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Homework on computer becomes a 'class' distinction

George Weinert of Gaitherburg, Md., examined the biblical parting of the Red Sea as his school science project this year. Utilizing the TRS-80 computer he has at home, the high school senior came up with a theoretical, if highly implausible, explanation of the parting of the waters: that it could have been a severe tidal effect -- the result of an Earth-sized body (Venus) leaving its orbit and passing within about 24,000 miles of the earth.

The project was really "no big deal," says George, who learned programming in the 10th grade. "Actually, the program of an electronic game is probably more complicated. I did all the math and physics, and used the computer for the calculations, which it could do better than I could."

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George, one of this year's Westinghouse Science Talent Search winners, is just one example of how computer-wise young people are becoming.

But there is another side of the coin. George's hometown is in affluent Montgomery County, noted for its high-powered school system. And his parents have provided him with a home computer.

What about the kids whose parents cannot afford home computers? And the poorer school districts whose priorities are elsewhere?

Explaining the Red Sea parting is nothing, compared with resolving another big computer problem looming ahead: the social- equity issue in computer education.

As computers come into the schools, it is the private schools and the wealthier public school districts that are getting the more so phisticated systems first. Of course, wealthy communities have always had better school systems than poorer districts.But as Dr. andrew Molnar of the National Science Foundation points out, computers are not just another piece of lab equipment. When used creatively, they make an "orders of magnitude" difference in the schools.

"It's a whole new way of approaching problems," he says. Freed from difficult calculations in math class, for example, children can do more problems than usual, and thus get a firmer grasp of the concepts.

Steve Hallmark, an educational consultant in Washington, warns that computers in education may lead to the development of a permanent economic underclass as the gap between "have" and "have not" school districts widens. "I don't see the political forces rising to deal with the problem."

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A recent study by the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium found that 2 1/2 percent of all high school students in Minnesota have access to home computers -- and a spokesman says that figure may be low. But bringing computers into the schools represents a major capital expense not all districts feel they can afford. And there does not seem to be enough federal money to bridge the gap.

Funds from Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act may be used for computers. But most schools are so locked into using the money for reading and math tutoring that using it on computers seems frivolous.

"The essential capital cost of developing computer literacy is going to be borne by the schools," says Mr. Hallmark. When schools are stressed financially , "Everyone's talking about back to basics, and we want to add another basic," he adds.

He sees this as part of a larger trend." We are privatizing the education industry." Public education is seen to be generally deteriorating, he says, while private education is booming -- everything from executive seminars to specialized industrial training programs to est.

Some observers feel that the computer revolution may bypass the classroom and , in fact, make the classroom obsolete. Parents may decide the self-instruction on the family computer makes more sense for Johnny than sending him to school.

This development, likely to become more feasible as more people begin to work at home on computer terminals, could mark a return to the educational pattern of a few centuries ago in England, when the aristocrats' children were tutored at home and public schools were the province of "the masses."