CAMDEN, N.J. -- When it comes to the teachers in their classrooms, the students in this impoverished city have to settle for less than the best. A lot less.
Barely more than half of Camden's math and reading teachers are considered "highly qualified" in their subjects, a standard that nearly all teachers in surrounding suburbs meet.
But what the school system can boast of is its heavy investment in the Compass Learning labs, $8 million worth of computers and software intended to boost students' scores on math and reading tests.
Nearly all students up to eighth grade visit the labs as many as five times a week for drilling on the kinds of questions they'll face.
For Camden school administrators, these rudimentary exercises are seen as critical to achieving the mandatory performance goals of the landmark 2001 No Child Left Behind law.
For students, the costly emphasis on test preparation software may come at the expense of in-depth education.
Under pressure from No Child Left Behind, an increasing number of struggling schools are spending heavily on Compass Learning and other so-called "drill and kill" or "drill and practice" programs. Districts are buying the software at the urging of vendors who target poor schools with large amounts of federal funding and tell them, on the basis of questionable evidence, that they can raise their test scores with the software.
But even if they raise scores a bit, such programs are unlikely to produce lasting results, skeptics say, and in many cases they can become a stand-in for an actual teacher. Score increases alone aren't necessarily an accomplishment, many educators say, if classes are spending much of their time on software drills modeled after the annual tests, while leaving less time for more constructive lessons.
Instead of closing the achievement gap between rich and poor students, the landmark law might be underwriting a new "digital divide" at the very time when, thanks to billions in public investment, needy schools are catching up in theiraccess to computers.
While test-preparation software that resembles programs used in the early days of school computers predominates in low-income districts, suburban schools such as those in Howard County are far more likely to be using computers to promote longer-lasting, "higher-order" learning. And good teachers remain the driving force behind student achievement.
"Poor schools tend to gravitate toward remedial applications, whereas better-off schools gravitate toward a richer sort of software," said Margaret Honey, director of the Center for Children and Technology in New York. "If our education strategy for poor kids is to do nothing more than remediate them so they'll do better on tests, we're failing them much more dramatically than we have in the past. That's the downside of the tools that are proliferating with great force out there."
Good for business
Software industry leaders acknowledge that No Child Left Behind's emphasis on math and reading test scores is good for the test-preparation business, but they say the products are more sophisticated than critics claim.
"There's no question that reading and math basics are the focus point, but I don't think that just because [the software] is focused on that rules out innovation," said Gail Pierson, the chief education officer at Riverdeep, a leading education software company based in Ireland and Boston.
In addition, say company executives and administrators in districts that use the test-preparation software, the programs are a natural purchase for poorer schools because low-income students need more remedial help.
"I would argue that there is very little intervention [for struggling students] that isn't rote," said Barbara Byrd-Bennett, chief executive officer of the Cleveland school system, which uses Compass Learning. "For some things, you just have to learn facts to build to higher-order skills."
But some schools with low-income students are faring well by using more advanced programs, or by putting more of their resources into such improvements as smaller class sizes or hiring bonuses for high-quality teachers. By spending so much of the funding No Child Left Behind provides for struggling schools on test-preparation software, critics argue, poor schools have less left for the kind of improvements at the heart of real learning.
"Folks are buying these things based on brand names and desperation," said Stanford University education professor Larry Cuban, a vocal critic of how computers are used in schools. "You don't see it in the suburbs - they invest in people, for the most part. Suburbs get the better teachers, and poor districts get the better machines."
Technology amid need
The new digital divide is on clear display in Camden, one of the poorest cities in America. Just across the Delaware River from the skyline of a rejuvenated Philadelphia, much of Camden remains a bleak grid of weed-filled vacant lots and abandoned buildings.
The school system's 19,000 students are almost entirely African-American and Hispanic, and nearly all from low-income families. They've become accustomed to occasional shortages of workbooks and other supplies, with the district having faced deficits as large as $40 million in recent years.
