Laptops for Sixth Graders?

The Grand Rapids Board of Education, of which I am a member, voted last week to accept a grant from the state of Michigan for laptops for all of the district's approximately 1,700 sixth graders. This grant is offered through the state’s Freedom to Learn initiative (FTL), which allocates $68 million for school districts to lease laptops to kids for up to four years.

I voted against accepting this grant money for several reasons, but one of the most telling was the lack of any evidence that handing out computers improves student achievement. In fact, at the board meeting where this proposal was considered, I asked a member of the district’s administration whether there was any proof that having computers would improve student performance. The answer was clear: No.

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In January, Michigan State University’s Center for Teaching and Technology released a much-ballyhooed study that purports to show great gains in achievement as a result of FTL being implemented in other districts.

However, when one actually reads this report, it isn’t much more than smoke and mirrors. What are the major areas of improvement that were observed? "Teachers believe" that students spend more time on their homework. They "indicate" that the laptops are helping students become independent learners. "Parents believe" that the laptops would help the students be better learners. And finally, "parents are excited" about the program.

No mention of actual gains, no mention of improved reading, math or science scores. No quantitative evidence that students are doing any better than before.

When one looks even deeper, one finds that FTL had been in effect for only a few months before the study was undertaken. How could researchers develop reliable data with only a few months’-worth of experience to go on? And how could a report be released purporting to show "impressive" results from the program? That’s how Dr. Yong Zhao, director of the MSU Center characterized the study’s findings for the Detroit Free Press.

What’s really happening is that those interested in perpetuating a government program are trying to justify its existence, at a time when budgets are being cut and educational priorities are being examined.

Ironically, the FTL web site points to Henrico County, Va. as a success story. Henrico County gave laptops to all its high school students in 2001. The results from the program’s first year made national news: Many students were caught downloading pornography and music, playing games, and even trying to hack into the teachers' computers to change grades. The laptops had to be recalled by the administration and new security software installed.

Of course people like computers — students as well as teachers and parents. Give a computer to a student, and what happens? The student uses it. To equate parent and teacher enthusiasm over the time students spend on new computers with improved academic achievement is not exactly respectable scholarship. The mere introduction of fancy new technological means can have a lot to do with the substantive achievement of academic ends, or it can have very little to do with it. To find out which is the case, one must measure actual achievement and then figure out a way to measure how much of that achievement can be attributed to the new technology. Neither was done in the case of the MSU study.

Placing computers in classrooms is, of course, only the latest educational fad, designed to divert our attention from the real issue, which is what our children actually know once they leave school. Sure, technology is important and students will have to be able to work with computers to be successful in the workforces of today and tomorrow.

But computer skills can be learned without handing out personal computers. They are skills a good percentage of children already know and use on home computers by the time they are in the sixth grade. Bringing any child up to speed who has no computer at home should be a matter of selective targeting, maybe even by giving out a small number of personal computers.

But this should never be confused with measures aimed at improving student academic achievement, particularly when studies have failed to reveal any such relationship. This appears to be another program where money is being spent, simply "because we can."


Jeff Steinport is a computer network administrator for Advantage Sales & Marketing of Walker, Mich. and treasurer for the Grand Rapids Board of Education. Jeff is also a member of the Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority board.