Law, software fuel new `digital divide'

Now that nearly all systems are well-supplied with computers, programs that drill mostly by rote open a different achievement gap.

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

CAMDEN, N.J. - When it comes to the teachers in their classrooms, the students in this impoverished city have to settle for less than the best. A lot less.

Barely more than half of Camden's math and reading teachers are considered "highly qualified" in their subjects, a standard that nearly all teachers in surrounding suburbs meet.

But what the school system can boast of is its heavy investment in the Compass Learning labs, $8 million worth of computers and software intended to boost students' scores on math and reading tests.

Nearly all students up to eighth grade visit the labs as many as five times a week for drilling on the kinds of questions they'll face on annual exams.

For Camden school administrators, these rudimentary exercises are seen as critical to achieving the mandatory performance goals of the landmark 2001 No Child Left Behind law.

For students, the costly emphasis on test preparation software may come at the expense of in-depth education.

Under pressure from No Child Left Behind, an increasing number of struggling schools are spending heavily on Compass Learning and other so-called "drill and kill" or "drill and practice" programs. Districts are buying the software at the urging of vendors who target poor schools with large amounts of federal funding and tell them, on the basis of questionable evidence, that they can raise their test scores with the software.

But even if they raise scores a bit, such programs are unlikely to produce lasting results, skeptics say, and in many cases they can become a stand-in for an actual teacher. Score increases alone aren't necessarily an accomplishment, many educators say, if classes are spending much of their time on software drills modeled after the annual tests, while leaving less time for more constructive lessons.

Instead of closing the achievement gap between rich and poor students, the landmark law might be underwriting a new "digital divide" at the very time when, thanks to billions in public investment, needy schools are catching up in theiraccess to computers.

While test-preparation software that resembles programs used in the early days of school computers predominates in low-income districts, suburban schools such as those in Howard County are far more likely to be using computers to promote longer-lasting, "higher-order" learning. And good teachers remain the driving force behind student achievement.

"Poor schools tend to gravitate toward remedial applications, whereas better-off schools gravitate toward a richer sort of software," said Margaret Honey, director of the Center for Children and Technology in New York. "If our education strategy for poor kids is to do nothing more than remediate them so they'll do better on tests, we're failing them much more dramatically than we have in the past. That's the downside of the tools that are proliferating with great force out there."

Good for business

Software industry leaders acknowledge that No Child Left Behind's emphasis on math and reading test scores is good for the test-preparation business, but they say the products are more sophisticated than critics claim.

"There's no question that reading and math basics are the focus point, but I don't think that just because [the software] is focused on that rules out innovation," said Gail Pierson, the chief education officer at Riverdeep, a leading education software company based in Ireland and Boston.

In addition, say company executives and administrators in districts that use the test-preparation software, the programs are a natural purchase for poorer schools because low-income students need more remedial help.

"I would argue that there is very little intervention [for struggling students] that isn't rote," said Barbara Byrd-Bennett, chief executive officer of the Cleveland school system, which uses Compass Learning. "For some things, you just have to learn facts to build to higher-order skills."

But some schools with low-income students are faring well by using more advanced programs, or by putting more of their resources into such improvements as smaller class sizes or hiring bonuses for high-quality teachers. By spending so much of the funding No Child Left Behind provides for struggling schools on test-preparation software, critics argue, poor schools have less left for the kind of improvements at the heart of real learning.

"Folks are buying these things based on brand names and desperation," said Stanford University education professor Larry Cuban, a vocal critic of how computers are used in schools. "You don't see it in the suburbs - they invest in people, for the most part. Suburbs get the better teachers, and poor districts get the better machines."

Technology amid need

The new digital divide is on clear display in Camden, one of the poorest cities in America. Just across the Delaware River from the skyline of a rejuvenated Philadelphia, much of Camden remains a bleak grid of weed-filled vacant lots and abandoned buildings.

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