Saturday Mailbox

SATURDAY MAILBOX

October 02, 2004

Software helps educators meet new standards

Reporter Alec MacGillis' series "Poor Schools, Rich Targets" (Sept. 19-Sept. 21) attempted to cast doubt on the efficacy of educational software and the practices of software publishers. While our industry welcomes honest criticism, the series ignored or skewed important facts, and this causes us to contest its conclusions.

Educational software companies are partnering with educators to move toward the common goal of modernizing school practice and preparing students for the 21st century. The status quo is unacceptable to both publishers and schools. In response, publishers have invested hundreds of millions in developing software to address educators' needs for instruction, assessment and classroom management.

This process of using technology to improve instruction continues to evolve, and growing pains are to be expected. But how many of us would abandon word processing and return to the electric typewriter?

And the series showed a disregard for the unique remedial needs of poor, low-performing students. In so doing, it seems to challenge the educational standards that now drive many school policies. Software publishers did not create that system of accountability, but educators do look to them for help in dealing with this new paradigm.

The series also questions software evaluation as insufficient and biased. But it fails to acknowledge that third-party research funding is inadequate, and that education leaders are often reluctant to participate in randomized trials of any education practice.

Despite these challenges, a growing body of research does demonstrate technology's effectiveness when properly implemented. A 2002 U.S. Department of Education-commissioned study found "a positive association exists between DES [discrete educational software] use and achievement in math and reading."

Finally, the author employs inflammatory language to question the industry's sales practices. He implies it is improper for publishers to demonstrate the merits of their products to schools in need of assistance, but to do otherwise would be to deny educators in those schools the opportunity afforded other educators.

And criticizing the fact that this outreach sometimes happens out of school ignores the demanding schedules and training needs of educators, who are too often otherwise isolated in their classrooms.

Kenneth A. Wasch

Washington

The writer is president of the Software and Information Industry Association.

Make technology prove its value

The Sun's editorial "No sales left behind" (Sept. 24) and the excellent series "Poor Schools, Rich Targets" (Sept. 19-Sept. 21) by reporter Alec MacGillis were right on the mark.

There is an instructive parallel here between the professions of medicine and education. Physicians treat undesirable human conditions (diseases), such as cancer and cardiovascular disease. Teachers treat comparably undesirable conditions common to all humans -- i.e., ignorance and incompetence.

In medicine, if a pharmaceutical company believes it has developed a drug that is effective in treating a disease, it is required to demonstrate its effectiveness through carefully controlled clinical trials. It is also required to show that the drug has no significant harmful side effects.

Once it has done so, its findings are reviewed by the federal Food and Drug Administration. If -- and only if -- those findings are found to be valid by the FDA, then the company is allowed to market the drug to physicians.

In contrast, a company that believes it has developed instructional materials (textbooks, computer programs, etc.) that enhance student learning in the classroom is free to peddle those materials to educators in any way it wishes, free of any requirement to demonstrate their efficacy or harmlessness.

The consequences of that difference between medicine and education were well-described in Mr. MacGillis' series.

And that raises the question: Would it not be good to have some formal, objective mechanism for ensuring the value of educational instructional materials?

Donald N. Langenberg

Queenstown

The writer is chancellor emeritus of the University System of Maryland.

Money isn't what educates children

Rodney Collier's column "Low expectations, indifference remain obstacles" (Opinion

Commentary, Sept. 24) was one of the most common-sense articles I've seen lately pertaining to Baltimore's troubled school system.

In today's society, we expect the best of everything handed to us on a silver platter. We cannot sacrifice or practice frugality. Our children must have state-of-the-art facilities, multiple special assistance programs for the enhancement of their learning, charter schools, free lunches, etc.

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