Monday, January 09, 2006

Forcing parents to pay for little kids' laptops, the next trendy thing?

The first time I read this story from January 2nd edition of USA Today, about schools asking parents to pay up for laptops, it bothered me as an educator and as a parent. Thinking about it some more, it bothers me because it seems more like another example of a school district jumping on a bandwagon just because it is the thing to do. Let me begin by saying this: I have a nine year old daughter. She is very smart and capable, but I am not about to put an expensive laptop in her hands and tell her, "go at it." She does get exposure to computers since she uses the family computer with supervision. So, why does this story cause concern?

I really question if an elementary school student really needs a laptop at all. As Ms. Cornelius points out in her blog post replying to the laptop story,

"I also doubt the efficacy of placing an iBook in the hands of a first grader. How long do you think it would take a six-year-old to break an iBook? I’m not willing to let my kids play with mine to find out, but I bet it would be one week, at the outside, especially if it was in my kids’ backpacks (shudder!) which get slung around more that a calf in a rodeo roping contest—I actually watched my adventurous middle child slide down a snow-covered hill on hers once. True, maybe the kids would take better care of the computers if they were theirs. I have a long-standing policy of never giving pencils to students who don’t have one, from the bitter experience of learning that when you give something away, it becomes worthless in the eyes of the recipient. But since the kids themselves would not be paying for the computers, I still predict that the machines would be treated the way most of their other toys are."
I cannot envision a first grader being able to care for a laptop. I don't let my daughter near my laptop, and as I said, I trust her. I can only imagine some of the more "destructive" children out there. OK, let's not call them "destructive," just mechanically curious. My baby brother at that age took apart just about anything mechanical: radios, toys, clocks, video games, etc. just to look inside and see how it worked. I am sure there is a good number of kids like that out there. Do people really think a six year old like that can handle a $1500 piece of equipment if they can't even keep their toys in one piece? Now sure, some people may say their parents will watch them, but the if the kid is carrying that laptop in a backpack, odds are good it won't stay in one piece for long.

But even if they do not break it, what exactly do they need to learn that cannot be learned in a school based computer lab, or with basic classroom tools (you know, paper and pencil and blackboard?). Does it really enhance education at all, or will the computer be just another toy? The author at Education Matters. US! considers some important issues in the post about laptops in schools. That author is looking at a different story, one about a state that pays for 7th graders to have laptops. I point the story out because the author raises some important issues as he looks at some places that have followed the laptop route. Some other questions to consider include:

  • How will the computers be integrated into the classroom?
  • What happens when the teacher chooses not to use them?
  • Computer support? Who will provide it? The school? Do the parents now have to help maintain a laptop, keep it virus-free, etc.? What are the costs?
The key question the author brings up is whether such initiatives will really enhance education. Will they help raise test scores, which we all know is the measure du jour for whether a school is successful or not? So far, the answer to that question seems to be "no." See the post for details, but it seems that after three years of providing laptops in Maine, there have been no increases in those test scores. It's a feel good measure without any hard evidence to show it is educationally sound.

And then, there's the whole idea of requiring parents to pay. I certainly would not appreciate being told that I need to fork out $1500 for a laptop for my child. Before anyone wants to label me a cruel parent for denying my child, readers may want to ask themselves how many of them can just cough up that amount of money for a laptop. I especially ask any readers out there who may have more than one child. We were three boys in my house. My father would have likely protested loudly if told he had to spend $4,500 on laptops for his boys. Add the issue of possibly stigma. If I do not buy the laptop, how does that affect my child in relation to the other children whose more affluent parents can afford it? It is supposed to be a free public education. For the amount of money they ask, I can probably find other educational options from transferring to another school to homeschooling. A parent should not be forced to pay for some unproven tool simply to follow a seductive technolusty trend. Either the school should provide them, if they can prove that they will really be used to enhance education, not for games and other frivolous activities, or do without. Now, before someone says, "well, you pay taxes for the school and other things anyways, why not this too?" Here is Ms. Cornerlius' reply, which I think answers that nicely,

"Now some people might say that there is no difference between having a bond issue to help the district to provide computers and having the parents buy the computers outright. I would disagree. If a family has three children in this program, they are being asked to pay $1500 a year in addition to their taxes and the cost of all the other incidentals involved in their children’s education"

This is not just an incidental like the stuff you have to buy when you get the list of materials from the school, which by the way keeps getting bigger over time. Now, those materials are shared in the classroom. In this case, the parent is asked to pay for something specific for one child. Again, what about those who simply cannot afford it? This story seems more like another example of a school district trying to be trendy, not doing something of actual benefit to the students. In the end, it should be about a free quality education for all our children with the best educational practices in mind.

I found the blogger replies through the Education Carnival, Week 48 edition.

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