OUR GREAT NATIONAL mistake continues.
A new study by Quality Education Data, an education research firm, reports that U.S. schools plan to spend more than $5 billion in the coming year on computer hardware and software, an increase of 21 percent over the previous year. In addition, the report indicates that, for the long term, many schools are investing heavily in wiring for Internet access.
America's fascination with computers and the Internet has been growing exponentially. It's no surprise, then, that school districts -- composed, of course, of ordinary citizens/consumers -- are riding that wave of enthusiasm and support for technology expenditures. But in budgeting such enormous amounts of money for computers, they're making a grave mistake . . . and making it on a grand scale.
First and foremost, the basics of education are desperately wanting. Nearly half of America's youth have subpar reading skills. Mathematics scores of 17-year-olds have only recently returned to 1973 levels, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Drugs, gangs and violence invade hallways and classrooms with frightening regularity. And public schools have become justifiably infamous for run-down buildings, inadequate books and supplies, poor heating and air conditioning, playing fields littered with broken glass and chronically underpaid teachers.
With all these pressing and fundamental concerns in American education, it's absurd and irresponsible for the nation's schools to budget so much money for newfangled technology instead of scarce essentials. In fact, if there's any decision school districts should be making today, it's that most students do not need the fastest, shiniest new Pentium Compaqs with 16 meg RAM and Internet access.
What students really need
Kids need a school that works, a school that makes them feel good about learning, that keeps them safe and comfortable, that provides opportunities to think and communicate while minimizing external pressures on their senses and self-esteem.
Kids need the best teachers. Where were all these billions of dollars during that last teachers' strike?
Kids need pencils and pens and notebooks, books and calculators, softballs and fingerpaints, not to mention drywall and ceiling tiles.
Kids need consistent, tried-and-true, organized educational experiences: book reports, class discussions, field trips, science fairs, pop quizzes, word problems, show and tell.
Proponents argue that the Internet is incredibly educational. Is it? Well, it certainly can be a fantastic research and informational tool. But if students can't read or write, add or subtract, reason, synthesize or solve problems for themselves, computers won't help at all. In fact, the simplification and automation that the Internet offers are exactly what struggling students don't need.
Even teachers themselves -- 87 percent of them in a recent poll -- don't believe that computers in the classroom improve student performance. That is because for all the glitz and glamour of Web-surfing, the foundations of learning and development are unchanged -- and they are not found on the Net.
Let's shatter any illusions about where all that money's really going. It's not going to the schools. Not to teachers or administrators or textbook writers. Not for school supplies or desks, not for paper or pencils or books. No, this massive infusion of funds isn't going anywhere near the cash-starved schools themselves.
The money's going straight to Microsoft. And IBM, Dell, Apple, Compaq, Intel, Gateway and 3Com. It's going to millionaire stockholders and billionaire CEOs, who have lobbied hard for these local initiatives -- in the interests of "education," of course.
So while paint peels and standards slide, the American school system is contributing billions of dollars to the already overstuffed coffers of the computer industry, and is receiving goods of questionable valuable in return. It's a mistake that wounds everyone involved with or concerned about the future of America and its children.
We'd need a more realistic view of the computer revoluton. Computers are no substitute for learning to read and write. The Internet is not a substitute for a library full of books. Research and discovery, experimentation and experience, creativity, imagination, hard work -- that's education, not point-and-click, chat groups, Websites or search engines.
The sooner we realize that, the sooner we can focus our time, money and attention on the parts of our educational system which truly need fixing. The day that school districts can see past the superficial glamour of the computer industry will be an important day indeed. Let's hope it comes sooner rather than later.
Daniel Nahmod is a senior computer programmer and analyst for Baxter Healthcare in Deerfield, Illinois.
Pub Date: 8/04/97