Computer-Age Kids Drive Schools to Teacher Training


Joan Curran isn't afraid to say she's computer illiterate. In fact, the subject can get her pretty worked up.

"The new century is coming up, the kids are ahead of me, and I'm behind. What's going on?" says Ms. Curran, who teaches special education in sixth through eighth grades in Queens.

Even a computer whiz like Bob Price, who says the New Jersey school in which he teaches math is a technology dreamland, feels a bit overwhelmed.

"Before," Mr. Price says, "we all complained we didn't have the equipment. But now that we have the equipment, we're having a lot of catching up to do. Things are happening just too quickly."

As a result, the two teachers went back to school this summer to learn how to teach math and science to the Nintendo generation - and how to integrate educational video with active experiments to compel students to think like scientists.

Their mix of frustration and enthusiasm reflects a profound shift under way in the nation's classrooms as educators recognize that, despite considerable investment, the digital revolution has often yielded disappointing results in the schools - in part because teachers have been left behind.

With 5.8 million computers in America's classrooms, there is now one computer for every nine children compared with one for every 30 students five years ago, experts say.

The United States has spent an estimated $9.5 billion to bring technology into the classroom since 1991.

But preparing teachers to use this technology is a difficult task that goes beyond coaching for how to create a spreadsheet or surf the web to helping teachers change the way they teach.

"To take new technology and put it on the old way of doing things is just drill and kill," says Michael Johnson, associate superintendent of schools in Conroe, Texas.

"Plopping technology down in the classroom without support for the teachers won't make a difference. But you don't just develop and support these people. You need to [consider] how technology can help you rethink what you do," says Marjorie DeWert, director of the Learning and Technology Center for the School of Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"So often we've focused on teaching how to use the technology, but we should focus on effective learning - we should focus on how do you make learning happen," Ms. DeWert says. "You put learning in the middle, not the technology."

More schools are starting to do just that, making training a key element of their budget. Five years ago, many schools would use whatever was left over from the technology budget - roughly 3 percent - to train teachers.

Today, a third of the nation's 15,500 school districts invest 25 percent of that budget in professional development, an amount closer to what businesses invest.

"In a number of school districts, as administrators do their planning, they're building in this understanding that the support of teachers has to be part of bringing technology into the classroom," says Linda Roberts, director of education technology for the US Department of Education. "But when it comes down to saying, 'OK, this is what we're going to set aside,' there's less of a commitment. "

But there are pitfalls even for those schools that do set up training programs. Too often, they fail to evaluate the efforts to see if they improve teachers' teaching and students' learning, says John Phillipo, head of the Center for Educational Leadership and Technology in Marlboro, Mass. "We're not maximizing our training programs," he says.

Mr. Phillipo also urges schools to find other ways of paying for the training of teachers than just technology dollars. For instance, they could turn to businesses or use monies from the schools' curriculum funds. "The idea," Phillipo says, "is that technology is just a tool to get a job done, and the job is based on curriculum. So we want to make sure that curriculum people and technology people work together."

Educators are encouraged by the fact that over the past five years,18 states - mostly southern states like Texas and Florida - have established special funds within their technology budgets reserved for professional development of teachers.

These states are also setting new standards for teacher certification that include technology training. But these standards vary widely.

One of the most wide-reaching efforts to bring technology into the classroom comes from North Carolina. The state legislature committed last year to spending $372 million to wire classrooms in five years. But it also set strict guidelines to force schools to train teachers to use technology in their classrooms and link training with improved learning. To tap into the funds, school districts must spend 25 cents of every technology dollar on training, and teachers need at least 30 hours of training in order to renew their licenses.

"Either you get your initial teaching license or you don't, either you get your license renewed or you don't," says DeWert of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. When you have high stakes, that's what drives change."

But whether teachers succeed in using technology to spark students' learning ultimately depends on the vision of administrators and the enthusiasm of teachers, most experts agree.

It was to pass on her vision to other teachers that Donna Clovis, who teaches in the Princeton, N.J., school system, attended one of the 26 workshops sponsored by the New York National Teacher Training Institute.

That day she showed other teachers how she brings geometry alive for her pupils by having them watch, create, and eat, circles and parabolas.

Remote control in hand, Ms. Clovis put the video on, stopping it to discuss the geometric forms in objects such as a bridge. She moved to the computer and had her students draw a multidimensional diameter. She sliced a sugar cone filled with cake mix - having them eat a circle. Her class got so popular, she says, "It got to a point where I got so many other kids begging to come."

Clovis once thought that computers would turn kids into passive TV watchers and that she'd look stupid too. But attending the NTTI workshops convinced her that using TV, multimedia, and other high-tech tools enabled her to reach out to many more kids.

Martha Marville, who teaches in Queens, N.Y., attended the workshop to "reinvent myself. The world is changing, and you have to be self-empowered to keep up."

In fact, most teachers want to use technology, and they say the best way to learn is through teachers, according to a study released in July by the National Institute for the Improvement of Education (NIIE) in Washington.

But motivation isn't enough. Teachers must be able to have continued practice as well as coaching and evaluation. "Don't drop them cold," says Judith Renyi, executive director of the NIIE. "Without follow-through, you're not going to see change."

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