Chapter 1: Elementary and Secondary Education

Information Technology in Education

The United States has made great progress in introducing and upgrading information technology (IT) in classrooms, school libraries, and computer labs over the past decade. Federal, state, and district agencies have provided funds and incentives to increase students' access to hardware and software resources. Initiatives (including the E-rate program) have targeted funding toward high-poverty and rural or urban public schools, and recent legislation has supported effective teacher training for integrating IT with curriculum and instruction. In addition, as families have obtained home computers and Internet connections, children and adolescents have increased their IT use at home, often for school work.

National survey data have focused on measures such as student access to IT and frequency of use, and other research has examined important questions about how teachers and students use IT resources and how integration of IT with instruction may influence student learning. One goal of providing computers in schools is to develop students' computer literacy, which is needed for college and for many jobs. A second goal, using IT as an instructional tool to enhance learning in other subjects, is more difficult to reach, partly because of the many ways the tools can be deployed. A substantial body of research indicates that tutorials and other computer-based instruction in basic skills can improve students' achievement on standardized tests in math and science (e.g., Becker 1994; Kulik 2003; Van Dusen and Worthen 1994). The preponderance of these studies shows that well-designed tutorials can supplement teacher guidance, providing more immediate responses to students' efforts and allowing them to work at their own pace. However, two recent studies found that student use of computers at school is not necessarily beneficial and may be associated with lower mathematics achievement (Angrist and Lavy 2002; Fuchs and Woessman 2004).

Less evidence exists for IT effectiveness in applications other than tutorials, such as simulations and computer-based labs in science (Kulik 2003). Experts have noted IT's promise for supporting inquiry-based instruction: for example, helping students learn how to locate, evaluate, organize, and synthesize information to solve complex problems (Ringstaff and Kelley 2002; Sandholtz, Ringstaff, and Dwyer 1997). High-capacity multimedia computers and high-speed Internet connections can enhance students' research and collaboration activities, increasing their access to up-to-date materials and allowing rapid communication with experts outside the school, for example. However, the research base is sparse on any effects of technology used for such learning methods, and results tend to rely on subjective measures.

The indicators in this section present more detail on Students' increasing access to IT, including trends in the "digital divides" related to family income, race/ethnicity, and geographic location. In addition, data describe how students use computers and the Internet for a variety of activities at home and in school. The section concludes with a discussion of third grade teachers' ratings of their preparation for integrating technology into their teaching and their technical support at school.

Trends in IT Access at School

School systems have invested heavily in IT during and since the 1990s to expand opportunities for learning and to overcome gaps in home access for students (Donnelly, Dove, and Tiffany-Morales 2002). Supported by government funds and sometimes corporate and community contributions, these efforts have been largely successful. First, IT resources have become much more widely available in schools, and second, schools have helped equalize access for disadvantaged Students (DeBell and Chapman 2003; NTIA 2002).

The number of students per public school computer has decreased sharply, and schools have made dramatic progress in providing Internet access: the 3% of instructional rooms with an online connection in 1994 rose to 93% in 2003 (Parsad and Jones 2005). Urban public school classrooms were slightly less likely than those in towns or rural areas to have online connections in 2002, however. In public schools with Internet access, 95% had broadband connections, which indicates rapid change since 1996 when 74% used dial-up. In addition, the ratio of public school students to online computers improved from about 12:1 in 1998 to 4:1 in 2003 (Parsad and Jones 2005).

Gaps by school poverty concentration narrowed over these 5 years, as high-poverty schools greatly increased their supply of Internet-connected machines. However, students in high-poverty public schools remained at a disadvantage in 2003, with 5.1 students per online computer compared with 4.2 students in low-poverty schools.

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Trends in IT Access at Home

Home computer ownership and Internet access grew rapidly during the 1990s among all population groups. From 1984 to 2001, the inequality of home computer ownership by family income decreased, particularly over the last few years of the period (NTIA 2002). Computer ownership rates increased for all groups over these 17 years but grew more rapidly for lower-income families. Regarding home Internet access, the digital divides related to income and house-holders' education also narrowed from 1998 to 2001 (NTIA 2002). Rural residents were less likely to use the Internet than metropolitan-area residents through 1998, but this gap had closed by 2001 (NTIA 2002). Gaps among demographic groups have diminished as computer ownership and online connectivity costs have declined.

Access to home computers and Internet connections continued to grow from 2001 to 2003, and the most rapid change occurred in the proportion of households with broadband Internet connections, which more than doubled from 9% to 20% over these 2 years (NTIA 2004). People with broadband access tend to use the Internet more frequently and for a wider range of activities, including educational purposes. The greater speed and continuous connection that broadband provides increase the feasibility and efficiency of doing Internet research and taking online courses.

