BY ESTHER J. CEPEDA, Chicago Sun-Times Columnist
You may have heard that mayoral candidate Gery Chico’s education agenda includes a proposal that the Chicago Public Schools provide each student with a laptop to use in class and at home.
I wondered how long it would take one of the candidates to propose this. It sounds really good and might even be relatively affordable, depending on which computer maker steps up to the plate with a jaw-dropping volume discount. Chicago is, after all, the third-largest school district in the country.
Chico won’t be the only mayoral candidate to jump on the laptop bandwagon, and he’s certainly not the first local politician to suggest laptops are the definitive tool of empowerment for our schoolchildren.
In the spring of 2006, then-Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn floated a proposal to equip 13,000 public school seventh-graders and their teachers with laptop computers; he called them the “textbooks of the 21st century.”
I was still working as a teacher then, but I wrote a Sun-Times guest column pointing out what should still be obvious to all: The major factor in the success of students is a low student-to-teacher ratio. Knowing that, any money Illinois can scrape together to pay for efforts to improve student achievement should be spent on getting more well-trained teachers into classrooms so students don’t have to be packed together like sardines. It shouldn’t be spent on silver bullets.
And four years later, I’d still say laptops are no silver bullet.
Ofer Malamud, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Chicago, co-authored a study released last January that investigated educational outcomes after low-income families received vouchers to help them buy computers. He and Cristian Pop-Eleches of Columbia University found that while students gained improved computer skills — a benefit that should not be undervalued — there was no significant improvement in grades. The students with the computers, in fact, earned lower grades on average in three key math and language subjects.
Why? Because at home — regardless of Internet connectivity — the kids used the equipment to play games. Duh.
Likewise, a Duke University paper published last June looked at the arrival of broadband service in North Carolina between 2000 and 2005 and found that, in that time, middle school students’ math and reading test scores dropped. One explanation, the researchers said, was the kids’ new access to Web-based entertainment.
This is not to denigrate Chico’s education agenda, which includes considerably more than just a call for laptop computers, nor is it to say that computers necessarily have no place in a classroom. Dueling studies contradict each other.
I can point to school districts across the country that sing the praises of their send-a-laptop-home programs, but I can just as easily point to school districts in Liverpool, N.Y., Richmond, Va., Costa Mesa, Calif. and Broward County, Fla., that have reported laptop-related cheating, student hacking and exorbitant repair costs accompanied by little or no academic gains.
The important thing to remember is this: While a laptop computer can be a powerfully useful tool of education, it’s not the superman schools have been waiting for to swoop in and rescue struggling students. You can’t just slide a laptop across a student’s desk and assume that his or her intellectual curiosity will save the day.
With realistic expectations, good planning and loads of cash for training, a take-home laptop program could be a success. Before getting them into kids’ hands there would have to be a tremendous amount of training for teachers who, if not flat-out technophobic, are unfamiliar with how to teach classes that integrate laptops. You’d also need a robust outreach plan for parents to make sure they know how to drive positive academic results.
To properly prepare for life in the real world, students need as much access to computers as possible — for academic use. But nobody should assume the benefits of a laptop in every backpack automatically outweigh the costs.