Computers in schools? For many districts, it's no longer a question of ''if, '' but ''when'' and ''how.'' Schools in some areas of the country have used computers as instructional aids for over a decade. Stanford University, for example, introduced computer-assisted instruction into classrooms in nearby east Palo Alto, Calif., in the late 1960's.
The Palo Alto Unified School District lies at the north end of ''silicon valley,'' an area south of San Francisco that has spawned the largest concentration of electronics industries in the world.
''Computers are here to stay!'' says Palo Alto School Board member Carolyn Tucher. ''We can no longer pretend they don't exist. Our need now is to avoid the fadishness of computers without going to the other extreme of pretending we can get along without them.''
Computers and computer-programming instruction can encroach upon the schools, warns Mrs. Tucher and Palo Alto teachers Chris Creighton and Jim Esse. They see the following problem areas:
Staff. Who is going to teach the computer courses? It will have to be someone technically trained. Will that be one of the school's math or science teachers? If so, that's encroaching on the regular math and science program. Math and science teachers are becoming increasingly difficult to retain or hire, because of the higher salaries offered them by business and industry.
Time. Periods spent on the computer are periods out of class. ''I send three of my children at a time for instruction,'' says Mrs. Creighton, a sixth-grade teacher. ''Also, three of the better students go with them as instructors. That's six students missing from class. It's difficult with that many students missing to continue with the normal class routine.''
Money. Mr. Esse, a math teacher at Palo Alto High school says, ''It's very possible that a district might tend to go a bit overboard on computers.'' Financially, he says, something has to give. Although he doesn't feel his own district is guilty of this, ''it's possible some districts might spend on computers while pleading poverty when it comes to teachers' salaries.''
Basic skills. If a district relies on math and science teachers to teach computer courses, math and science as basic disciplines may suffer. Those two fields are already lagging in many school districts.
Knowledge of computers does not replace the need for basic math and science skills. Says Esse: ''Computers simply can't be used in this way.''
Addiction. ''I have had students,'' says Esse, ''who were so into video games that they were failing math. And these were students quite capable of passing.'' The district does not allow students to play video games with the schools' computer terminals. ''Games are a danger,'' says Esse, ''because of the great amount of time spent on them.''
Interactive Sciences, a non-profit organization devoted to the widespread dissemination of computer use and knowledge, is working on the answer to these questions. The organization is based in Jordan Middle School, which teaches half the seventh and eighth graders in Palo Alto.
They develop programs with the students which are then implemented in community programs. Co-director Joan Targe observes, ''what we basically have is a laboratory situation. We work with the students who in turn work with others in the community.''
One of the organization's main community programs, computer-tutor is in fact based on their work with the students. ''We use the idea of students teaching each other and then take that idea into the community. We have youngsters teaching senior citizens as well as their own teachers. It's very broadening for everyone involved.''
Interactive Sciences is involved in many programs, ranging from a five week intensive workshop in conjunction with Stanford University this summer to exchanging scholars from all over the world and private consulting. Observes Ms. Targe, ''We are very eclectic in our approach.
''But basically we are devoted to the notion that what we learn today may change or grow by tomorrow. We try to instill the idea that learning is not just confined to school years - it's a life-long activity.''
How many Palo Alto students actually receive computer instruction? In a given school year, 58 percent of the junior high school population and 34 percent of the high school population learn at a computer terminal.
For elementary school students, the figure is 41 percent. All of Palo Alto's 14 elementary schools have computer terminals hooked into the main computer at the district's administrative offices. Some schools have as many as four terminals; others have but one.
Mrs. Creighton questions the need for terminals in elementary schools. But Mrs. Creighton, along with Mrs. Tucher and Esse, emphasizes that junior high and high schools need to include computer literacy as part of their curricula.
''Computers are not toys.'' Esse declares. ''Everyone should have some familiarity, if not fluency, with the computer.''