First Monday, Volume 1, Number 6 - 2 December 1996

First Monday - A Prophecy and a Solution
First Monday
Section I: A Prophecy and a Solution


Chapter 1: A Prophecy Fulfilled
Chapter 2: A True Solution

Chapter 1: A Prophecy Fulfilled
James Bryant Conant was a scholar whose talents extended over a wide range of activities. He was a scientist, writer, and concerned citizen. Harvard University selected him to be its president, and he filled that position for twenty years. In 1953, President Eisenhower sent him to Germany, first as High Commissioner, and two years later, as American Ambassador. He returned to the United States in 1957 and devoted most of the years until his death in 1978 studying, writing, and agonizing about the American educational system. In 1961, appalled by the poor education he found in the inner cities, he warned that "social dynamite" was accumulating [ 1 ]. Politicians and educators effectively ignored his dire assessment; they did nothing. Within five years after Conant published his frightening insight, events established him as a prophet. The inner cities exploded in devastating riots.

The destruction shocked the nation, but the response of authorities was meaningless, and has continued that way after each subsequent upheaval. Whenever riots erupt in the cities, an almost ritualistic series of events takes place. First, astonishment and horror overwhelm America. Loud but indefinite cries rise quickly, insisting that the government must do something - anything. These demands are unanswered, but an interlude without riots follows. During those quiescent periods, the American public quickly forgets, imagining the disturbances were temporary phenomena that won't be repeated. Then destruction happens again in another riot.

Despite the absolute accuracy of Conant's foresight, leaders and officials continue to ignore what Conant saw as the underlying and precipitating cause of this destructive force - lack of education.

As I write this, the latest episode in this ongoing series occurred in Los Angeles, in 1992. Conant's prophecy was again fulfilled. The nation followed its usual pedestrian procedures - initial shock, clamorous demands, and finally, disinterest. The demonstrated recurrence of riots, over many years, eliminates the need for another prophet of the stature of Conant to predict that they will come again. It is obvious that they will.

The riots are only one effect of the 'social dynamite' that continues to accumulate. Rampant crime, which terrorizes America, is another. This lawlessness often comes into mainstream America. Consequently, it enrages and exasperates the American public more than riots in inner cities. Citizens fear for their safety. They plead for solutions but officials only proffer trite and anemic answers - more police, additional arrests, longer sentences, added prisons. Seldom does anyone in authority address the criminal activity-poor education connection. Jonathan Kozol, in his book "Illiterate America," pointed out that illiteracy and imprisonment are directly linked [ 2 ]. Statistics from across the United States bear him out. For example, in Florida 43% of state prison inmates test below the sixth grade level [ 3 ]. Math skills of 65% of New York prisoners don't meet eighth grade standards [ 4 ].

If the impossible were accomplished, and the government apprehended and confined all felons, the nation would quickly replace them. Another huge group of illiterates will leave school this year and next year, and every year thereafter. Unable to compete in a technological society, many will choose crime. Although not the only element in lawlessness, illiteracy and its cause, substandard learning, must be confronted before criminal activity is controlled.

If further confirmation of the debacle flowing from illiteracy were needed, welfare problems provide abundant proof. A Ford Foundation study found that almost sixty percent of the out-of-wedlock births by young women occurred among those who scored in the lowest twenty percent on a basic skills test [ 5 ]. Obviously, poor learning must also be addressed before finding an answer to welfare reform. The government talks about trying to educate welfare recipients to help them escape from the debilitating system. Usually, it's too late. They could have been and should have been educated before they reached their present predicament.

When Conant wrote his accurate assessment of urban conditions, personal computers were unknown. Since then, the power of these astounding machines has arrived and exploded, transforming countless institutions, whether decaying or dynamic. Computers can revamp education, but they have not. Why? Schools don't use computers effectively. Simply, computers can teach every child in every school in America to read. Unfortunately, millions of illiterate students have left school and millions more continue to leave in the same condition.

Computers have begun to be used successfully in some educational locations. These are mere beginnings, but they and their effects need to be considered. I will do this in the next chapter. In subsequent chapters, I will show the far greater gains computers will provide when they are freed from their current constraints in classrooms.