Step inside the schools' Compass Labs, though, and the atmosphere of need vanishes. Rows of gleaming Dell computers fill the labs, complete with large headsets that students use to receive audio instructions and encouragement from Compass Learning, a San Diego-based company that is owned by WRC Media and used to be called Jostens.
The district's superintendent signed the $8 million, three-year deal for the software in early 2001, the same year the district agreed to a $2.6 million deal for Lightspan educational video games that run on Sony PlayStations. At the time, New Jersey, like many other states, was raising its testing standards amid the accountability movement that would culminate in the passage of No Child Left Behind.
Since the Compass software arrived in the fall of 2002, virtually all Camden students in grades one to eight have been visiting a Compass lab for a 45-minute period from two to five days per week. Many also visit a second lab for general computer-skills instruction, but that's only once a week.
In the Compass lab, the software assigns students sets of math and reading exercises based on how they perform on assessments given by the program, and it retests them every nine weeks. Teachers can log on to track student progress.
But, as a visit to a lab at Hatch Middle School showed, the program's seemingly scientific approach is in many ways no more sophisticated than an old-fashioned workbook. And it can leave students as lost as ever.
At one station, a student from an eighth-grade special-needs class was doing an exercise on identifying the roots of words, a skill included in New Jersey's state content standards. The exercise was dressed up as a baseball game: a word appeared on a base on a diamond, and the boy, the "batter," had to choose one of four words that described the meaning of the word's root.
The word "missile" appeared on first base. Confused, the boy clicked on the "help" icon, and was told by the computer that the root of "missile" means "send." But he didn't understand that he was being given the answer, and instead clicked on a wrong choice, "miss."
The program proceeded to the next example anyway: "dictation" appeared on second base. Again, the boy clicked for help, which told him the answer was "say." This time he realized he was being given the answer, and he dutifully picked that choice. The program congratulated him: He had hit a double!
Despite the boy's troubles, he wasn't about to get any help from his teacher, Sharae Huff. She was watching the class from a distance, holding back from approaching those who were stuck. For Huff, the Compass period was a time to let someone else - the computer - do the teaching.
"I enjoy it. It gives us [teachers] a break during the day. It's a little down-time," she said. "It gives the kids a chance to work independently."
Better than hiring
Camden officials say they don't see Compass labs as a substitute for live instruction. But they say they do see the program as a better investment than hiring teachers to reduce class sizes, some as high as 34, or raising salaries, which start at about $37,000, to draw higher-caliber instructors.
If the district put money into higher teacher salaries, said Hatch Middle Principal Calvin Gunning, it might attract better teachers - for a time.
"That teacher is not guaranteed to be here with you for their entire tenure. This program is here to stay, as long as you provide the payments," Gunning said. "If the teacher decides to move, you lost that resource. I need consistency, and that's what [the software] provides."
Another Camden principal, John Donahue of Molina Elementary, said a program like Compass offers a way to try to compensate for uneven levels of teacher quality.
"It is sort of teacher-proof," Donahue said, standing in his school's Compass lab. "Like any urban area, we have a blend of new teachers, provisional teachers, emergency-certified teachers. This sort of levels the field a little bit."
This mindset, which many school administrators are reluctant to admit to publicly, dismays education experts. Computers are most effective in the classroom, they say, when there are highly qualified, well-trained teachers ready to make full use of technology.
Some critics of No Child Left Behind say the law, with its emphasis on math and reading test scores, has driven the use of remedial software at the cost of other instruction. The Bush administration says this was not its intention, noting that the law also requires districts to increase the proportion of teachers who are "highly qualified" in their subject.
"There's no substitute for quality teaching. The foundation for any technology is what teacher is behind it," said Susan D. Patrick, the department's director of education technology. "You have to have a high-quality teacher."
Software vendors are quick to say their products work best in tandem with quality teaching, but in practice, many advertise the programs as a more efficient way to deliver instruction previously done by a teacher.
The country's second-largest vendor, Plato Learning, admitted as much in its most recent annual report to the Securities and Exchange Commission, stating that "in all our markets, we compete primarily against more traditional methods of education and training, principally live classroom instruction."
