Recently, I read about three public high schools (Philadelphia’s “School of the Future,” a joint venture with Microsoft, Liverpool High School, outside of Syracuse, NY, and T.C. Williams High School, Alexandria, VA) that either have already disappointed champions of high-tech schools or are on the cusp of doing so.
All three schools issue laptops to students. Classrooms have mounted LCD projectors and collateral equipment that would stun visitors from developing nations. Many participants in the three schools, however, do not know whether the high-tech equipment has made much of a difference in teaching and learning and, furthermore, they question the worth of the investment. In each case, the promise of a new kind of schooling has dissolved into sharp criticism from teachers, administrators, and school board members.
What to make of these instances? Of the estimated 40 percent of school districts in the nation that have at least one 1:1 laptop school these three can hardly be considered representative since they are high schools, not middle or elementary schools. So, what can I say?
First, in reading each account, I recalled those advocates of technology who have mindfully extracted wisdom from scores of high-tech failures in schools. This hard-earned wisdom from battle-scarred veteran tech advocates shows up in their advice to those innocents who continue to cheerlead 1:1 laptops in the U.S. and internationally. Mike Trucano at the World Bank, for example, offers a list of nine “worst” practices (opposite of “best practices”) with two being especially apt for these three high schools:
1. “Dump hardware in schools, hope for magic to happen.” Trucano goes on to say that such practices are kissing cousins to: “If we supply it, they will learn.”
2. “Think about educational content only after you have rolled out your hardware.” He continues: “…it is a fact that, in many places, once computers are in place and a certain level of basic ICT literacy is imparted to teachers and students is the rather basic question asked: What are we going to do with all of this stuff?”
But, of course, lists of “worst” practices have the lifespan of a gnat because reformers’ unvarnished confidence in these devices invites amnesia about earlier high-tech ventures that stumbled. Even such advice coming from high-tech champions who thoroughly understand the power and the limits of school technologies seldom dent policymakers’ determination to buy and deploy high-tech devices during budget squeezes and cuts in teachers.
Second, buying 1:1 laptops for public high schools to raise students’ achievement is a fool’s errand. Good high schools, far more than elementary schools, are tough to create (see above “School of the Future”) and especially tough to move off a dime when student performance dips. The size, the disciplinary-based departments, schedule, traditional teaching, limited time teachers spend with students–no more than an hour a day–and the focus on content and skills for college and jobs give reformers ulcers. Remember Bill Gates who spent billions on converting big high schools into small one, well, he walked away from that initiative just last year.
Finally, my experience in researching a 1:1 high school for two years offers another story. The school introduced 1:1 in 2002 with great fanfare. However, shortly afterwards the school was put on academic probation for students low performance on state tests. 1:1 was suspended. By 2005, because of the entire school pulling together the state removed the school from its probation list. In 2006, the school re-adopted 1:1 and in various ways have issued laptops to individual students for the past four years. Since then, budget cuts, loss of discretionary funds, and changes in administration have led to a hybrid of 1:1 for some grades (9th and 10th) and carts of 32 laptops signed out to teachers who want to use them. If it were up to the teachers, every child would have a laptop–they voted for that option repeatedly in faculty meetings and on surveys. However, because of laptops going out of warranty and no funds to replace them, the hybrid model of carts, labs, and one grade having individual laptops is becoming the future in that school.
I offer this vignette because it differs from the three media stories and, I believe, gets closer to the truth of 1:1 laptops in public high schools that have had them for five-plus years. Whether teacher and student use of the machines in and out of class has made a difference in student test scores, writing, math, and other academic subjects is nearly impossible to determine because of state intervention, different deployments of laptops, the use of interactive-whiteboards in two departments, and much variety in teacher classroom uses of the devices.
The story I tell complicates the above picture of three laptop high schools presented recently in the media. No surprise, then, that the truth of what happens in laptop-rich schools is far more shades of gray than black or white.