The tiny Talbot County school district on Maryland's Eastern Shore is about to equip all upper-grade students with laptop computers, an ambitious and costly foray into wireless learning.
Schools Superintendent Karen Salmon believes her county is the first in the Washington region to hand out laptops to everyone in grades 8 through 12, at a projected cost of $2.5 million over five years. She believes the program is a path to success on the High School Assessments, a series of tests that this year's eighth-graders must pass to graduate.
"I think we need to provide a medium to engage our students," Salmon said. "And I think laptops will do that."
A number of school districts and one state, Maine, have given laptops to every student in selected upper grades as a way to raise technology standards. T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria gave laptops to all 2,100 students in October, the first public high school around D.C. to do so.
Research is mixed on how laptops affect student performance, the inevitable question for any academic initiative. Some school systems have reported improved attendance, discipline and morale. But evidence that laptops boost achievement is "slippery," said Saul Rockman, an education technology researcher.
"Don't expect improvements in standardized test scores," said Rockman, an independent consultant based in San Francisco. "Because whatever the standardized test tests isn't what we use computers for."
Two Talbot school board members broached the idea with Salmon after hearing a presentation from the Apple computer company on the Eastern Shore last year. One, Charles Edward Carroll Jr., is a retired software engineer who had worked on computer-based defense systems since the 1950s.
"It's had great success around the country, every place it's been tried," Carroll said. "Success being measured by improved grades, improved attendance, reduced disruption and behavior problems and, I think, an increased interest in the learning process."
The 4,500-student Talbot school district has requested $338,000 in fiscal 2006 to launch the program. Laptops would be given to about 800 eighth- and ninth-graders in the fall. Each eighth-grade class in subsequent years would get the computers, which would be theirs to keep until graduation. Apple will compete with several other computer makers for the contract.
"We're talking about, eventually, [almost] 2,000 students having computers," Carroll said. "And for us, that's a lot."
The plan calls for wireless networks in and around the district's three secondary schools, Easton High, Easton Middle and the combined St. Michaels Middle/High School. Students could log on to the Internet without a wired connection from anywhere within 350 feet of a classroom.
Handing a computer to every child is one way, proponents say, to erase the gap between technological haves and have-nots. Research on laptop initiatives note several other benefits: Teachers tend to lecture less and move around the classroom more, and students tend to have more freedom to do their own research. Some researchers are deeply skeptical that laptops can raise performance. Joshua Angrist, an economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, studied computers in Israeli classrooms and found no benefit to student learning.
"My view is that there is no convincing evidence that computer-aided instruction leads to achievement gains in developed countries," and there is some evidence that it may actually hurt, said Angrist, interviewed by e-mail in Israel. It would be better to spend the money on class-size reduction or teacher training, he said.
Salmon said she'll need at least two years to evaluate the program in Talbot. All eyes will be watching the scores on the High School Assessments.
"I've been doing a tremendous amount of research on one-to-one laptop initiatives," Salmon said, "and my study has led me to believe that this educational tool is absolutely essential to our students."