Tuesday, July 26, 2005


I grimaced to learn that the Omaha Public Schools will give “free” individual Apple iBook laptops this fall to 10 classrooms of fourth-graders and their teachers at Belvedere, Catlin and Liberty Elementary Schools, at taxpayer expense, of course.

Cost: $259,545 for 220 student laptops.

There’s no mention of how well this investment is working in other public schools around the country, because there IS no such evidence. They’re just giving it a “try.” They have rebuffed repeated pleas to “try” teaching reading with phonics only, and to “try” teaching math the old-fashioned way, at a minute fraction of the cost of all these edu-toys.

Noooooo, they go for the glitzy fads that cost big bucks and just push kids further away from what they need and what beaucoup, beaucoup evidence shows really works in K-12 academics: paper, pencils, books, quiet time for thinking and study, and good relationships with teachers and other students.

Now, I ask you: would that kind of management decision fly in the private sector?

It’s supposed to be a pilot program, and if it doesn’t “work” to improve student achievement, it’ll be scrapped. Suuuuuure it will.

It depends on how OPS administrators define “success.” If kids like them, that’s a “success,” right? Riiiiiight.

How I wish parents and taxpayers would flood their school boards with letters and calls demanding the 3 R’s, not this constant, costly hucksterism.


Are Laptops Worth the Money?

Q. Private high schools have been requiring students to provide their own laptop computers for a few years now. Public schools are now providing them for “free” – at taxpayer expense, of course – at younger and younger grade levels. But is there any evidence that this ultra-expensive technology pays off for kids academically?

Wireless laptops are becoming a classroom staple around the country, at an initial cost of around $1,000 per pupil. Maine, Michigan and New Mexico have state-sponsored “free” laptop programs for secondary students, while Massachusetts and the District of Columbia have pilot programs in place. Many more districts and states are working on similar set-ups.

Laptops are “sold” as a motivational tool for students, a teaching aid for teachers, and a way to bridge the “digital divide” between rich families, which can provide home computers for their children, and poor ones.

But there’s no research which conclusively shows that students increase their academic achievement by using laptops. There’s no evidence that kids with laptops do better on standardized tests, write more worthy reports, spell better, compute better, or do anything academically better than kids who mostly use pencil, paper and books.

That’s extremely disappointing, given the billions of dollars that taxpayers have already given schools for computers and Internet access, with a national average of about four students per computer.

The suspicion is, at least below the high-school level, that kids with laptops are simply becoming more adept at plagiarizing and busy work. Sure, they can produce glitzy-looking products, but they cover up basic deficiencies in academic skills that could have been delivered to children for far less time and cost with traditional teaching tools.

How did this happen? The tech industry has done a tremendous job of lobbying legislators, superintendents and school boards. In Texas alone, according to education activist Donna Garner of Waco, Dell sent 51 lobbyists to the Capitol last legislative session. And that’s just one company among many in the ed tech market.

The pressure is mounting to join in to the feast, too. There are moves afoot in Texas and elsewhere to require secondary students to have wireless laptops to take their final exams, or receive no credit for the course. Pricetag in Texas alone: $700 million. And that doesn’t count ongoing operating costs.

School administrators say ongoing costs can meet or exceed 100% of the upfront cost. They say wireless access is difficult to manage and has questionable reliability. Concerns about breakage and theft also are mounting.

Can common sense slow down this push? Only time will tell.

Homework: For an idea of the management issues posed by school-based wireless networks, see

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