For those who envision laptop computers in the hands of every student, this may be the best of times and the worst of times. While classrooms using this approach are churning out success stories, growing state budget deficits are threatening future funding, leaving educators to wonder whether laptops for everyone is a great idea that they simply can't afford.
A four-year, $37-million initiative to provide laptops to all seventh and eighth graders in Maine has transformed middle school classrooms there and generated positive reviews. At the same time, the state's budget crunch has left the program's longer-term future up in the air. In Michigan, a plan to equip the state's sixth graders with laptops recently lost more than half of its $39 million funding before it could get started, thanks to an almost $1 billion state budget shortfall.
Maine's Best Seller
The harsh economic news does not surprise Chellie Pingree, the president of the government watchdog group Common Cause and the former majority leader in Maine's State Senate. Pingree was an early opponent of Maine's laptop program and says that paying for it was the legislature's biggest concern.
"There just wasn't enough money, and we were behind in school construction and general purpose aid to education," Pingree recalls. "There were cartoons in the paper of students holding laptops over their heads under leaky roofs in school buildings."
Eventually Pingree reached a compromise with then-Gov. Angus King, the patron of the laptop program. Now in its second year and known as the Maine Learning Technology Initiative, it connects the state's 34,000 seventh and eighth graders and their teachers to a wireless network. And according to administrators around the state, it already has lived up to its promises of better engaging those students in learning and leveling the academic playing field for Maine's many rural and underserved districts.
"Equity is a huge thing for us, and this program has gone way beyond what we even dreamed could happen," says Paula Smith, the principal of Pembroke Elementary School in Maine's rural northeastern corner. Smith's school is so small that its 25 seventh and eighth graders share the same classroom. Since the start of the laptop program, their scores in reading, writing and math have improved enough to remove Pembroke from Maine's list of underperforming schools. Afterschool detentions have almost become obsolete.
"The laptops are integrated in the classroom all day long, and the students have become totally self-directed, independent learners." Smith points out. "There's a community and family atmosphere. There is peer learning going on. These were kids without confidence who wouldn't have stood up to make a presentation. Now, they're asking to stand up."
During recess, students use their laptops to track portfolios in a stock market simulation contest. Pembroke's students recently finished first among middle schools in both the state and the country. Smith adds that the entrepreneurial, technological and problem-solving skills that they are developing through the laptop program will serve them and their community in the long run.
"We're so economically deprived, and these kids are starting to sense that, economically, they can make a difference as adults here," explains Smith. "They were even talking about developing a CD of dynamic photos that would promote our county to bankers, realtors, to mortgage people. It's a small step, but kids here are thinking that way."
In more populous Freeport, Maine, middle school principal Chris Toy says students are using their laptops as combination textbooks, writing tools, reference libraries (students can connect to a database of newspapers, periodicals and encyclopedias) and multimedia vehicles for creating class projects.
"It's one-to-one access. It's personalization of instruction that's in control of the person who's learning. That's what we do as adults," Toy observes, adding that the laptop program al-ready has become a high priority at the Freeport Middle School.
"It's right up there after having enough qualified, competent teachers," he says. "After that, it's about getting the tools to empower students and teachers, and this is one of the most powerful tools. The laptop initiative and the way it was implemented have had the most profound impact on teaching and learning of any initiative that I've seen in 26 years. And it isn't just about the technology."
"We've always realized that this is about education," agrees Tony Sprague, the project manager for the Maine Learning Technology Initiative. "The goal was to make the laptop program a critical part of the education system in Maine instead of an accessory that people would not know how to relate to. It was really based on many conversations with educators over what would work in their classroom."
The program was also a long time in the making. In 2000, a task force of educators and legislators began hammering out the specifics, tying the use of laptops to Maine's state learning standards, and scaling back an original plan to supply laptops to all of Maine's high school students as well.
The $37 million of federal and state funds Maine is spending over four years comes out to $300 per student. A deal with Apple Computer provides a complete package of services, from providing iBooks to creating wireless networks in schools to training teachers. Private contributions, including $1 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, are helping teachers integrate the new technology in different content areas.
And Sprague is looking to provide inexpensive Internet connectivity to student homes lacking it.
Along the way, the Learning Technology Initiative has drawn interest from New Hampshire, New Mexico, Texas, Pennsylvania and California, as well as an international contingent that has since implemented similar programs in Scotland and Australia.
In a state study of the Maine program's first year, in which only seventh graders received the computers, almost 83 percent of the students said that the laptops improved the quality of the work and 89 percent said the computers made school work more fun. These and other positive effects have fended off attempts in the legislature to cut money from the program and have left Sprague focused on 2005, when funding expires.
"The reality is that budgets are tight from the local school level to the state level," he admits. "There are always competing priorities for legislators.