Chapter 2: A True Solution
When Patrick Koch of Parma, Ohio was a second grader, his parents bought him an expensive new encyclopedia. His mother and father quickly forgot the cost when Patrick liked the new books and began to read them with enthusiasm. After a few sessions poring over his new learning tool, Patrick announced one morning to his parents that he was not going to school. He felt he could learn more by staying at home and reading his encyclopedia than by attending classes. Naturally his parents rejected this innovative plan of learning, and the youngster headed into the classroom. His parents weren't unduly conservative. Rarely would parents trust their child's education to a novel experiment like this. They would fear that instead of helping him, it might hinder his education.

Members of school boards are sometimes confronted with suggested changes in schools, and they often feel like Patrick's parents. New proposals might not improve education; they might only degrade it further. Board members who must periodically face reelection cringe at the prospect of an unexpected blunder, outraging voters. They usually select a safe course and rely on the opinions of their experts - teachers and school officials. This further slows the onset of new programs because educators usually don't relish major changes. Like most of us, they prefer familiar methods.

Sometimes schools can embrace new approaches because they aren't controversial. School boards have discovered one major innovation that fits this requirement: they have added millions of computers to their schools. Parents applaud this change. They feel computers must be good for schools since they are modern, and intelligent people outside schools use them everywhere. Teachers don't object either when these new machines are added. Those who want to employ computers to help them teach have the machines available, while most instructors can ignore them. Nobody will force them to use computers. Administrators aren't threatened because computers won't bring any substantial change in the way they operate their schools.

Computers are, therefore, a rare innovation - they please everybody. Modern machines are in place; this pleases parents. Traditional education undergoes no real upheaval; this pleases teachers and administrators. A new undertaking isn't controversial; this pleases school boards.

Unfortunately for students, computers don't make much difference in their learning. Education remains unchanged and frequently impoverished.

Occasionally, someone comes along who suggests that computers ought to be used differently, even perhaps to do what has always been done by human instructors - to teach. Whenever this occurs, school authorities find themselves in the position of Patrick's parents when he advanced his unexpected idea. Teachers have always taught in schools and therefore, their position is considered essential and unchangeable. The suggestion of using computers in a way that might infringe upon activities of teachers is akin to the child suggesting the encyclopedia as a replacement for classes.

A major difference, however, separates the encyclopedic learning that fascinated Patrick the second grader, and expanded use of computer learning, which often fascinates students. Patrick's method has never been tried. Computers, however, without teachers in their customary roles, have educated students. Results of programs using computers can be examined to discover whether a radical new use of these machines is truly practical.

"At-Risk" Students
Computers have been used extensively without traditional teaching with "at- risk" students. Computers have been able to penetrate as an educational solution with this group largely because of failures with traditional methods.

Every year, sizable numbers of students leave school without graduation, before they reach an age when they should no longer be in high school. These are school dropouts. An increase in the dropout rate of a school system frightens officials because something is obviously askew; moreover, it raises a glaring target for critics. Therefore, keeping students in classrooms has become a compelling goal for school authorities.

Besides avoiding criticism, administrators may gather a few laurels by retaining these students. Authorities can figure the percentage of their students who drop out and can contrast results with percentages lost by their schools in other years. If their numbers are favorable, they can allow and encourage a comparison of their figures with those of other school systems. The media often become involved with results publicized in local newspapers and on radio and television stations. Sometimes statistics from notable and large systems like New York City may be trumpeted nationally. If a dropout rate is decreasing, teachers and administrators literally shout the news from the rooftops of their schools. A mystique has grown up in education about reducing the number of dropouts. This reduction is assumed to signify that schools are making important advances in their battle to turn education around.

This assumption is blatantly false for many children. These are hordes of youngsters who want to drop out because they haven't been successful in school - haven't been able to learn during their many years of attending. Their previous record makes it unlikely much improvement will result by future attendance. Simply retaining students in classes won't solve the educational dilemmas of students or schools, because learning does not necessarily accompany attendance. Nonetheless, schools brag about their diminished dropout rates as if they were actually beginning to solve this crisis in education. If a lower rate is accompanied by a different approach in educating the students, it can be meaningful. If it only means retaining students in a system that has consistently failed to educate them, nothing is accomplished.