In an interview, Plato Learning CEO John Murray said that as a salesman he wouldn't pitch his product as a way to replace existing teachers, but he would tell growing districts they wouldn't have to hire as many new teachers: "As a school continues to grow, they don't have to add teachers at the same rate of growth, because technology shares the load."
It also helped, he added, to remind administrators that software never wearies or has a "bad day," the way a teacher might. "Technology is consistent in its delivery," he said.
Value of test gains
Camden's approach has paid off, say school officials: This spring, fourth-grade scores rose 10 percent in both math and reading on a statewide test, in its second year. Results were less encouraging at the middle-school level. Only 30 percent of students met the state's standards in reading, a slight gain over the previous year; only about 15 percent met standards in math.
Camden officials attribute the increases, where they have occurred, in part to Compass Learning. Many education experts wonder, though, whether modest gains on standardized tests necessarily justify spending millions on test-preparation software. The doubters include not only those generally opposed to using computers in the classroom, but many staunch supporters of classroom technology who single out drilling programs for criticism.
When students are drilled over and over on the same standards that they're going to be tested on, skeptics say, one would expect that their scores would go up somewhat. What is more important is whether the software is benefiting students in ways that will stick after the tests are done.
Schools say that score increases "are attributable to [software], but the question is, so what?" said Judy Van Scoter, a researcher with the Northwest Regional Education Laboratory in Oregon. "The other question is, what else are they not doing because of it? What are they not doing that could be more beneficial?"
Students, education researchers say, need a true understanding of subject matter they can apply to problems even if they are presented in ways other than the questions students are drilled on. The programs, they say, fail to encourage intangibles crucial to students' future success, such as curiosity, critical thinking and creativity.
Focusing exclusively on basic remediation with drilling software, said Harvard University education professor Chris Dede, doesn't equip students for more difficult subjects they'll encounter in middle and high school. So scores often fall off in higher grades.
"When tests shift from more remedial skills to more advanced skills, student performance drops off completely, because students don't have an underlying understanding of math and reading, they've just learned recipes or rote skills," he said. "Now that this whole [drilling] movement is resurrecting, we can expect the same dismal results."
To Van Scoter, the reliance on drilling software made to look like video games has become one more disadvantage that lower-income families have to accept and that better-off families would never tolerate.
"Can you imagine parents in a high-income suburb being happy with their children doing that in school time?" she said. "Higher-income kids get to do software that's stimulating."
Howard County's approach
The other side of the digital divide is easy to find in Howard County, the Baltimore suburb widely regarded as having one of the best school systems in the country.
Despite its affluence, Howard County is not overloaded with technology. It has one computer for every six students, a lower ratio than the state average of one to five - and much lower than Camden's Hatch Middle, which has one computer for every three students. And in using the technology it does have, Howard County uses basic-skills software far more sparingly than Camden, particularly for early literacy, an area where poorer districts rely heavily on software.
There are no Compass labs in Howard County. For students with reading difficulties, the district draws up a "student support plan" that includes, depending on the students' needs, one-on-one tutoring, a reading curriculum meant to "retool" the brain, and after-school classes.
To measure the progress of these students, the system assigns them any of thousands of books on hand, each labeled with one of the 26 letters of the alphabet to signify its difficulty. Students read their way through the alphabet, often in "literature circles" where students at different levels read books of varying difficulty on the same subject and then talk about them.
Bob Glascock, assistant superintendent, said the county has found that drilling software can't necessarily diagnose what's keeping a student from succeeding or offer struggling students the "rich literary environment" that produces good readers.
"Just sitting a kid in front of the computer is not going to provide a rich environment," he said. "It doesn't work. Reading is more complex than a software program. It's not so simple: 'just do this 20-minute program.'"
The county does make selective use of instructional software for struggling students in the upper grades, particularly for middle-school math. But it favors programs that win praise from education technology experts for their complexity and strong research base, such as Carnegie Learning's Cognitive Tutor. It also uses Inspiration, a well-reviewed program that uses graphical models to teach students how to organize their thoughts.