But anytime there are questions raised about funding the laptop program, they're hearing from principals, teachers and parents, who say this is very important for my school, for my classroom, for my son or daughter. We're building a constituency that legislators are hearing from."
Former legislator Pingree says the program she once opposed now has her vote, even if economic times are tough. "While every state has to decide whether they can drain the funds from somewhere else that is important, there's never going to be a good day for setting aside money for a bold idea like this," she says. "But I think the benefits are well worth it."
Lost in Translation
Maine's success story hasn't been repeated in Michigan, which is launching the second statewide laptop program in the country and--because of fiscal and procedural problems--has stumbled coming out of the gate. Like the Maine Learning Technology Initiative, Michigan's Freedom to Learn Program targets middle school students--the state's 132,000 sixth graders--at $250 per student (with an additional $25 paid by schools), compared to Maine's $300 (covered entirely by the state).
"Sixth grade for many school districts is when students get lost in the shuffle, may achieve less, and become less engaged," explains Bruce Montgomery, Freedom to Learn's director. "And that appeared to be the time to get involved."
The laptop program was well-received at 15 pilot sites during the 2002-2003 school year. The state had already distributed 88,000 laptops to its teaching force a few years earlier. And the student version had strong support in Michigan's legislature, which last summer combined $17 million in federal funds with $22 million from the state to pay for the first year of the program.
By Christmas, though, Michigan's Gov. Jennifer Granholm had taken back the state money in order to finance Michigan's cash-strapped prison, mental health and prescription drug programs. Montgomery figures that only about 20,000 students at high-need schools and schools failing to meet Annual Yearly Progress standards will get laptops next year.
But that's just part of Michigan's cautionary tale. It did not help, say critics, that the program's rollout during the fall of 2003 was bumpy from the start.
"There were so many drawbacks," recalls George Brackx, the supervisor of technology systems for the Southfield Public Schools. "Maine spent two years planning. But some politicians here were making promises without giving us an idea of how our program was supposed to work."
For starters, it was not clear what costs districts would have to bear. "Publicly they were telling parents, 'We're giving you free computers,' but there were hidden price tags," Brackx says.
While the $25 per student annual charge meant $25,000 for Southfield in the first year, that amount would multiply if--as envisioned--the laptop program grew to include all middle and high school students. The district would incur the professional development costs for teachers to integrate the technology into the curriculum. And Brackx worried about the resources he would need to double the number of computers on his network and go wireless.
School officials around the state were still haunted by the delivery of laptops to all Michigan teachers several years earlier. "That was a one-time spending initiative, and there was not much follow up," says Matt Resch, the spokesman for Michigan House Speaker Rick Johnson, who championed the legislation for student laptops. "The feeling among schools was, 'Here we go again. Take us off your list.' "
Meanwhile, concerns about the educational value of universal laptops--concerns that had only simmered during Maine's adoption of its program--boiled over in Michigan. Teachers and principals questioned whether sixth graders could be entrusted with expensive equipment or expected to do more than play video games and send e-mail to each other.
The state also delayed for months before contracting with Hewlett Packard for a package of hardware and services similar to Maine's deal with Apple. By then, too many concerns had gone unaddressed for too long. Barely 150 of Michigan's almost 500 school districts signed up for the voluntary program.
"It wasn't that any of these things were insurmountable," Southfield's Brackx concludes, "but we never had a chance to figure them out."
With future state support in doubt, Freedom to Learn Director Bruce Montgomery and House Speaker Johnson promise to explore alternative models for funding Michigan's fledgling program.
When it comes to paying for large-scale programs, some models exist on district levels, including a suburban Chicago district that has financed laptops through property taxes and a small New Hampshire pilot program that depends on private funding.
In Virginia's Henrico County, which encompasses urban and suburban Richmond, Superintendent Mark Edwards has dedicated about 2 percent of his $356 million annual budget to supply Apple iBooks to the nearly 24,000 students and 3,500 teachers and support staff in grades 6-12.
Edwards talks about Henrico County's laptop program in business terms and says that his multimillion-dollar investment is achieving better returns than earlier investments in computer labs and desktops. The positive results include increased achievement (100 percent of the district's schools now meet Virginia's full accreditation standards compared to 70 percent when the laptop program began three years ago) and substantial savings on calculators, periodicals, maps, and reference books--all of which are now available via computer.
Henrico's high school students also have SAT preparation programs installed on their laptops and last year realized a 13-point gain and the highest average scores in the district's history. ESL students, meanwhile, have been taking their laptops home and teaching their parents English.
"Students use the laptops 12 hours a day," Edwards points out. "We're seeing hundreds and thousands of them log on at night. They're instant messaging each other, and they're listening to music. But they're also doing homework, and they're learning."
Ron Schacter is a freelance writer based in Newton, Mass.