- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 10, 2000

It is the educational equivalent of Holy Writ: Computers in the classroom help students learn more. Over the last four years, the federal government has spent more than $6 billion to get U.S. classrooms wired, and local school districts have poured in $12 billion more. The result: 95 percent of public-school children have Internet access, two-thirds of public-school teachers say they use computers in their lessons, and school-based Web research is commonplace.

And why not? If computers can help the rest of us file our income taxes or map a household budget, surely they can help schoolchildren scale new academic heights, right?

Not necessarily. Many educational experts are quick to tout the supposed benefits of classroom computer usage, such as the notion it helps children (even shy ones) learn more than they do by old-fashioned methods. And perhaps because of that innate American love for cutting-edge technology, many parents are inclined to accept this on faith. But these same experts admit the evidence is largely anecdotal, and their claims are supported by few published studies. "There is nothing that says technology will improve student achievement, but we believe it does because it meets so many different learning styles," Cindy Bowman, an education professor at Florida State University, recently told The Washington Post. In short: We think it works, but we're not sure.

Yet if the results from the Department of Education's own nationwide tests are any indication, it may be too soon to pack up the chalkboards and pencils. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exam in core subjects is given every two years to fourth, eighth and 12th graders, and the results from the most recent reading test show no significant difference in reading ability between those who use classroom computers at least once a week and those who don't.

In fact, a detailed study of the NAEP data shows that a number of other socioeconomic factors including gender, amount of reading material in the home, and whether one's parents went to college affected reading proficiency far more than computer use. A fourth- or eighth-grade girl with college-educated parents and reading materials at home but no classroom computer tends to outperform a fourth- or eighth-grade boy who has the computer but not the college-educated parents or the reading materials. As for math, it all depends on how the computer is used, says Harold Wenglinsky, a research scientist with the Educational Testing Service (a Princeton, N.J.-based non-profit group that administers more than 11 million tests worldwide every year). Mr. Wenglinsky found that those who use computers to play math games and grasp mathematical concepts tend to score higher on the NAEP math test than students without computers. But students who use the computer mostly for drill and practice tend to score lower.

The problem, according to Learning in the Real World, a California-based group led by former state education official William L. Rukeyser, is that too little is known at this stage about how computers affect the learning process, especially in the early grades. Research shows "hands-on" learning is better at younger ages than keyboard learning. "We know that physical activity is crucial in building the mind and central nervous system," he says.

The obsession with technology in the classroom needs to be tempered, says columnist James Glassman, host of the Web site Tech Central Station. "The Internet is wonderful, no doubt," he says. "But should it be such a high priority at a time when most students can barely read the volumes of Mark Twain and Shakespeare already in the school library?" Adds computer science expert David Gelernter of Yale University: "Children need Internet access the way they need subsidized bus service to the nearest mall."

This is not to suggest computers have no role to play in the classroom. In the hands of skilled and competent instructors, they can be a valuable learning aid. But it is troubling to see more and more educational dollars going to buy computers and software even as traditional learning tools such as new textbooks and music programs get elbowed aside. Equipping our classrooms with computers is not the same thing as equipping our children to learn.

Kirk Johnson is a policy analyst in the Center for Data Analysis at the Heritage Foundation.

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