In 2003, 77% of students in grades K–12 lived in a household with a computer and 67% had Internet access at home (appendix table1-26 Excel table.). The access gaps noted above remained. Students from high-income families, for example, were nearly three times more likely than those from low-income families to have home Internet access, 90% versus 32% (figure 1-20 figure.). Similarly, although 94% of high-income students had a computer at home, only 48% of low-income students had such access. The likelihood of having these resources at home also increased sharply with level of parental education (appendix table1-26 Excel table.).

White and Asian/Pacific Islander students were far more likely in 2003 to have a computer in their homes (86% and 87%, respectively) than were black and Hispanic students (55% and 57%); similar gaps were evident in rates of home Internet access (figure 1-21 figure.). In addition, students attending public schools were less likely than their peers in private schools to have either computer or Internet access at home. However, students' use of IT resources at school differed little by sector (appendix table1-26 Excel table.).

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IT Use at School and at Home

Student Use of IT at School

Computers can be used for instructional activities ranging from tutorials (used in mathematics and other classes) to simulations and specialized laboratories (used in some science classes). Internet access facilitates certain student-directed learning activities, such as conducting research on the Web, contributing to data collection and analysis projects based outside the school, and communicating with experts and other students for projects. IT's potential for expanding students' understanding and interest in learning has generated public support for bringing these resources into schools and encouraging their effective integration into lessons.

However, IT is not necessarily more effective than other educational tools. Results largely depend on how computers are used and whether they effectively support teachers' instructional goals. A recent study of 15-year-olds in the United States and 29 other nations that participated in PISA found that using computers and the Internet at school may support learning up to a point, but more frequent use was associated with lower achievement (Fuchs and Woessman 2004). This analysis controlled for school resources, which were related to socioeconomic and other characteristics of students' families. However, these data present a one-time snapshot and cannot show causality. Another recent study found that the introduction of computer-aided instruction in elementary and middle grades in Israel was consistently linked to lower mathematics test scores for fourth and eighth graders, although there was less clear evidence of a link with the latter (Angrist and Lavy 2002).

In addition to extending access, schools also serve to equalize students' use of IT resources. Not only are overall use rates higher at school than at home, but this difference is more pronounced for less-advantaged students. Low-income students, for example, were more than twice as likely to use a computer at school than at home in 2003, 84% compared with 40% (figure 1-22 figure.). Even middle-income students were more likely to use computers at school than at home. Furthermore, the demographic differences in school computer use were small compared with those for home use; the percentage of students who used computers at school ranged from 84%–90% by family income and from 81%–89% across racial/ethnic groups.

Although nearly all schools had an Internet connection, just under half (47%) of students accessed the Internet at school in 2003 (appendix table1-26 Excel table.). As with school computer use, school Internet use was related to race/ethnicity, family income, and parental education. Students in secondary grades were far more likely to use the Internet at school, perhaps because the Internet is often used for research tasks more suited to older students. Male and female students did not differ substantially in their likelihood of using either computers or the Internet at school.

Computer Use in Third Grade Classrooms

In 2002, teachers of third grade students reported how often they required their students to access the Internet and to use a computer for some other purpose such as games or tutorials.[41] Computer use for purposes other than Internet access was much more common for third graders: 56% of students were given computer work at least three times weekly, whereas only 22% were assigned Internet use that often (appendix table1-27 Excel table.). These computer uses were more frequent in public school classrooms; for example, 24% of public school students used the Internet that often in class compared with 9% of private school students.

In the past, teaching experience and teacher age were inversely related to frequency of IT use in the classroom, partly because veteran teachers were less likely to have gained computer skills through informal exposure in their preservice years (Smerdon et al. 2000). However, in 2002, more experienced third grade teachers were more likely than those with less experience to give students computer tasks at least three times a week (appendix table1-27 Excel table.). These results suggest that at least in the early elementary grades, professional development and generally increased levels of computer literacy may be compensating for the variance in IT skills that teachers bring to their jobs.

Uses for Home Computers and the Internet

Students use IT resources at home for a variety of purposes, some of which may be educational.[42] Using educational software, e-mail, and accessing Web pages at home have been linked to higher achievement in mathematics after controlling for family background characteristics (including parental education) (Fuchs and Woessman 2004). Overall, about three in four students with access to a computer at home used it for school work in 2003 (appendix table1-28 Excel table.), which was less common than for playing games (83%) but more common than for e-mail (49%).

Groups more likely to use a home computer for school work were students in secondary grades and those who were female or black, who came from higher-income families, or who had more highly educated parents. For example, secondary students with access were far more likely than elementary students to use home computers for school work, 91% versus 55% (figure 1-23 figure.).

