The Information Gap

JONATHAN HEE, 15, AND MICHAEL Tran. 16, attend the same suburban high school, Montgomery Blair in Silver Spring, Md., outside Washington. Both hope to use computers at work someday. Tran would like to be a programmer or an engineer; Hee wants to be an engineer. But the similarity ends there. Hee is in Montgomery Blair's 400-student magnet science program, which boasts two state-of-the-art computer labs, Internet access and teachers who have been trained in the latest technology. Tran goes to the nonmagnet section of the school. which has 2,000 students, a few dozen obsolete computers and teachers who are struggling with too few resources for too many students. Jonathan has studied binary code and logic; he has his own computer at home. Michael took his first computer class this year: he has no machine of his own to hone his skills.

Students like Hee and Tran represent what many educators fear is becoming an all-too-pervasive trend in American public schools, the creation of two separate and very unequal classes of computer haves and have-nots. "The folks who are getting left out," says Margaret Honey, associate director of the Center for Children and Technology/Education Development Center, "are going to be poor urban districts or rural districts with limited resources or blue-collar districts with very tight budgets." At Montgomery Blair. most of the magnet students are upper-middle class and white; most of the students in the regular school are minorities or immigrants. The school set up the magnet to lure white students into a largely minority school (although the suburban district itself is mostly white). The school now has man-,, more white students, but there's little contact between the two groups. The consequences of such inequity could be grave. Last month Laura D'Andrea Tyson, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, released a study showing that in all job categories, from clerks to professionals, people who know how to work with computers earn more than those who don't. In fact, the difference between the two groups accounts for half the increasing wage gap between high-school and college graduates.

The information gap is a problem not only for educators, but for industries and even nations locked out of the technological revolution. But it's especially acute in financially strapped public schools. In a 1992 report. Macworld magazine, a respected trade publication, visited schools around the country and concluded that "computers ... perpetuate a two-tier system of education for rich and poor." Sally Bowman Alden, executive director of the Computer Learning Foundation in Palo Alto, Calif., says that the national ratio of students to computers is 16 to 1. "On the surface that doesn't sound as bad as it really is," she concedes. "But if you think of what would happen in a business where 16 people were sharing one computer, it's the equivalent of having a pencil for every 16 children."

Even when schools manage to get their hands on computers, the machines often gather dust in a locked room because teachers don't know how to use them. "School districts spend 90 percent of funds on new equipment, 10 percent on teacher training," says Charles Piller, the Macworld editor who conducted his magazine's study.

Their students miss out on new and innovative learning techniques. A few years ago machines were just for routine drills, and students frequently found them boring. Now savvy teachers focus more on giving kids access to the Information Highway. Bonnie Bracey, a fourth-and fifth-grade teacher at Ashlawn Elementary School in Arlington, Va., is a technophile. With the help of several grants, Bracey and her students use the five computers in her classroom to hook up to the Internet where they study such subjects as the ecology and geography of the rain forest and Mayan civilization. They communicate with students in other countries and tap into sophisticated data banks. The computers inspire her students to transfer what they learn in other subjects. "'Ale have eaten our way through tropical fruits, costed out the price of spices and researched coral bleaching," Bracey says.

To less fortunate students, the Information Highway is about as real as the yellow brick road to Oz. Mischa Porter, a 17-year-old junior in the regular program at Montgomery Blair, talks wistfully about the magnet program. "They're the smart people," he says. Lyn Shiery, a computer teacher in the regular school, points to a service room behind his classroom. It's filled with the carcasses of donated computers that no longer work because he can't get the funds for spare parts. On a bulletin board in his classroom, Shiery has posted a story about Apple IIe computers, declared officially obsolete last year. Shiery's hope is that his students won't share that same fate.