The drive to hold students in school even arouses state legislatures. Some have passed laws decreeing that students who drop out prematurely cannot have licenses to drive automobiles while their classes remain in school.

Since schools are anxious to retain their potential dropouts, they try to identify them early and to target them with specific programs. They label pupils who are likely to leave prematurely as "at-risk" students.

Schools have developed ways to locate these "at-risk" students. Usually their poor scholastic record and their negative attitude toward school assist administrators and teachers in identifying them. One school system describes a typical "at-risk" student - and thus a potential candidate for a dropout prevention program - as one who "appears uninterested in school and is generally apathetic toward school as evidenced by tardiness, truancy, and low grades."

After finding "at-risk" students, school systems establish goals for their programs by setting a retention rate they deem acceptable under their conditions. For example, a system might set the goal of keeping sixty per cent of identified potential dropouts in school. If this aim were reached, the program would be considered effective. No further objectives happen to be established. Educating these pupils is seldom a specified goal. Logically, it would be difficult to expect these students, who were woefully deficient after almost a decade in schools, to change suddenly and become stellar students.

All systems try to lower dropout rates, but when rates exceed the national average, administrators panic and sometimes exert exceptional efforts to find and retain "at-risk" students. The United States Department of Education has repeatedly named Florida as a state displaying an unusually high percentage of dropouts. Consequently, for many years Florida authorities have grasped at various programs that would reduce this rate. They have strongly encouraged local school districts to try new ideas. Florida's legislature has cooperated with these efforts and even passed one legal remedy, that prevents a dropout from picking up a driver's license.

Florida dropout prevention programs have been feeble but they always managed to keep some "at-risk" students in school. Continued attendance by these reluctant scholars usually meant that their classes included another undereducated pupil who probably wouldn't and couldn't change a pattern built up over many years. Fellow students suffered since they had to interact with peers who didn't want to be in school.

Often these "at-risk" students are disruptive in classes to the dismay of their instructors. This behavior is not new because these pupils have been frustrating their teachers for years.

The school board in Indian River County in Florida confronted the problems of keeping "at-risk" students in regular classes with a new solution. A new use of computers was suggested: remove these students from regular classrooms and let the machines teach them. Since teachers didn't relish the difficulties involved in trying to teach these students, it was an opportunity to try something new without arousing opposition from teachers. After considering the options, the school board authorized the establishment of a program using computers. It started in the Vero Beach High School in 1987. School authorities put the "at-risk" students into a separate section where teaching was done, not by teachers, but by computers. Teachers in these classes became facilitators of learning.

Instructors in regular classes were relieved. Computerized education took unruly students out of their mainstream classes. Both instructors and other pupils in regular classes benefited immediately.

Since the Vero Beach experiment began, results have been beyond expectations. One indication of its success is that many other school districts in Florida have investigated and copied the program. Schools from across the nation have also heard of its achievements and have visited the school and its coordinator, Judy Jones.

To become candidates for the program, students must be behind academically and unable to graduate with their class. They also must be seriously considering dropping out.

After beginning the computer program, Vero Beach authorities checked to see if the program was reaching its goals. Obviously the effort had one expected and desirable result - computers aided teachers of ordinary students by removing "at-risk" students from regular classes where they often misbehaved. Another meaningful gain also appeared: authorities found they were exceeding their goals for retention of students. Previously they had been having difficulty in retaining sixty percent of "at-risk" students. With computer instruction, their retention rate skyrocketed, eventually to over eighty percent. Computers were obviously effective. They kept "at-risk" students in school, more than any other type of dropout program ever tried in the district. Moreover, an added revelation jolted pupils: school could be fun. Most of these perennially deficient students had never experienced this sensation.

When the school administrators examined results beyond mere retention rates, the unthinkable appeared. Students in dropout prevention programs - taught by computers - were going beyond mere physical presence; they were learning! They were absorbing knowledge better and faster than they had ever done before. Students who had shown no inclination to retain knowledge, or to want to progress, suddenly were being educated. A bizarre possibility suddenly electrified the students: they might even graduate. These were students who had never, in their recent memories, thought about this unlikely accomplishment. Overnight, they decided it might be a good idea to try; this personal success now seemed within reach. With encouragement from their facilitating teachers, they calculated how a high school diploma would add sizable sums to their earning power for the rest of their lives. They were impressed. With graduation as at least a remote possibility, the students decided it was worth belated efforts to get there.

