Primary teachers get laptops, training

Print More

Laura Holzheimer knows what it’s like to stare at a computer keyboard and be stymied. A veteran elementary school teacher in the Cleveland Public Schools, Holzheimer still remembers being apprehensive about installing software on her laptop computer.

Today, though, as one of approximately 50 teacher trainers in the district, Holzheimer comfortably dispenses advice to a roomful of worried teachers, all with laptop computers and all first-time users.

“Remember, you learn the most by clicking, clicking, clicking,” Holzheimer says. “Explore. Talk with a friend. It wasn’t so long ago that I was scared to death.”

Nationwide, technology experts advise school districts to spend at least 30 percent of their technology budget on teacher training if they want to make a difference in teaching and learning. Few districts come close to that percentage, though, and that shortfall shows in the way teachers react to using technology. An influential 1995 report from the federal Office of Technology Assessment, for example, reported that a majority of U.S. teachers describe themselves as inadequately trained to use computers. Neither are they confident that they can integrate technology into the curriculum.

Figures from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) released in January 1999 also show how uneasy teachers are with technology. Although 78 percent of schools currently have access to the Internet, only 20 percent of teachers report feeling well prepared to integrate technology into classroom instruction.

Cleveland hopes to change some of those numbers. In the last three years, the district has seen an influx of 7,200 computers into its kindergarten through fourth-grade classrooms. The source of the hardware: Ohio’s SchoolNet Plus program, which has pumped $430 million into the state’s low-wealth school districts in the last three years.

In Cleveland’s case, that’s meant being able to put three new multimedia computers in every elementary school classroom plus provide teachers with their own laptop computers. In return, teachers have agreed to complete 60 hours of technology training in the next three years.

The result has been appreciable: Before SchoolNet, Cleveland had only a handful of schools using technology, most of them magnet schools and then mostly in computer labs. “There was nothing systemic, nothing sustained,” says district technology director Paul Karlin. Today, every elementary school has computers in every classroom.

The ability to use that technology varies widely, though. The longer teachers have had their laptop computers, the more comfortable they’ve become using the technology in the classroom, says Karlin. Those who’ve just received their laptops have as little as four hours of training; others, who’ve had the machines since the program began, have completed 40 hours or more. Class use correlates with those numbers. “In classrooms where there’s a high level of use, teachers have had their computers for a while,” Karlin says.

District in transition

As in other urban school districts, the problem of teacher training looms large in Cleveland. At the elementary school level alone, Cleveland will be providing 60 hours of training for 80 schools in the next few years. This year, the district expects to spend $1 million on teacher training in technology, the same amount it spent last year. But Cleveland’s schools face a constellation of other challenges as well.

Over 70 percent of the 77,000 children who attend Cleveland public schools receive some form of public assistance. In 1998, the district’s high school graduation rate was approximately 40 percent—half the graduation rate statewide. At the elementary school level, where most of the district’s teacher training on technology is taking place, test scores remain woefully low. According to figures from the district’s Office of Research and Accountability, only 17 percent of Cleveland’s fourth-graders pass all five sections of the state proficiency test versus a statewide average of 38 percent. In addition, only 8 percent of the district’s sixth-graders pass all five sections of their state exam. In many schools, too, the issues of safety and security muscle out learning to teach with technology.

For years, too, the district has teetered on the edge of implosion. Throughout the 1980s, the district struggled with a legacy of racism and discrimination that branded Cleveland as one of the most segregated school systems in the nation, and the district has yet to be released from court oversight. In 1995, a federal judge ordered the state to take over the district, which was $155 million in debt and academically bankrupt.

Last fall, then-Gov. George V. Voinovich returned control of the district to Mayor Michael R. White and a nine-member appointed school board. The district’s new chief executive officer, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who joined the district just before Thanksgiving last year, has a track record of working successfully with low-achieving schools in New York City, boosting reading and math scores, improving facilities and decreasing student suspensions. It’s unclear, though, how technology will fit into her plans for the school system, though she has pledged to use remedial software to help high school students get up to speed on the basics.

Currently, the district’s technology framework calls for the district to invest $75 million of its own funds to put more computers in schools. Seventy-nine percent of Cleveland’s classrooms have computers. But while SchoolNet Plus funds have given elementary schools a student-to-computer ratio of 8:1, the lack of funding at the middle and high school levels has resulted in dramatically higher ratios of 1,410:1 and 209:1 respectively in the city’s classrooms and 27:1 and 47:1 in its labs. That often means long waits for computers, overcrowded computer labs and marginal use of technology in many of the city’s middle schools and high schools.

To close that gap, Karlin estimates the district will need an additional 1,300 computers at the middle school level and 1,575 more for high schools. As of January 1999, though, the framework had yet to be approved by the district’s financial oversight committee.

Another concern is aging buildings. Problems range from patches of missing floor tiles in hallways to roofs leaking so badly that classrooms are temporarily closed off and cheap box fans are used as makeshift dryers. In many classrooms, acoustic ceiling tiles that are not stained from water damage are often missing altogether, revealing corrugated steel roofing above. Even glass-block windows meant to protect building occupants are often cracked or smashed, patched with plywood that has been there so long that it is weathered to silvery-gray.

Piecemeal funding

A 1992 survey by the Ohio Department of Education estimated that it could take $500 million to make the district’s 117 schools comply with building codes. For technology, the challenge is clear and costly. Karlin estimates that electrical upgrades alone could cost between $20,000 and $500,000 per school. In some cases, such updates might involve adding extra circuits; in others, new power rooms might be needed. Finding spaces for routers and other networking equipment is also an issue in overcrowded and aging schools.

Tim Best, director of programs for the SchoolNet Commission, the state agency that oversees SchoolNet funds, lists other concerns. Many of Ohio’s oldest schools have problems with asbestos. Many times, too, schools are so old that blueprints have been lost, making renovations difficult, Best says.

In Cleveland, as in other urban districts, technology has to compete with such needs. The district received $28 million in E-rate discounts this year. But it’s not clear how much—if any—of those savings on telecommunications and Internet services will be re-invested in technology. “One day the check will come in, and we’ll make the case that it should come back to education technology,” says Karlin. “But at the same time, someone could say that there’s a roof broken somewhere and that money will be gone.”

That leaves the district piecing together funds from grants and other federal monies. “It’s piecemeal. It’s hit-or-miss,” says Karlin. “We go after the big grants, and we go after the not-so-big ones.” The district does not currently support technology with its own funds.

Until this year, too, Cleveland lacked any kind of telecommunications infrastructure. At the end of 1998, only 300 of the district’s 3,000 classrooms had a connection to the Internet, and those connections were by dial-up modem rather than high-speed lines. That could change dramatically this spring when the district receives its first round of E-rate funds. Until those funds appear, though, few schools will have regular Internet access.

With state and local officials calling for greater accountability, the pressure to teach to the test and avoid reconstitution also affects whether technology becomes accepted. “A lot of teachers worry that they need to get proficiency scores up in two years, or they will be gone,” says Harold Johnson, a professor at Kent State University. “They are being taught to do what is safe. But technology is not safe. It is about taking risks.”