When I was in seventh grade, I remember excelling in math and liking writing. As I progressed through high school, my ability in math hit a wall around the time of calculus, but my writing skills continued to improve. Today, I have a difficult time cutting the correct angle when installing crown molding, and I use my English skills everyday in my job.
Why the trip down memory lane? Reading about the success of Maine's laptop program ("A Tale of Two Laptops") made me think about that state's class of 2008, the first students to get laptops in seventh grade. How will we be able to tell, ultimately, what difference this program has made for the state's 15,000 students? (Conversely, what benefits are being delayed while Michigan's plan struggles to get off the ground?)
The early returns from Maine are promising, with some surprises sprinkled in. More students are going to school, fewer of them are involved in violent incidents and, in some districts, test scores are up. The program's biggest success might be how it has brought equity to the many low-income and rural areas of the state. Other studies of smaller "laptops for all" programs show many of the same benefits.
For those doubters still out there--and at $37.5 million for Maine's four-year program, skepticism may be justified--more research is on the way. Outside of buying computers and installing networks, perhaps the best use of money in Maine schools is being made by the federal Department of Education. Late last year, the DOE announced a $1.9 million grant to complete a three-year study that examines Maine's student achievement, teacher classroom practices, and how both students and teachers use technology to improve math skills.
This is the kind of hard data needed in today's research-based times to be able to justify continuing Maine's program and to replicate it in districts throughout the country. With most states still mired in deep deficits, Gary Stager's column this month ("When Pigs Fly") offers two interesting proposals: Let students buy their own laptops (with tax help and federal subsidies for those who need it), or have the federal government buy several million computers to give to students, shifting the burden from states and districts.
So if future studies continue to show the myriad benefits of programs like this, maybe the emphasis about computers for each student will shift from whether it's wise to how can we pay for them all.