E-mail was also a more common pursuit for older Students, at 70% compared with 27% for those in elementary grades (appendix table1-28 Excel table.). In 2003, younger students were somewhat more likely than older ones to play computer games: 87% compared with 78% (figure 1-24 figure.). (Some games may be educational, either by teaching specific skills and knowledge by design or by incidentally developing skills like planning or problem solving.)

Students in the elementary and secondary grades also tend to use the Internet differently. Overall, secondary Students who had access used the Internet quite frequently: 53% used it at least once a day, 36% less often but at least weekly, and only 11% less than weekly (appendix table1-28 Excel table.).

Elementary school students were less frequent Internet users, with only 27% using it at least once a day. In the secondary grades, almost all students (91%) with access used the Internet for school assignments (figure 1-23 figure.). Less common uses for the Internet were seeking news or sports information (48%), enjoying movies or television or radio programs (28%), purchasing goods or services (19%), and taking an online course (3%). In the elementary grades, a majority of students (64%) used the Internet for school assignments.

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Teacher Preparation for Using IT and Technical Support

In 2003, 38 states had teacher qualification standards that included a technology component (Editorial Projects in Education 2004). In addition, certification requirements in 15 states included preservice training in using IT for teaching, and 9 states required prospective teachers to pass a test demonstrating technology skills and knowledge. For recertification, 10 states required teachers to demonstrate their knowledge about IT use, either through professional development or by passing a test. Twelve states had incentive policies to encourage teachers to use IT in their classrooms.

Research supporting such policies indicates that thorough IT training not only encourages teachers to use computers more extensively in classrooms but also can improve their teaching (Coley, Cradler, and Engel 1997; Sivin-Kachala and Bialo 2000). Most teachers lack extensive training in integrating computers with instruction and in making the most of IT potential, however (Ringstaff and Kelley 2002; Silverstein, Frechtling, and Miyoaka 2000). Preservice training has focused more on developing computer literacy than on effectively integrating computers into instruction (Moursund and Bielefeldt 1999; Sandholtz 2001; Willis and Mehlinger 1996), at least until recent years.

Teacher Professional Development in IT Use

Types of Training. Professional development in IT may be shifting away from basic skills and toward developing advanced skills and using computers to support instructional goals. In 1999, public school teachers were very likely to be offered professional development in basic computer and Internet skills and software applications (87%–integrating IT into instruction and advanced training were offered somewhat less frequently (79% and respectively) (Smerdon et al. 2000). In fall 2002, teachers in 87% of public schools had been offered training in integrating the Internet into curriculum in the preceding year (Kleiner and Lewis 2003).

In 2000–01, 63% of public school teachers reported participating in some professional development on using computers for instruction during the previous year. Roughly half said they had trained on one or more of three topics: the mechanics of using IT, integrating computers into instructional activities, and using the Internet (appendix table1-29 Excel table.). However, only about half of the teachers who trained said each topic was central to the training; for the other half, the topic was merely mentioned. For example, about 29% of public school teachers had received recent professional development for which the central topic was integrating computers into instructional activities; for 25%, integration was mentioned in the training. Math and science teachers differed little or not at all from elementary or other teachers on these measures[43] (figure 1-25 figure.).

Few 2000–01 public school teachers had extensive recent training in IT use. About 37% had no such training, 33% had 8 hours or less, and only 8% had more than 32 hours of computer-related training in the last year. These data are consistent with findings described in the previous section, "Teachers of Mathematics and Science," on the relatively short amounts of time most teachers spend on professional development.

Adequacy of Training. Many public school teachers surveyed in 1999 indicated that their preparation for using IT in instruction was inadequate; 53% said they felt only somewhat prepared, and 13% said they felt not at all prepared (Smerdon et al. 2000). For the most part, these teachers had participated in little recent IT training: about half had 1 day or less in the past 3 years and only 12% had more than 4 days. The study noted that teachers who felt better prepared were far more likely to use IT resources for a range of activities, including creating instructional materials, obtaining model lesson plans and researching effective practices, and communicating with colleagues and parents. Middle and secondary school mathematics and science teachers in 1999–2000 often rated further training in IT use as a high priority (NSB 2004).

Third Grade Teacher Confidence in IT Skills and Technical Support

In contrast to these earlier findings, 62% of 2002 third grade students had teachers who indicated they felt prepared to use computers for instruction (figure 1-26 figure.); that is, their teachers either agreed (45%) or strongly agreed (17%) with the statement, "I am adequately prepared to use computers for instruction in my class." Only 20% indicated that they lacked adequate preparation for using computers to teach. The apparent improvement in preparation may be explained partly by differences in grade levels; the earlier data apply to all teachers, whereas in 2002 they apply only to third grade teachers. Integrating IT with instruction is more likely in elementary grades, where teachers focus on basic skills development (Hedges, Konstantopoulos, and Thoreson 2003; Sutton 1991).