These pupils had been dawdling along academically for years. Overcoming this handicap in the time remaining would require an instantaneous change. To graduate they had to make up, not lost months, but vanished years. For a decade, they had been learning less than other students. There was a lot of catching up to do.

Unexpectedly, this educational revival happened in the computer classrooms. Students, behind and about to drop out, suddenly began to retain in one year what ordinary students had taken several years to learn.

Facilitating teachers in the programs reported another change in these "at-risk" students. Their long history of being disruptive and difficult students meant nothing. Although they had been the acknowledged bane of teachers throughout much of their academic careers, they now had a radically different attitude. These academic failures - who had treated schools and education with contempt - suddenly stopped being behavioral misfits.

Judy Jones, the original coordinator for the computer program in Vero Beach, had transferred to the school in the first year of the program. The radical new classrooms, with computers as teachers, showed immediate external results. Other instructors who walked by her computer labs in that initial year were in open astonishment. They had tried to deal with these same students and knew their histories of many years of misbehaving. When they saw them now earnestly working at their computers with little untoward behavior, they found it difficult to understand. When they discovered they were not only behaving but were also learning, their amazement burst forth in an accolade that new faculty members rarely receive. The other teachers named Judy Jones "Teacher of the Year" in her first year in the school.

Previously undisciplined students were showing discipline. Students who had been unable to learn were now being educated. The extent of the gains they made is a still more remarkable part of the story. It requires some background for those unfamiliar with education.

The GED Program
An examination has been used in America since 1942 called the Test of General Educational Development, commonly referred to by its initials, the GED. It was developed to enable pupils who had dropped out of school, but who knew or learned as much as ordinary high school graduates to obtain the equivalent of a high school diploma. In its inception during World War II, many high school students had left school early to join the armed forces. Passing the GED test allowed bright service men and women to gain the status that accompanied high school graduation. Moreover, when they left the service after the war, they were able to enter college without returning to high school.

The GED program was an immense success and was kept after the war. The American Council on Education continues to sponsor it today. It is not, nor was it ever intended, as an easy way to obtain a high school diploma. The test requires candidates to show they have "acquired a level of learning comparable to that of high school graduates," and is usually given to adults after their school days [ 6 ].

States have some discretionary leeway in deciding how high to make the passing grade. Florida has established for its students a passing score on the GED among the highest in the nation [ 7 ]. The national GED Testing Service has compiled data showing how graduating high school seniors across the country would do based on various score requirements. Under the Florida criteria, only sixty-six percent of regular graduates receiving normal high school diplomas across the United States could pass the test [ 8 ].

Authorities in Vero Beach knew their pupils in computerized education were learning. Nonetheless, they were unable to graduate because twenty-four credits were required. Credits depend primarily on time spent in completed classes. Even if the computer students knew enough, they still lacked sufficient credits. Therefore, authorities decided to use the GED exam as a replacement. This option set up a horrendous complication for the "at-risk" students trying to graduate. Only sixty-six percent of successful graduates can pass the GED with the Florida requirements after twelve normal years of learning in school. The "at-risk" students had been markedly behind when they entered the program. Now the school demanded that they not only equal other graduates, but that they do better than one-third of them. If they failed, their quest of a diploma had also failed. Odds against these students passing the GED were enormous. No one unfamiliar with the power of computers could have given them much chance to graduate.

When the tests were given and scored, questions about the effectiveness of this novel way of teaching vanished. Computers had effectively overcome those oppressive negative odds. Eighty-five percent of these students taught by computers pass the GED with the Florida requirements on their first attempt.

Other School Systems
Results from other school districts which followed Vero Beach are equally impressive. Broward County, with Ft. Lauderdale as its hub, claims to be "The Nations's Largest Fully Accredited School System." Authorities studied what had happened in Vero Beach and then established a similar computer program. The dropout program in this district was placed under the direction of Dale Kadlecek, Ed.D., Assistant Principal at Northeast High School. Dr. Kadlecek reported outcomes in a paper he delivered after a full year of computerized education.

