The haves vs. the have-nots in classroom computers

In the affluent Chicago suburbs of LaGrange and Western Springs, the local two-campus high school has acquired 150 personal computers for its student body of about 3,700.

More than half a dozen computer science courses are offered at the school; there are seven computer labs; all incoming freshmen are required to take a four-hour computer literacy course; and 98 percent of teachers have taken a voluntary training course in computers.

Eight hundred miles south, rural Tuskegee Institute High School in Tuskegee, Ala., had no computers until a Ford Foundation grant provided it with two.

Teachers at the school have fashioned a 6-by-10-foot cubicle between double classrooms to house the two computers. A few teachers have had computer training , but there isn't enough money to design a computer course for the 950 students enrolled there.

Through no fault of their own, poorer school districts like Tuskegee are lagging behind their more affluent neighbors in the nationwide race to put computers in the classroom. Educators and others are concerned that this discrepancy is widening the gap between the haves and have-nots in American education, and further exacerbating racial and class stratification in the United States.

A just-completed survey of US school districts has determined that 55,765 public schools now use computers in instruction, more than double the number using them one year ago. This year's survey, by Market Data Retrieval of Westport, Conn., found that more schools began using computers during the past year than in all previous years combined.

At the same time, the survey showed that 96.5 percent of the richest school districts in the country had used computers in instruction, while only 66.8 percent of the poorer districts employed them.

A University of Minnesota study sponsored by the National Science Foundation and released this fall found that students in the nation's 12,000 most affluent school districts were four times as likely to be exposed to computers as students in the 12,000 poorest districts.

''To the extent that computer literacy and computer expertise are necessary for success in getting and keeping jobs, computer inequity is a serious problem, '' says Ronald E. Anderson, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota and director of the Minnesota Center for Social Research.

Why the concern over an unproven educational tool?

Some educators believe the computer revolution represents something of a fresh start for disadvantaged children, a whole new area of learning where students in less affluent districts can begin on an equal footing with their wealthier neighbors.

Few are really surprised that inequities have developed. They have existedfor years in other aspects of education, such as teacher salaries, and are a natural outgrowth of a nationwide school system funded primarily by local property taxes.

The fear is that the computer revolution is so central to the economy and the future job market that the lack of computer instruction in poorer districts is not just perpetuating discrepancies, but actually widening the gap between rich and poor.

''The concept of computer literacy defines a new type of illiteracy and the potential for new and distressing divisions in our society,'' says US Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D) of New Jersey. ''In an age that demands computer literacy, a school without computers is like a school without a library.''

That concern is echoed in the trenches. ''Some of the kids skip the bus after school to work on the computers,'' says Marilyn Jones, a teacher at Tuskegee Institute High School. ''With only two, though, I wonder how much we're really accomplishing.''

The equity question goes beyond the acquisition of computers. Federal block-grant funding has ensured that many inner-city schools had money with which to purchase at least a few.

But the pressure on those schools to improve basic skills has forced instructors to use the computers to teach remedial skills, turning the machines into ''very expensive flashcard systems,'' in the words of A.Daniel Peck, professor of educational technology at San Francisco State University. At the same time, many suburban schools are teaching computer programming and other advanced concepts.

Not everyone sees the situation as serious. Speaking at an education conference at Stanford University in September, research director Richard Johnston of the Exxon Education Foundation predicted that current concern over inequities in the distribution of computers in schools and colleges will prove transient. He cites computer costs that are dropping much faster than the cost of other electronic items did when they were introduced - items such as televisions and calculators.

In fact, the Market Data Retrieval study indicates the gap between rich school districts and poor has already begun to close. Poorer schools have made dramatic gains in just the last year. The differential between the number of rich schools and poor schools that have computers has dropped from 40 percent in 1982 to roughly 30 percent this year.

Simply comparing numbers of computers may be misleading, however. Some schools offer vocational computer training to a selected few rather than computer literacy courses to all, or they use mainframe computers with terminals to instruct a number of students simultaneously, instead of providing each student with a microcomputer for individualized instruction.

Only a few miles away from the La Grange and Western Springs High Schools, with their 150 computers, are several inner-city Chicago high schools, with only three or four terminals hooked into a larger mainframe computer.

But within Chicago's sprawling school district all students have the opportunity to attend six or seven magnet high schools with computer equipment and capabilities ''that far exceed what the suburban schools are offering'' and ''make the colleges jealous,'' according to an administrator.

These students are receiving vocational training in preparation for jobs, not computer literacy courses designed to familiarize a student with computers or teach basic programming.

Congress is considering several bills that would give tax breaks to businesses for donating equipment to schools, although no action has been taken on those pieces of legislation.

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