Another survey provides some complementary data. Most 2000–01 elementary and secondary teachers reported being fairly comfortable using computers: 75% in all agreed, and 35% said they strongly agreed, with the statement, "I am reasonably familiar and comfortable with using computers" (appendix table1-29 Excel table.). (The statement is broad rather than focused on the educational uses of computers, however.) Mathematics or science teachers were far more likely than others to express strong agreement, and teachers with at least 10 years of experience were somewhat less likely than those with less seniority to feel very comfortable using computers.

The proportions of third grade teachers who had a positive assessment of their school's technical support were similar to the proportions who had confidence in their own IT skills. About 65% of students had teachers who agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, "In this school, I am able to get sufficient support to solve any computer problems I have," with 19% expressing strong agreement (figure 1-26 figure.). No substantial differences separated teachers at urban, suburban, or rural schools or at schools with different concentrations of minority students for either IT preparation or technical support (appendix table1-30 Excel table.). Earlier gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged schools, and among schools in different community types, in teacher preparation for using IT may be narrowing as training becomes more widespread (Smerdon et al. 2000; Wenglinsky 1998). Teachers with different amounts of teaching experience differed little in their confidence about using computers, as 16%–19% strongly agreed that they were prepared. These findings suggest that at least basic training for using IT has reached many early elementary school teachers at different kinds of schools.

Third grade teachers' evaluation of their IT preparation was closely related to having their students use computers and access the Internet frequently (figure 1-27 figure.). About 72% of students whose teachers had strong IT confidence used computers for non-Internet tasks at least three times weekly, compared with only 43% of those whose teachers felt lacking in preparation.[44]

Similarly, when teachers thought they had better technical support, their students were more likely to use IT resources in class at least three times a week (appendix table1-27 Excel table.). Along with extensive teacher training in computer use, strong technical support has also been associated with teachers' effective use of IT (Becker 1994; Cuban 1999; Hruskocy et al. 2000).

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Access to IT resources, particularly in schools, has increased in the past two decades, generally leveling the playing field for disadvantaged students. Virtually all public schools were connected to the Internet in 2003, and nearly all had broadband connections. Gaps by family income and race/ethnicity in student use of computers and the Internet at school have decreased greatly. However, despite diminishing for years, substantial gaps in home access persisted in 2003. At a particular disadvantage are students from low-income families, who were about one-third as likely as those from affluent families to have home Internet access in 2003. Nearly all students used a computer at school, whereas just under half of them accessed the Internet there. Computer use for non-Internet purposes was quite common for third graders; 56% of them reportedly did computer work at least three times a week in 2002.

Among students with access at home, the most common computer use was playing games, followed by schoolwork, with e-mail a distant third. Most likely to work on home computers for school work were students in secondary grades, female or black students, those from affluent families, and those with highly educated parents. About 80% of students used the Internet (from any location) for school assignments.

Teachers' professional development in IT may be shifting toward using computers to more effectively support instructional goals and away from computer literacy skills. Roughly half of 2000–01 public school teachers had trained in the last year on one or more of three topics: the mechanics of using IT, integrating computers into instructional activities in their subject, and/or using the Internet. However, such training tended to be brief rather than sustained. Third grade teachers with different characteristics and at different kinds of schools differed little or not at all in their confidence about using computers for instruction, whereas in the past, veteran teachers more often assessed their computer knowledge as lacking compared with that of their junior colleagues. The more confident third grade teachers assigned their students computer and Internet more often than did other teachers.

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[41] About 90% of students in the sample were in third grade at the time of the followup survey; most of the remaining 10% were in second grade.

[42] Data on computer tasks apply to students' use of home computers only, whereas the Internet tasks and frequency of use apply to Internet use at any location. The percentages in appendix table1-28 Excel table. discussed in this section are based only on students who had access to computers at home and access to the Internet anywhere, whereas in appendix table1-26 Excel table. and the text on access, the base for percentages is all students in K–12.

[43] Teachers in the Teacher Followup Survey for 2000–01 were divided into three groups based on their main assignment field: elementary if it was kindergarten, general elementary, or early childhood special education; mathematics or science if the subject was in those fields; and other for all other fields. The latter two categories consist primarily of secondary grade teachers.

[44] Causality may not flow in only one direction, however. For example, teachers who are required to use IT resources may seek out more training, and school leaders who emphasize teaching with technology may strongly encourage teachers both to participate in IT training and to use computers frequently.

National Science Board.