In that first year, eighty-one students were enrolled. At the conclusion of the year, eighty-three percent of the students had remained in school during the year. The goal had been to retain sixty percent. Even that goal had been too optimistic for previous dropout prevention programs. An eighty-three percent retention rate would have made previous programs unqualified successes in this school district [ 9 ].

The program also produced learning results that agreed with the startling outcomes in Vero Beach. Broward followed the same policy and allowed students who were chronologically of an age to graduate to take the GED. Twenty-three students fit this classification. None of them had any chance of graduating, however, under the record they had compiled before entering the computer program. All were behind academically.

After computer teaching, twenty-two out of twenty-three of these academically weak, "at-risk" students completed the GED test successfully! Again, youths who had been years behind were able in only one year to learn enough to pass an examination thirty-four percent of high school graduates across America would fail. Computerized education had made this seemingly impossible achievement a reality.

Broward's program added another twist that accentuated the value of computer learning. Students who entered the program before their senior year were ineligible to graduate that year. These pupils needed additional challenges. Dr. Kadlecek and his staff worked out an agreement with the local community college enabling students to attend while still in high school. They thereby accumulated college credits they could use after they had finished high school. Students who were "at-risk" and about to drop out of high school were suddenly college students.

This result, by itself, ought to make every educator in the nation take notice.

The program has now spread to over twenty other districts in Florida. Outcomes continue to be excellent.

Computers and Younger Students
Can computerized education also be effective with younger students? After their success in the Vero Beach program, authorities in Indian River County decided to try to stop potential dropouts at an earlier level. They began identifying students in the fourth or fifth grade who were developing patterns that made them likely dropouts later. As with the high school, these were usually students who were behind and uninterested.

Pupils in grade schools are younger, and no one was sure they could adapt to computerized education in the same successful way as older students. The results again were outstanding. Students who had no interest in school and were failing consistently, suddenly began to learn. They not only learned; they enjoyed it. Sometimes, in one year, they accomplished what ordinary students took two or three years to do.

Another result from this program mimics the outcome in the high school: children entering the program are behind most students academically. Those leaving are often ahead of many ordinary students who avoided the "at-risk" category.

The new program is similar to the one in the high school. Officials even bring some students from the high school "at-risk" program to encourage the grade school students. Shortly before, the high school students themselves had been classified as "at-risk" students. Now they are counseling younger "at-risk" students.

What Happens in these Programs?
Participating pupils are taught by computers. Despite a history of years of indifference or even hostility to schooling by these students, something changes. Computer programs are able to hold their interest, to challenge them, and to make learning interesting. Students are not isolated with a computer; teachers continually encourage them. These instructors admit when they first began the program, they expected to use computers extensively, but also to continue their accustomed instructing. They soon found that any teaching computers were programmed to provide could be successfully delivered by the machines without additional instruction by them. Lesson materials are furnished by the computers, with teachers acting as coaches or facilitators. Each student moves at his or her own pace. Teachers encourage students, but computers teach. These results are accomplished with software that is good by today's standards, but is still woefully weak as contrasted with what could be developed.

These classes are not 'cram' courses where students are buried in academic endeavors for untold hours on end. This style of unpleasant learning, with these kinds of students, is self-defeating. Students spend only two to four hours per day in the computer labs.

The universal atmosphere in the classes is one of youths working diligently while having fun. Onlookers wouldn't suspect that these are pupils who had previously shown a negative attitude toward education. I have visited several different district programs. My reaction everywhere was the same: these are students who enjoy what they are doing.

One company supplying software for these programs believes a student with two hours of computer lab instruction can equal what a student would accomplish in one month of regular classes. The instructor who first told me about this felt that this was an accurate appraisal from what she had seen in two years of working in the program, after several years of teaching in regular classes.

These dropout prevention programs dramatize the efficacy of computerized education. Computers can teach students of different ages, teach them well, and make learning enjoyable. However, we have to remember that these are initial programs. Software is just beginning to expose the potential of computerized education. These "at-risk" programs don't even tap into the staggering possibilities that multimedia opens up, and about which I will talk in Chapter 14 (in the January, 1997 issue of First Monday). Despite the demonstrated results with students in these rudimentary programs, American schools generally have ignored the results and continue on their usual well trodden paths. Most don't even investigate how computers could, at a minimum, revitalize the education of the hordes of students who are "at-risk," who become pariahs in a technological world. Schools continue to spew out millions of illiterates. This deprivation of students is both astounding and deplorable.

