Laptops rule among students in middle school
by Gabrielle Gurley
Deep into their "Unsung Heroes" reports, students worked on monologues about historical figures they'd chosen that would be recorded as iMovies and posted to the school intranet. Tyrone Williams and Leroy Hamilton were drawn to the writings of members of the Black Panther Party, a 1960s African-American activist group. Kymaunii Godfrey liked what labor leader César Chávez had to say: "You are never strong enough that you don't need help."
What's unusual about the class is that the students don't have to compete for a few workstations or wait until they get home or to a library to do Web research or writing. Right after the school day starts at 9:15 a.m., each of the 650 sixth- through eighth-grade students receives his or her own Apple MacBook to use in their classes. It's part of a four-year, $1.25 million wireless learning initiative funded by the state and bolstered by both public and private dollars.
Trailblazing is also going on at the other end of the turnpike. The Berkshire Wireless Learning Initiative has put laptops into the hands of more than 2,300 students and teachers at the Herberg and Reid Middle Schools and the St. Mark School in Pittsfield, plus the Conte Middle School in North Adams.
The aim of these programs is to not only provide students with 21st-century technology skills, but also to improve teachers' instruction and to help students become better writers, thinkers, and problem solvers. "I really do think this is the most potentially transformational intervention in education I have seen in my 27 years as an educator," says Frederick principal Debra Socia.
Are one-to-one computer initiatives really a worthwhile undertaking for struggling students? Students at the Frederick School, located on Columbia Road in Dorchester, face tremendous academic challenges. On the 2007 MCAS, only 20 percent of sixth-graders, 30 percent of seventh-graders, and 31 percent of eighth-graders reached the proficient level in English. In math, most students fell into the warning or failing categories. Socia doesn't flinch about the scores. "They're terrible," she admits.
Except for the tapping on keyboards and the whispers here and there, the eighth-grade humanities class at Boston's Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School was pretty quiet.
The further you drill down, the more issues you find. At Frederick, 87.5 percent of students receive free or reduced lunch, the highest of any Boston middle school. One-third of the children are special education students, and another 20 percent are learning English. In reading, Socia faces the task of getting some students caught up with the peers in the seventh grade - from a third-grade level.
But laptop programs alone won't turn around underperformers, explains Andrew Zucker, author of Transforming Schools with Technology. What works for at-risk students is a focused program that zeros in on the standards and engages students while training teachers. "If the school is really good at doing those things, then the laptops can help," he says.
Feedback about one-to-one computer programs is largely positive, but the research on this new phenomenon is limited, according to Damian Bebell, an assistant research professor at Boston College's Technology and Assessment Study Collaborative, who is evaluating the Boston and Berkshire programs. It's too early to gauge the impact on the Frederick's MCAS scores. On the other hand, the Berkshire schools have reported that their scores have generally improved. Bebell wants to find out why they went up, and if technology played a role.
However, for Socia, improving MCAS scores is just one piece of the initiative. "It's not the entire puzzle, because if you can't get engagement, it doesn't matter," she says. "I can't help but imagine it's going to have a big impact."
There's little doubt that laptops have struck the right chord at the Frederick, producing the sorts of changes that lead to academic improvement. Discipline referrals have dropped 30 percent. Attendance has increased. The penalties for lateness now include forfeiting a laptop for a period or the entire day, which motivates habitually tardy students to arrive on time. (Even with concerns like visits to unauthorized websites, the computers are less of a distraction problem than cell phones are, according to the principal.)
Lead technician Pierre Alexandre has been impressed by the students' movies and PowerPoint presentations. In one civics project, students also helped bridge the digital divide in their neighborhood by using their MacBooks to test the strength of wireless signals in the city's fledgling public Wi-Fi network. "I enjoy seeing kids take ownership of the machines," Alexandre says.
Teachers have been as quick to embrace the technology as their students. Laptops facilitate individualized lessons for English language learners and special education students. Testing and assessment is easier. Professional development opportunities, both structured and informal, are multiplying. For example, Frederick teachers can take part in "Bagels and Laptops," a weekly conversation over breakfast on such topics as blogging and electronic drop boxes.
The buy-in from teachers is significant. Education reforms often get a warm initial reception and then go into the closet after six months or a year, Bebell says. But with computers so prevalent in schools, to use or not to use them is no longer the question. The debate now revolves around how to use the devices, how many to have, and how much to spend. (The Frederick's MacBooks cost less than $1,000 each.)
Although the cost of laptops is falling, money has still been the biggest drawback to making these programs more widely available. Three years ago, as part of his education reform plan, Gov. Mitt Romney proposed giving inexpensive laptops to every Bay State student. The $54 million plan ended up in a study committee, the death knell for any piece of legislation.
While the Bay State takes one-to-one learning baby steps, Maine has jumped way out in front. The Pine Tree State is the only one in the country with a universal middle school laptop program. In 2002, plenty of Mainers mocked Gov. Angus King's plan to distribute laptops to some 40,000 seventh- and eighth-graders, but laptop supporters have had the last laugh.
When Jeff Mao, the educational technology coordinator for the Maine Learning Technology Initiative, traveled around the state four years later to find out whether to fight for the program's reauthorization, teachers told him, "If you take these laptops away, I'm leaving teaching." In 2006, the Maine Legislature decided to keep the program going, investing $40 million for another four years. Early test results are encouraging. Last year, University of Southern Maine researchers found that an average student scored better on the state writing test in 2005 than about two-thirds of all students in 2000. Moreover, the writing scores of Maine eighth-graders on the 2007 National Assessment of Education Progress, known as the Nation's Report Card, continue to show steady gains.
Yet Frederick Middle School students don't have long before they have to think seriously about life after laptops. What comes next for students who have been turned on to academics through technology? That's always a worry, Socia says. Only three high schools in the city - TechBoston Academy, Parkway Academy of Technology and Health, and the Urban Science Academy - currently offer a one-to-one computer environment.