads anyway."

Over time, technology itself could help ease the cost issue. It's not just ever-plunging hardware costs. At present, nearly all of the nation's 16,400 school districts rely on archaic, paper-intensive systems to buy supplies. "They're in the Flintstone Age," says Amar Singh of Simplexis, a company founded by former GOP Presidential candidate Lamar Alexander to tackle the problem of streamlining purchasing. Singh figures schools could cut the cost of supplies by 10%--$8 billion a year--by automating the order process and pooling purchases.

Other barriers, such as inadequately trained teachers, will be harder to overcome. Colleges, which must turn out more than 2 million new teachers in the coming decade, need to be reinvented "to place technology at the center of new-teacher training," says Forum Executive Director Ken Kay. Big cultural shifts are also needed. Today's pencil-and-paper tests should be replaced with computer-based assessments that do a better job of measuring student performance on complex tasks. The school calendar, designed to make sure that students were available to help out with farm chores, needs to be lengthened to meet the demands of the New Economy.

For all the obstacles, "we've just begun to use these [digital] tools" to transform education," says Apple Computer Inc. CEO Steve Jobs, whose company has long been the leading supplier of computers to schools. Says Stanford's Smith: "We're going to see radical changes in American education for the first time in over a century." The question isn't so much whether computers can help to improve education. Rather, it's how long U.S. children must wait before their schools leave the Industrial Age to join the New Economy.

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