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Wired for Success?

July 10, 2007 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

The Stillwater School District's controversial laptop computer technology curriculum decision highlights a Minnesota education public policy choice: are school districts punished or rewarded for innovation?

The Stillwater Jr. High School laptop curriculum investment program merits close study and consideration. While controversial, this entrepreneurial spirit would be crushed by centralized educational policy dictates. Under national programs such "No Child Left Behind," strong schools, like Stillwater, lose their capacity to take risks. A mediocre dive to the middle is no more an answer to Minnesota's educational needs than are unfunded mandates.

Is Stillwater's controversial laptop program doomed? School officials want to keep the program alive but say the district's money is better spent elsewhere.

The Stillwater School Board decided June 29 to ask voters to approve three levies. One is an operating levy while the other two would pay for new teachers.
What the levies did not request is money to maintain the rare one-to-one laptop program for Oak-Land Junior High's 1,010 students. In 2003, Apple Inc. named Oak-Land one of four National Demonstration Sites for laptop computing. The district then entered into a five-year, $1.75 million deal with Apple that gave a laptop to each Oak-Land student and teacher to use in the school or at home.

The program appears to be popular at Oak-Land. In a survey two years after the laptop program began, 75 percent of students and teachers said the program was a success.

However, some Stillwater residents actively opposed the program. When the program was initiated, tempers ran hot and three school board members were voted off the board. Opponents said voters had no input in the decision, the laptops weren't distributed evenly among the district's schools and the $1.75 million price tag -- $340,000 per year for five years -- was too much.

It was this anger that led to the board's decision on the levies. Members were afraid opposition to the laptop program would sink the entire operating levy. One board member said that without the operating levy, additional computers wouldn't matter.

Stillwater has one more year on the laptop agreement. The district will maintain the program and wait for a University of Minnesota study on the program. Then the board could ask voters to help pay for the computers.

While Stillwater's laptop program has encountered controversy, it still endures. Other school districts have decided to jettison laptop programs altogether, saying the laptops have been abused by students, did not fit into lesson plans and showed little, if any, measurable effect on students' grades and test scores.  The New York Times reported that a study found no difference on test scores between 21 middle schools with laptops and 21 without. However, the problems haven't cooled the desire to get laptops into schools. Two education consultants conducted a study of the nation's 2,500 largest school districts last year and found that nearly 250 already had one-to-one computing, and fully half expected to by 2011.
Education professor Mark Warschauer of the University of California at Irvine and author of "Laptops and Literacy: Learning in the Wireless Classroom," said schools should give laptop programs a fair shake. Teachers need time to learn how to use the new technology and integrate it into their classes. "Where laptops and Internet use make a difference are in innovation, creativity, autonomy and independent research," he said. "If the goal is to get kids up to basic standard levels, then maybe laptops are not the tool. But if the goal is to create the George Lucas and Steve Jobs of the future, then laptops are extremely useful."

Teachers and administrators at the Liverpool, N.Y., Central School District say many laptops break down each month, and when the entire school has study hall, the network freezes because of the number of students roaming the Internet instead of getting help from teachers.

"After seven years, there was literally no evidence it had any impact on student achievement - none," Mark Lawson, the Liverpool school board president, told the New York Times.

Like Stillwater, Liverpool was one of the first districts in the state to put technology directly into students' hands. At first, some teachers felt compelled to teach with laptops but stopped because they found they were spending so much time coping with technical glitches that they were unable to finish their lessons.

Math teacher Alice McCormick said most math teachers preferred graphing calculators to laptops. "Let's face it, math is for the most part still a paper-and-pencil activity when you're learning it," she said.

History teacher Tom McCarthy encouraged his students not to overlook books, newspapers and academic journals.

"The art of thinking is being lost," he said. "Because people can type in a word and find a source and think that's the be-all, end-all."

Meanwhile, one Stillwater board member is relieved the laptop program won't be addressed this year.

"It wasn't ready," Christopher Kunze said. The board will have to revisit the technology plan to see how to get the "largest bang for our buck."

In the meantime, educational policymakers need to consider a world without the Stillwater school districts. Minnesota is a stronger state with a brighter future because innovative school districts are unsatisfied with past achievement. Educational policy choices need to encourage risk taking, not crush it.

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