When American education fully embraces computerized education, the dreadful state of American schooling will change virtually overnight. Almost every child in the United States will learn to read early in their schooling and be able to enjoy education.

Poor students will not be the only beneficiaries of computerized education. Average and bright students will achieve equal, or even greater, gains. The rest of this book will examine computerized education and explain why and how computers and well-written software programs can revitalize schools. It will recount theoretical underpinnings that will explain why computers can reconstruct the learning system.

It will stress why schools must use computers differently than they do today to derive the full benefits of the power of modern technology. It will, at the same time, emphasize the importance of human teachers as they allow computers to do what computers are uniquely equipped to do: teach. End of article

Fred Bennett received his undergraduate degree in business administration. When he finished, he thought that he would never have to be in school again. After college, he started working as a salesman and later established a book distribution business.

Idealism then got the better of him and he decided to change the world. He chose to enter the Roman Catholic priesthood. It was back to school again and he received an STL (Licentiate in Sacred Theology) from the Pontifical University Angelicum in Rome, Italy. Returning to the U. S., he taught Greek and performed ministerial functions.

He returned to school again and received M. A. in counseling from the University of New Mexico, and then a Ph.D. in psychology from University of Utah in 1971. After the advanced degrees, he helped set up a treatment program for clergy with alcoholism and also worked in an inner city mental health center. In this environment, he first confronted the reality that some people without education could not get a job, regardless of how much they wanted to work.

Eventually, he realized he was not changing the world and left the priesthood. He directed public addiction treatment programs in Colorado and Florida and married a Ph.D. chemist, who was an excellent teacher. He then established, owned, and directed a group of private addiction treatment centers. He also became interested in computers and began to write programs to handle the paperwork for his company.

In 1990 he sold the business, moved to Sarasota, Florida, and began new projects. He wrote a computer program for artists, which he markets throughout the United States. He also started to think seriously about the problems in education and spent several years studying the subject. His wife's background in education was of immense help. Finally, he sought to bring together what he had acquired from his studying and education, from his experience working with people at all levels, and from his knowledge of computers. The result is this book, "Computers as Tutors: Solving the Crisis in Education."

Frederick Bennett can be reached at

The entire book is © 1996, Fred Bennett.

A Note of Thanks
My thanks go to Marge, above all, who was always so helpful and supportive as this book took shape, and to whom it is dedicated. A number of other people also offered many helpful suggestions, although they did not always agree with all my ideas. These people, in alphabetical order are Gene Best, Isa Dempsey, David Ellison, Margaret Kemner and Earl Krescanko. To all of them, my sincere thanks, and also to Paul Messink who first suggested that I put it on the Internet, and gave me so much help in getting it there.

1. James B. Conant, 1961. Slums and Suburbs, New York: McGraw-Hill, p. 2.

2. Jonathan Kozol, 1985. Illiterate America. Garden City N. Y.: Anchor Press, p. 13.

3. Florida Correctional Education School Authority. Annual Report. 1990-1991. Tallahassee, Fla.

4. New York Department of Correctional Services, 1994. Education Intake Report. Albany, N. Y.

5. Gordon Berlin and Andrew Sum, 1988. Toward a More Perfect Union: Basic Skills, Poor Families, and Our Economic Future. New York: Ford Foundation.

6. American Council on Education, 1992. 1991 Statistical Report.

7. Phil Grise, 1991. "First Year Status Report on Florida Districts use of the GED for At-Risk Students," Tallahassee, Fla.: Florida State University.

8. American Council on Education, 1992. 1991 Statistical Report.

9. Dale Kadlecek, n. d. "Paper Presented at the 2nd Annual Conference on At-Risk Students."

Copyright © 1996, First Monday

Computers as Tutors: Solving the Crisis in Education by Frederick Bennett.
First Monday, Volume 1, Number 6 - 2 December 1996