Putting principals `on line' may serve schools best

A lot has been written and said about computers as an educational tool, and much of it assumes that the best way to use this tool is to put it in the hands of students. But a second body of thought is developing, suggesting that it is equally important, if not more important, to put the machines in the offices of the people who manage the nation's elementary and secondary schools -- the principals.

Traditionally, school administrators have had a problem getting good data, says William C. Cooley, director of the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh. In his view, education has long been ``an information industry that's information poor.''

Putting a computer's organizational ``genius'' at the disposal of principals ``makes a great deal of sense to me,'' concurs Ken Komolski, head of the Educational Products Information Exchange (EPIE) at Columbia University. ``If principals get better information, they'll make better decisions.''

Pittsburgh, better known for corporate headquarters than for smokestacks and steel mills these days, is in the process of giving its public school managers a new set of high-tech tools. As a result of a project begun two years ago, principals all over this city may one day be able to quickly gain access to attendance reports, test scores, staff schedules, and other kinds of information needed to chart a surer course for their schools.

For now, attention is centered on the Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School, Pittsburgh's largest, where about $8,000 worth of computer hardware has been in place for a year. Components include a personal computer with a hard disk, a printer, and a scanner that can ``read'' data into the computer. At King, the system has ``worked quite well,'' says Dr. Cooley.

The advantage of putting microcomputers in the schools -- vs. ``dumb'' terminals (without any computing power of their own) tied in to a central data bank -- is that principals and others can more quickly zero in on ``the data that schools care about,'' says Dr. Cooley. It wasn't long, he says, before the principal at the King school was ``looking at it [his computer] every day'' for such things as attendance trends and test scores.

When it comes to bolstering instruction, the computer can scan reading test scores to find students who are consistently doing well. Teachers are thus given a quick, accurate idea of which children are ready to move up a level in the reading program -- as well as which are stuck in academic doldrums. Or perhaps someone notes that math scores show students in a particular class lagging in one concept -- say, figuring the area of a triangle. Instruction can then be targeted toward that.

Of course, test scores and the rest have been available right along, but rarely in the timely way or the organized state in which they're needed, says Dr. Cooley. Now, ``achievement tests can be scored locally and entered on the same day they're taken,'' he explains, ``rather than a two-week turnover as before.''

Pittsburgh isn't alone in this effort. Another hotbed of experimentation with educational information systems is Indian Springs School District 109 near Chicago, which recently signed an agreement with the IBM Corporation to be a national demonstration project.

Superintendent Arvid Nelson emphasizes the value of ``a telecommunications link between the teacher, the principal, and the office of the superintendent.'' By this fall, he plans to have a microcomputer in every district classroom. The goal, he says, is ``for all teachers in the district to really accept ownership of a computer and see its function in instruction.''

Special software enables teachers to develop all their lesson plans on the computer, notes Dr. Nelson. And administrators, at the same time, are given a window on the classroom. ``I can go through on any given day and check the lesson plans of any teacher in the district,'' says the superintendent.

Dr. Komolski at EPIE stresses that principals and superintendents might acquire a ``big brother'' image unless it's made very clear that the flow of information between administrators and classrooms is ``two-way.'' The underlying philosophy of a good system, he says, is to ``enfranchise teachers with information, as well as principals.''

And once teachers and principals begin to glimpse what better information can do for them, they're likely to be quick to take advantage of their ``enfranchisement.''

Mary Ann Fulks, a member of Dr. Cooley's staff and a former teacher, spent a good deal of her time during the past year at the King school helping people there get used to the new data processing system. Her biggest problem was getting people beyond the ``idea that all a computer can do is give you lists.'' They had to learn to ask, ``What can the computer do for me?'' she says. But toward the end, they were fighting for time to spend with the computer, she says, and laughs.

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