How computers are quietly conquering America's classrooms

At the turn of the century few people outside education circles recognized the fine job US schools were doing in teaching English to the wave of immigrant children flooding in.It wasn't until well after the wave subsided that credit was given for the major accomplishment in education and democracy.

A similar success story is being overlooked in the current critical scrutiny of the public schools. The wholesale introduction of computers into classrooms since 1980 amounts to a quiet revolution that will help meet the demands of scientific and technological change as well as economic competition in world markets.

In 1981 only one state required the instructional use of computers in schools. This year, six states mandate by law that schools teach their students computer skills. Twelve others officially endorse computer instruction. All told , 47 states are actively involved now in computer instruction, according to the results of the third annual survey conducted by Electronic Learning (EL) magazine..

What began as localized, grass-roots projects little more than five years ago have been insti-tutionalized. Americans now take it for granted that every student will have access to a computer, just as they took for granted that every student would learn English. Computers, like blackboards and erasers, are becoming permanent fixtures in schools across the country with almost 65 percent reporting their use.

''What is going on in the country is absolutely extraordinary in the truest democratic sense,'' says Marc Tucker, director of the Project on Information Technology and Education in Washington, D.C., a group sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation. ''We need to look at the schools in the context of a bootstrap operation; kids are growing up taking computers for granted.''

The shift in learning from blackboard and textbook to microcomputer has been compared to the change from penmanship in copying manuscripts to the Gutenberg press with movable type for books in the Middle Ages; and to the shift from horse to automobile in transportation.

In a sense, the computer can be a complete education system in itself, says Mr. Tucker. The challenge for schools is to realize the computer's full potential.

Says Andrew R. Molnar of the National Science Foundation: ''The computer, with its enormous power and speed, has acted as a great catalyst to scientific discovery. It has become an amplifier of human thinking, the tool for complex problem-solving, and the repository for huge quantities of data, information, and knowledge.''

''Right now it's hard to know what is enough (computer instruction) and what is not,'' says Mr. Tucker. ''But the momentum is there, and people are going out and getting educated in computers, and they are demanding that schools help them and help their children accomplish this.''

The already rapid expansion of computers into all three levels of schools - elementary, junior high, and senior high - shows no letup. A November survey of 51,400 elementary schools by Quality Education Data (QED), a market-research firm in Denver, found 30,350 elementary schools had at least one microcomputer, up from 14,000 in 1982 and 6,500 the year before. Seventy-two percent of the nation's junior high schools and 78 percent of its high schools have computers.

Even small, rural school systems where K-12 instruction is offered under one roof match this trend. Seventy-eight percent, or 1,275 out of 1,628 such single-building rural schools have microcomputers, according to QED.

A decade from now American students who've grown up with computers in their homes and classrooms will have a real advantage in their technical and higher-reasoning skills. Compared with their counterparts in other countries, they will be better prepared for competition in a world economy, says Tucker.

Which states are doing the most?

According to EL magazine, Minnesota, Alaska, California, Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas, New York, Indiana, and the District of Columbia lead the nation. These states mandate that schools offer their students exposure to computers. Each is considered ''heavily involved'' in computer instruction.

Finding enough teachers who are qualified in the new technology is a major concern, and it has been a key focus in most state computer initiatives. When the great surge in teaching English to immigrants occurred at the turn of the century, teachers already knew the language. Today, along with making their students computer-literate, teachers have had to learn as well. Two years ago the second biggest obstacle - after a need for teacher training - to widespread use of computers in schools was lack of good educational software (called courseware).

Today, a flood of software information is available for educators and parents. Developers of educational software (especially since IBM entered the personal computer field) are filling the critical gap for learning material, because there is a market for it. A host of private and public software evaluation companies and agencies have sprung up, with individual school district committees to guarantee the academic quality of the software.

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