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Jewish World Review Dec. 24, 2001 / 9 Teves, 5762

John H. Fund

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E-mail and low-cost computers could be conduits for a learning revolution -- CHILDREN everywhere are expecting gifts this holiday season. Toys will be great, but what future happiness we could bring them if we helped the one out of three 4th-graders who today lack basic reading skills gain the gift of full literacy. If kids don't have good communication skills, their future in life is highly limited.

LUCKILY, SOME HELP is on the way. President Clinton lent his support to a program for high-school students to volunteer their time teaching literacy. Many states have adopted programs called DEAR (Drop Everything And Read) in schools to promote interest in reading. The education bill overwhelmingly passed by Congress this month has a "supplemental services" provision that makes parents at over 3,000 failing public schools eligible to use up to $1,000 of federal funds for private tutoring and other remedial services.

Private clinics like Sylvan Learning Centers and parochial schools are eligible for the funds as are magnet and charter public schools that offer tutoring on the side.

But more can be done - limited only by our imagination. Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the Media Lab at Boston's MIT, notes that his lab has produced a Web server not much bigger than a match head. He predicts that his lab will develop a computer chip that costs only $1 within five years. Add a PC with a screen and keyboard for a few more dollars and you will have a very low-cost learning machine available to almost every student with access to electricity.

Negroponte notes it is now possible to bring together the computers, modems, solar panels and satellite-dish antennas in a cheap, easily transportable package that can bring the Internet and e-mail to the most remote or poor locations. In Robib, Cambodia, Newsweek magazine found some 50 students, aged 10 to 16, riveted around computers that Negroponte brought to their isolated village. Kids who were first frightened of the strange machines now send notes in primitive English to computer pen pals in Russia. The computers are helping the children understand the outside world and sharpen their language skills.

The Cambodia experiment got me to thinking. Children are incredibly fast learners, if they want to be. Computers can make e-mail addicts of kids as early as age three. A volunteer, government-encouraged program to help kids learn to read using computers may rescue some kids - urban, suburban and rural - from whatever happens in their schools that kills any desire to learn.

The British writer Charles Handy suggests that schools ensure that every child has a registered e-mail address when they first enroll. With computers merging into television sets and the cost of PCs and Internet access continuing to drop, it won't be too much longer before computers could be ubiquitous even in poor neighborhoods. Schools could provide free computer time the way they provide free textbooks. The cost would be modest, it shouldn't be hard to generate charitable contributions away from some far less effective educational methods, and I've no doubt children could be encouraged through peer pressure not to be the last on their block to use e-mail or the Internet. To do those things, of course, you have to know how to read.

None of this suggests that computers or e-mail are a panacea or that they are a substitute for a good teacher and a parentally instilled love of learning. But where both are lacking, bold steps are needed. The National Assessment of Educational Progress report, which the federal government uses to gauge the state of education in this county, reports that 63 percent of black fourth-graders, 58 percent of Hispanics, 60 percent of children in poverty and 47 percent of children in urban schools scored at "below basic" competency levels, which means they can't read. What's worse is that those fourth-grade reading scores haven't budged in the past eight years despite rising education expenditures.

As we celebrate all our blessings this holiday season, let's make sure at least some of us also begin the New Year with a resolution that this country do something about its literacy crisis.

Comment on JWR contributor John H. Fund's column by clicking here.


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©2001, John H. Fund