Mostly, though, Howard County uses technology as a tool for broader learning. On the county's networked computers, students can find an online version of the World Book encyclopedia, a periodical database and an "opposing viewpoints resource center," where they can find information supporting differing views on political issues.
In high school science classes, teachers send students on "Web quests" where they must find resources online to complete an assigned project, like developing a product. Students use software with probes that can be hooked up to their experiments to help track such variables as time and temperature.
When vendors do come to the county trying to sell drilling software, Howard typically turns them away.
"Everyone's marketing this game, they slap the No Child Left Behind label on it, but you try to talk to the vendors and by the time you get to the third question there's nothing there," said Glascock. "There's nothing beyond the surface level."
Going beyond the drill
Software vendors and low-income districts that have purchased drilling programs say a district like Howard is free to steer clear of the software because its students have less need for it. But there are schools dominated by needy students, including several in Baltimore, that have also succeeded with classroom technology other than test-preparation software.
Union City, N.J., a prevailingly poor, Hispanic suburb of New York City, attracted widespread attention in the 1990s for the huge gains its students made using education technology. In a partnership with Bell Atlantic, the district installed networked computers in the classrooms and homes of seventh-graders at one middle school. Over time, test scores shot up and truancy and dropout rates plummeted.
The gains occurred without drilling software, said Fred Carrigg, a district administrator who helped oversee the overhaul. Instead of "closed programs" that pose questions with right or wrong answers, Carrigg said, students used "open programs" that encouraged them to be creative. They used word-processing and spreadsheet programs for reading and math assignments and learned to create their own Web sites and PowerPoint presentations.
"With closed programs you get the right answer and a little bell goes off and that's the end of that," he said. "We went beyond that to the point where technology was always a tool to support the goal of finding information and using technology to create new knowledge."
There also aren't many bells going off at New Hampshire Estates Elementary School in Silver Spring. The school is in the high-performing Montgomery County district, but three-quarters of its students are low-income, nearly all are minority and more than a third speak English as a second language.
Tailored to the students
Inside the school's computer lab, there are a few basic-instruction programs lying on a shelf for teachers to use. But most of the time in the lab is spent with more creative undertakings devised by Lori Emmer-Miller, the school's former technology coordinator, just promoted to a county position.
After learning to use a keyboard in first grade, second-graders use PowerPoint to create mini "books" about things going on in their school - a series of slides of photographs and captions describing, say, a recent crafts project one of their classes did. The exercise helps students develop their computer skills while it develops their reading and spelling abilities.
Emmer-Miller also took a creative approach to teaching a new summer-school math course for second-graders. Instead of buying one of the drilling programs, she used PowerPoint to create her own sequence of questions and tutorials for students that correlated exactly with the areas the class was geared to teach. It took some time to put together, but it made more sense - and cost far less - than buying one of the basics programs, which, despite vendor claims, aren't suited completely to her district's standards, she said.
"I feel like you have to" make your own, she said. "The needs of your kids are always going to be a little different than what [the software vendors] are thinking."
'Not the final answer'
Back at Hatch Middle School in Camden, some students were having more success on Compass Learning than the boy stuck on the baseball game. But even they weren't particularly engaged.
One girl who was working on a punctuation drill was told to insert a comma in the appropriate place in the following sentence: "Robots will teach science in high school trade schools and kindergarten." The girl stared at the screen, which was illustrated with a picture of a robot, and then moved the mouse to place the comma between "school" and "trade."
The screen lit up: She was right! Then it gave her another sentence to test the same skill: "The robots of 2019 will be able to see feel and have a better understanding of the world." Staring at the screen, the girl moved to add the comma to the correct spot again.
Looking on, teacher Sharae Huff said she wondered sometimes just how much her students were getting from the exercises.
Even with drills geared toward the annual tests, she said, she doubted her special-needs class would meet the increasingly tough testing standards of No Child Left Behind.
"We need more than just Compass to get them up," she said. "Compass helps, but it's not the final answer. It's not getting them where they need to be."
Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times