Careful choices, good results


September 21, 2004|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

In downplaying concerns about a new "digital divide," education software vendors argue that poor districts tend to buy more rudimentary programs because their students' needs call for a remedial approach.

Standing in the way of this argument, though, is the experience of the Baltimore public schools.

The district spent heavily on so-called "drill and practice" software in the 1980s and early 1990s, hoping the programs would raise student performance in math and reading basics. Software from Jostens (now Compass Learning) was used in about 30 schools, while programs from the Computer Curriculum Corp. (now part of Pearson Digital Learning) were used in about 20 schools, said the district's former director of education technology, Michael Pitroff.

In schools where principals put great emphasis on the software and where vendors helped to train teachers on the software, it was put to some good use, Pitroff said. For the most part, though, the software was underused and had little impact, he said.

"When you looked at these things as a panacea and just threw them in and expected a miracle, it didn't work," said Pitroff, now the principal of Digital Harbor High School in South Baltimore.

Unimpressed by its early investment, the district's schools have purchased fewer of the programs in recent years. And judging by the standards invoked by the software vendors, the district hasn't been hurt by abstaining: Its test scores have been steadily rising, even as the district has been mired in deficits and management disarray.

Where the district is using math or reading software, it tends to be well-regarded, more complex programs such as Carnegie Learning's Cognitive Tutor. Compared with top-selling programs from bigger companies, it is noticeably lacking in catchy graphics. It builds up students' algebra ability by having them plot equations on a graph as well as solve them.

Unlike other programs, it judges and instructs students on the way they get to the solution, not just grading them on whether they get the answer right. When students do solve an equation correctly, their progress is reflected in the extension of yellow bars on the screen that track their grasp of different algebra concepts - a more low-key reward than the congratulatory exclamations that other programs give.

The program has been a success in its first year at the National Academy Foundation, a new high school housed at the Port Discovery Children's Museum downtown, said ninth-grade algebra teacher Amy Jones. She introduced it at the school after seeing it work at her previous posting, Southwestern High. Students come to a lab twice a week to reinforce the lessons Jones gives in class the other three days.

One morning near the end of the school year, students hunched quietly at their computers, with scratch pads nearby to help them work out equations. Every few minutes, one raised a hand to ask Jones for help.

Jones said she was impressed by how much the program gripped and challenged students, even though it lacks the eye-catching graphics of other programs sold to struggling schools.

"There are no fireworks on here. That's the thing that strikes me. It's very serious to use, and the kids take it very seriously," she said. "The gold bars are enough affirmation for them. It's not flashy. It doesn't mistake this for a game. This is not a game. We're going to come in here and do math."

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