January 29, 1996

Two Faces of School Computer Revolution


SAN JOSE, Calif. -- At the bottom of the ramp on the west side of San Jose, two exits down Highway 280 from Apple Computer's headquarters, you can turn left and within a few blocks arrive at the Harker School, a pricey and prestigious elementary and junior high. Turn right, drive a mile or so, and you're near Anderson Elementary, a public school attended by children of one of the region's poorest communities.

John Dixon, a freckle-faced fifth-grader at Anderson Elementary, calls himself a computer buff. But he must make do with the school's six-year-old IBM 386 PCs, which are little more than electric typewriters compared with the multimedia machines he wishes the school could afford, "so we could look up stuff on the encyclopedia and see pictures."

A computer buff with distinctly better opportunities is Michael Giardina, a sixth-grader at Harker, who uses the latest Apple Power Macintosh at school to manage his own World Wide Web page. He also surfs the Web for information on research topics like deforestation, sends his teachers E-mail with questions about homework and snickers over his friends' multimedia spoof of a television commercial about wigs.

"I'll probably go to Stanford this summer and take a programming class," said Michael, who is already teaching himself C, a software programming language.

The digital divide between these two schools in the heart of Silicon Valley provides perhaps the most striking example anywhere in the nation of a widening gap -- between children who are being prepared for lives and careers in the information age, and those who may find themselves held back.

At Harker, the children of the affluent are being prepared from an early age to take their place in the region's economy. At Anderson, children from rental properties and federally funded housing projects -- many of them Mexican, Vietnamese, Pakistani and, most recently, Bosnian immigrants -- can hope, at best, for a basic, traditional education.

"We don't need to tell parents, 'Computers are a way out,' " said Virginia Luhring, coordinator of Anderson's technology curriculum, who supplemented her self-taught computer skills with computer courses offered by the school district. "They understand that," she said. "But technology is not the highest thing on their priority list. Parents around here are worried about feeding their kids, not the latest software release."

Computers in schools, all schools, have become one of the hottest -- and most hotly debated -- education topics of the 1990s.

"We're facing a new illiteracy -- computer illiteracy," said Malcolm Cohen, author of "Labor Shortages: As America Approaches the 21st Century" (University of Michigan Press). "Many, many children won't be prepared for the work force, because they can't use computers."

President Clinton envisions connecting every school to the Internet by the year 2000. But at present, only 3 percent of the nation's classrooms have Internet connections, according to Quality Education Data Inc., a research group in Denver.

Linking all the classrooms could cost $30 billion or more, plus at least $5 billion in annual operating expenses -- a combined figure that is more than the yearly budget of the Department of Education.

Few people expect such sums to be appropriated on the federal level in the current budgetary climate, and even local schools in better financial circumstances than Anderson may have trouble coming up with computer money on their own.

Anderson, where nearly half of the 510 students are eligible for the federal free-lunch program, qualifies for various educational grants, some of which can be spent on information technology. But such money can only go so far.

At Harker, for example, many of the students' parents work in the computer industry and freely lend technical expertise to the school. They also can buy computers for the school with an employee discount. Many of Harker's students cruise the Internet in a class taught by Sharon Meyers, who is married to an Intel Corp. engineer and was a Microsoft manager before she became a teacher a few years ago.

Those sorts of links are not available to Anderson.

"We have access to grants, but we don't have access to communities," said Barry Vitcov, Anderson's principal. He is hoping to find money for an Internet account for the school before the end of the academic year, but he worries about the cost at a time when there are other concerns, like fixing the school's roof, which leaks during downpours.

At Harker, ready access to the Internet abets "inquiry-based learning," a teaching philosophy in vogue among progressive schools. It is a departure from the traditional classroom, where the teacher imparted an established body of knowledge to students who would be judged by their ability to absorb and repeat the basic skills and facts conveyed to them.

In the new approach, students and teachers alike embark on a more open-ended inquiry. So if students are writing reports on Bosnia, for instance, they exchange E-mail with policy experts, participate in on-line foreign affairs forums and download images from CNN's Web site.

At Anderson, where teachers often are simply trying to communicate with children who may speak any of 19 languages at home, the old PCs are generally outfitted with software that emphasizes repetitive drills in reading and arithmetic.

"The way computers are used in the classroom -- and the way the Internet will change their use -- is really a profound commentary on education," said Michael Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University. "The Internet is a prophetic example: richer kids with access to a home computer and to the Internet can use it as a means of exploration and discovery. Poorer kids without the Internet will just use a computer, in the classroom, for drill-and-practice exercises."

Private industry can help, but schools are a government responsibility, said Edward R. McCracken, chairman of one of the Valley's success stories, Silicon Graphics Inc., which has contributed $1 million to a local school-computer philanthropic program.

McCracken is co-chairman of a task force commissioned by Clinton, which concludes in a soon-to-be-released report that the nation needs to spend $150 billion during the next decade to provide adequate information technology for its public schools. But the commission recommends that state and local governments foot the bill through tax increases and bond measures.

"The initiative puts pressure on local school boards," McCracken said. "We didn't try and solve the problems of poverty. We believe that's up to the process of government."

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