As computer technology becomes integral to an ever-wider range of professions, lawmakers and educators have grappled with how to prepare students to compete in the modern workforce. Home computer and Internet use have continued to increase, but not every child lives in a household with computer and Internet access.
In response, the state has sought to bridge the technology gap by providing teachers and students with laptop computers. However, state officials have done so with little understanding of whether these programs will help students meet critical educational goals.
The state’s track record thus far is dubious. In 2000, on the heels of the tech boom, Gov. John Engler set aside $110 million to give laptop computers to Michigan’s 91,000 public school teachers. While this may have been a nice perk for teachers, a survey conducted by Michigan Virtual University found that fewer than one in nine teachers felt they could use the laptops to enhance their lessons. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the program has resulted in no significant jump in student achievement.
A related program aimed at providing laptops to sixth-grade students was first approved in 2003, and it continues to limp along. Introduced in April 2003 by then-Speaker of the House Rick Johnson, R-LeRoy, and signed into law as Public Act 158, the so-called "Freedom to Learn" laptop program originally earmarked $22 million in state funds and $17 million in federal funds, with an additional $25 per laptop to be contributed by participating school districts. Following dubious media reviews and claims by numerous school districts that their actual costs would far exceed the $25 per laptop price tag, Gov. Jennifer Granholm canceled state funding in October 2003.
Since 2003, Freedom to Learn has existed primarily on federal funding and school district contributions. In March 2005, Sen. Valde Garcia, R-Howell, introduced Senate Bill 299, which would appropriate $3.7 million in state money and $5 million in federal funds to continue the laptop program. Gov. Granholm did not include it in her fiscal 2006 budget recommendation.
Whatever its future, Freedom to Learn is a gimmicky program with no demonstrable results. A 2004 Michigan State University study found that while teachers "believe" that students are spending more time on homework and parents are becoming more engaged, "It’s impossible to make any judgments about the program’s long-term effects on student academic performance." And despite a requirement in the vendor’s contract to "deliver ongoing professional development opportunities for teachers" (per State of Michigan Acquisition Services), the MSU study found that only 28 percent of teachers reported that instructional support was available all or most of the time.
The MSU study also found that districts might need to upgrade their technology infrastructures to support the sixth-graders’ laptops. Traverse City, Oakland, Warren, Rochester and Kent are just a few of the districts that said they would not participate in the program due to its peripheral costs. Paul Soma, chief financial director for Traverse City Area Public Schools, said the district would spend far above $25 per laptop.
Computer network configurations can vary between districts and even between schools. Connecting dozens of laptops to a school’s network is not as simple as plugging in a cable or flipping a switch. There are support, security, bandwidth and data storage costs that are difficult to quantify, but very real nevertheless.
Another concern is that because of the inadequate teacher training, the laptop program may actually detract from traditional curricula. Technology education may be important, but there are many ways to accomplish it that do not require giving sixth-graders laptop computers.
The Freedom to Learn program may have allowed some politicians to appear to be leaders in cutting-edge education technology. But a hard look at the program’s costs and its lack of quantifiable results suggests that Gov. Granholm was correct to pull the plug on the sixth-graders’ laptops.
Megan Dwyer is a senior project manager for a search engine marketing firm located in Lake Leelanau, Mich. This article is based on research by Dwyer that won an award from the Political Science Department at Central Michigan University.