How lessons can compute

April 27, 2000|By Arnold Packer

PUT A DROPOUT-prone Northern High kid in front of a computer, give him a creative real-world task to solve and what is the result?

He will be three times more likely to complete English III, 75 percent more likely to complete Algebra II and his absenteeism will plummet. His attitude is positively transformed as he looks to a future of college and employment in a career that makes sense to him.

The case for high school students using computers to solve problems often encountered in the information age becomes steadily more compelling. As pressure grows for higher scores in state standardized tests and one school system after another comes up with dismal results, computers offer a solution to a problem that drives educators crazy.

Now it looks as if the Maryland State Board of Education will put off at least a part of its quest for high standards.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening shaved the board's request for $49 million to $12 million -- funds that were to be used to help prepare at-risk students pass a state exit exam. Faced with estimates that no more than 10 percent of disadvantaged high school students could pass the test without extensive intervention, educators decided to pull back from requiring students to pass the exam to graduate.

Alternatives needed

Schools desperately need an alternative -- one that does not undercut traditional academics or rely on outmoded, narrow "vocational" courses.

When we examine what's wrong with public schools, we need to look at the whole picture and equip students with useful skills not limited to those graded on state tests.

But in American education, finding rigorous academic courses that address skills such as putting together a budget or scheduling is as rare as perfect MSPAP scores. There are narrow, less-demanding "vocational" courses and irrelevant but more-demanding "academic" courses.

While most educators champion the use of computers in the classroom, meshing these skills with academics often has resulted in confusing and often ineffective teaching, wasting the talents of the students as well as the multimillion-dollar investment in computer gear.

We have to bring teaching into the 21st century. Teaching in this information age requires less lecturing, drilling and testing time and more cooperative learning, coupled with the acquisition of communication and computer skills.

And weaving academic skills with promising career skills is a necessity. As part of the U.S. labor secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS), I worked with leaders from business, labor and education to define the skills and standards needed for successful careers in the 21st century. They include "soft" skills such as communication, teamwork and negotiation, and personal qualities such as responsibility and sociability, and higher-order skills such as building budgets and knowing how to choose and use technology. At the SCANS 2000 Center, based at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies, business leaders tell us that these skills are needed more than ever.

We have seen encouraging results using technology to complement academics at four high schools in Baltimore's inner city, through the five-year-old School to Work on the Information Highway program. Textbooks in these classrooms are complemented by CD-ROMs, which direct students into virtual workplaces.

Each school is equipped with at least 10 personal computers, a printer, scanner and three TV/VCRs. The Internet-connected computers provide electronic research resources in schools where the library's reference books are either nonexistent or as outdated as manual typewriters.

Classroom activity in the four schools using the SCANS program centers around the computer and Internet. Students learn to use it for research and presentations. Working in teams, students attack problems as adults would, using state-of-the art technology.

In the ninth-grade program on marketing in the tourism and hospitality industry, students publish brochures of tours of the city and create a budget for a tour package. In 10th grade, students design a store in a shopping mall, prepare loan documents and make a presentation to secure a loan. In the 11th grade, they prepare presentations on a health problem in the community such as lung cancer.

By the time they are through, they are adept with spreadsheets and word-processing, can use the Internet and apply electronic presentation tools. They have also acquired the "soft" and "hard" SCANS competencies.

These projects complement traditional academics. Reading and writing and algebra I topics are needed for the tourism brochure; we add algebra II topics for the business plan; and biology knowledge is needed for the health presentation.

Reinforcing learning

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