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School computer system so-so

Many like the system, but it failed to bring students in middle and high school fully up to speed.

By KENT FISCHER

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 5, 2000


LAND O'LAKES -- In the early 1990s, the Pasco County School District looked to tap the power of computers to help remediate its most struggling students.

The district purchased a computer network system that, at the time, was state-of-the-art. The system could run hundreds of different types of educational software that could help students sharpen their skills and pass the state's graduation test.

Nearly 10 years and more than $3.6-million later, the computer system has produced so-so results with low-achieving students, and the district administrator in charge of instructional technology said that if the district had to do it over again, she doubts it would buy the program.

"At the time it was a good investment, but we soon became aware that it needed a lot of support and maintenance," said administrator Fran Schulz. "But now there are a lot of products out there. If we had to make that same decision today, I'm not sure we would go with it."

The computers test students in basic skills such as reading and math. The program adjusts the types and difficulty of its questions according to the responses students give. The computers record the students progress and provide teachers with detailed reports about the skill level of their students.

That can be helpful information for teachers; but over the years, the computer system proved fickle and often crashed or corrupted student data, Schulz said. Elementary school students made decent progress using the system, but it failed to bring students in middle and high school fully up to speed.

School officials say they never expected the computer system to be the "magic bullet" that would solve every child's learning problems. But a recent analysis of students using the computers show that only about half of the students using them as a "major intervention" are achieving "minimal success" on state tests.

"If you talk to individual schools, there are many that feel that it's really doing the job," Schulz said. "But as we try to look at the data to show that it's worthwhile, we've had a hard time doing that."

Yet the computers, which district teachers commonly call "CCC," have expanded recently into elementary schools. The district and schools will spend $555,000 this year to keep the programs up and running. The price tag for the system is about $3.6-million since 1997, which includes the cost of the computers, software, licensing agreements and salaries of teachers needed to man the computer labs.

"For the most part, everybody likes it," said Karen Michalak, a former teacher who now works as a district technology specialist helping schools implement their CCC computers. "But CCC isn't going to be the be-all for everybody. It's just one tool in a teacher's bag of tricks."

Last school year, more than 6,000 students logged about 180,000 hours on the machines. The students, on average, made less than a year's worth of progress in both reading and math, according to the analysis.

That's about the progress the computer's manufacturer said students should gain, but the district report noted that the students who use the system most often have the biggest learning gaps to make up.

"Most students identified for CCC interventions are one to three years below grade level," the report states. "Therefore it may not be likely or logical to assume that CCC, without additional or other (remedies) will make up the deficits."

Michalak said that as long as teachers are monitoring their students' work on the computers and are using them to supplement their teaching, the CCC programs can be a valuable classroom tool.

"CCC is not a substitute for the teacher, but it can do a daily assessment (of student skills)," she said. "I haven't come across anything that I think is as good. I've been happy with the product."

- Kent Fischer covers education in Pasco County. He can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6241 or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6241. His e-mail address is kfischer@sptimes.com.

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