Four years ago Baltimore County began a $147 million program to put laptops in the hands of students from first through 12th grade in the hopes that access to technology would transform the way kids learn and boost the lowest standardized test scores in the state, according to a new report cited by the Baltimore Sun's Liz Bowie
Alas, the ambitious plan has failed to translate to an increase in achievement - as test scores are generally flat for students in grades three through eight, according to the Sun, which notes that many of those students have had the computers for at least three years.
An evaluation of the program by Johns Hopkins researchers found that third-grade results at 10 schools that have had laptops longest have shown some increase over four years, but it’s too soon to say if that will continue.
“The impacts of the [laptop program] on student achievement remain encouraging, but still indeterminate given the still relatively short duration of the initiative,” the report said.
Absent across-the-board increases in student achievement, some parents and teachers are questioning whether the computers are worth the investment. -Baltimore Sun
"These devices do not seem to be improving my kids’ school experience," said parent Suzanne Persaud - whose three middle and high school boys have had access to the laptops. The school system is "giving them the hardware," said Persaud, "but not the courses to advance beyond the devices."
With the majority of the Baltimore County school board departing this month, it is unclear whether the new board will continue the program amid calls to end the laptop giveaway. Others have suggested not giving every student a laptop.
New county executive Johnny Olszwecki Jr. says that while he hasn't taken a position on the program, his administration will give it serious consideration.
"I want to be a data-driven, evidence-based leader here for Baltimore County," said Olszwecki. "Any program that’s not having the intended gains that we’re spending money on we need to re-evaluate. Especially if it’s compromising our ability to meet other priorities."
Overall, Baltimore County students in grades three through eight scored 18th in the state for math and 19th in English, according to a State Department of Education analysis of Maryland’s 24 school districts.
In contrast, Baltimore City — where elementary and middle school students don’t have the same access to technology — saw significant achievement gains last year across nearly all grades and subjects on the state tests, though the percentage of city school students who passed them is still lower than in the county. -Baltimore Sun
The Baltimore County school district has countered critics, saying that the laptop program wasn't solely intended to raise achievement - but rather to allow underpriveleged students access to technology they may not have at home, and whose families can't afford internet service or computers.
“It has never been about laptops increasing achievement,” said Interim School Superintendent Verletta White. “You have to take a look at all of the impacts and the levers that impact instruction.”
School system officials added that teachers may have had too little time to adapt their lesson plans to the new technology.
A 2016 analysis of 10 studies concluded that giving all students a laptop does not boost math, english, science or writing scores, however the authors from Michigan State and UC Irvine stress that computers alone don't increase academic performance and must be accompanied by lesson plans conducive to the technology.