Computers and children

Will America rouse itself for a massive new educational challenge as President Eisenhower led it to do in response to Moscow's Sputnik satellite? The challenge now is the computer. The need is to ensure that all young people - any nation's great human resource - have access to the great technological resource of computer learning. Textbooks are no longer enough.

It is more than an American challenge, as indicated in today's Monitor education section on computers - and in a British television series on computers beginning tomorrow on American public TV.

Yet what a travesty it would be if the leading land of high-tech, the United States, should not exemplify the best in preparing coming generations for their high-tech tomorrows.

The present administration, with its concerns about too much federal involvement in education, is not likely to push ahead as the Eisenhower administration did with the National Defense Education Act in the 1950s. Even if it should, there would be no substitute for the local wisdom, energy, and initiative to make effective matches of pupils and computers.

These qualities are already being displayed in many places. Much remains to be done in defining the school roles for computers. There are crucial decisions to be made in the choice of software - or ''courseware'' as it is called in education - for word processing, mathematics, or other computer uses. Information is on the way from various methods already being tested, such as teaching pupils and their parents together and then letting a computer be taken home by them for a period of time.

But it has quickly become evident that the strenuous American efforts to provide equality of opportunity in education have not extended to equal access to computers. This access must not be confined to the elite, must not become a new tool of discrimination. As it is, one in three US public schools is estimated to have one or more computers. But there is another telling statistic: 80 percent of the richest 2,000 public schools in the country have at least one computer, while 60 percent of the poorest 2,000 have none.

Where such disparities are purely a matter of money, states and communities may want to reconsider property-based school taxes in order to reduce the differences between rich and poor districts. But there will always have to be choices of school expenditures, no matter how high school budgets are. Where there is federal funding, notably in urban areas, the trend toward block grants rather than specified expenditures puts the burden on local authorities to be careful in establishing priorities.

In the case of computers it is not simply a choice of what funds to use for them in preference to something else; it is a question of what amount of time and teacher resources to give to computers in preference to something else. The answering of these questions is part of the computer challenge.

The fundamental point is that these questions be answered for all, without race, sex, or income discrimination. Literacy in terms of reading and writing used to be for an elite. It is now regarded as a basic tool for all to improve themselves. Parents are letting school boards know they recognize that computer literacy must be seen in the same light. Today's Monitor section spells out many of the considerations to be kept in mind on the way to meeting this challenge of our time.

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