When Lizette Adkisson started teaching three years ago, she remembers having to raise her voice over the sound of the ventilation system, street traffic and fidgeting fifth-graders. Even then, she didn't know if her students could hear her.
Now, with the help of wireless microphones, Adkisson is not only sure they hear her but believes they are grasping the concepts better.
"I don't have to strain my voice anymore," she said. "I just speak in a normal tone, and it grabs their attention. And I don't have to repeat myself as much."
The microphones--similar to those worn by singers Janet Jackson, Garth Brooks and Madonna--are installed in all 44 classrooms at Fenton Charter School and in at least 300 schools statewide.
Increasingly, their use is national as well. Schools in Washington, Oregon, Michigan, Ohio, South Carolina, Florida and New York have begun using the systems. The state of Minnesota contracted with a company in April to equip any school that wants the systems. Since then, 56 school districts have taken advantage of the offer, which includes a discount rate.
"It's long overdue," said Ken Ullrich, a clinical audiologist in Wenatchee, Wash. "I know that classroom amplification will do for children's listening and learning what classroom lighting did for children's seeing."
Ullrich--who studies the science of hearing and examines those with hearing impairments--said at any given time, at least 30% of elementary children in regular classes have some degree of hearing impairment because of middle ear infections. In special education classes, it goes up to 70%.
On one recent afternoon, Adkisson slipped the set over her head, bringing the small microphone inches away from her mouth. She tucked the black transmitter box in her dress pocket. Her voice was amplified about 15 decibels through a rectangular-shaped speaker hanging in the center of the room.
The 19 students sat quietly-- mostly--as they listened to instructions.
Reymond Maldonado, 9, said the systems make it so much easier to hear.
"When she gives directions, I don't have to walk up there and ask again," he said. "And I don't have to scoot up in my chair to try to hear her."
Adkisson and many other Fenton teachers often allow their students to use the microphone when reading or asking questions during class, a practice that has proved popular. "It encourages participation and gives them confidence," she said.
There seems to be evidence backing the anecdotal claims of better grades, behavior and self-esteem.
In 1977 the government funded a project that studied the effects of louder teacher voices on the performance of students in grade school.
During the study, which ran for three years, scores of students in younger grades went up in listening, language and word analysis when teachers used microphones. Other amplified classrooms showed better scores on math concepts and computation.
More recent studies have indicated not only an improvement in achievement scores but also in speech recognition, reading comprehension and learning behaviors.
Despite the evidence, the amplification systems have taken awhile to catch on because it's hard for people to believe that something so simple can have so many positive benefits, said Carol Flexer, an audiologist at the University of Akron.
But she remains hopeful.
"My stand is that sound field amplification will be in every classroom by 2005," Flexer said. "I firmly believe having high-quality sound in the classroom will have a very positive influence in education."
The price ranges from $700 to $1,400, which has been an obstacle.
William L. Rukeyser, coordinator of Learning in the Real World, a Woodland, Calif.-based group often critical of ballooning school spending, said officials should be careful when choosing technology.
"The real strength of education still lies in person-to-person contact," he said. "If people think that technology is going to replace it, they may be headed down the wrong path. If they believe it will enhance it, then they may be going in the right direction."
Even with the research, one question seems to linger: After so many years of teaching without the use of microphones, why are they needed now?
Experts say the answer is simple: The world is much noisier than it was 20 years ago.
Ventilation systems, lawn mowers, street traffic, offset recess times and the overcrowding of schools are just some things that contribute to noisier classrooms.
"Teachers are blowing their voices out. They didn't do that years ago," said Brian Van Waay, president of TeachLogic, the company that installed Fenton's systems. "But now they have to talk over all this noise."
And it is the noise that is keeping some children from their learning potential, audiologists say.
Just ask one of Adkisson's students.
"It's much easier to hear her," said 9-year-old Shanequa January. "I learn more."