For Some, Laptops Don't Compute

T.C. Williams High School teacher Christine McMenomy checks in with senior Liza Conrad, who is doing research on her school-issued laptop.
T.C. Williams High School teacher Christine McMenomy checks in with senior Liza Conrad, who is doing research on her school-issued laptop. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 9, 2006

Two years ago, every student at T.C. Williams High received a wireless laptop computer. Alexandria school officials described the venture as a leap into the future of education and a way to close the digital divide.

But Liza Conrad stashed her 3 1/2 -pound Hewlett-Packard 4010 at home after she got it. For the most part, she left it there.

"Mine was pretty much under my bed all last year, except for one time a quarter, when it was mandatory," the 18-year-old senior said. "I thought it was just a pain to have to lug it to school."

Other students also said they ignored the snazzy machines at the outset, and some teachers hesitated to incorporate them into lessons. Critics called them "expensive paperweights," and this year, several school board members questioned the academic payoff of a $1.65 million annual expenditure that is thought to be unique among the region's public schools.

"My daughter and most of her friends, they don't find it to be useful at all," said board member Scott Newsham, who was elected in spring and is the father of a T.C. Williams student. "I think the decision was made to bring computers into the school system before they really knew what they were going to be doing with them."

Mel Riddile, an award-winning administrator hired this year as the high school's principal, also had questions about the laptops. When school began in September, he said, "the biggest thing I had is, why aren't the kids using them more?"

Riddile and school system officials moved swiftly to ramp up the initiative. Their goal is to make the machines indispensable, linking them to electronic textbooks, classroom projectors and other academic tools.

The school extended its library hours this fall to offer a place to use the Internet for research. (The entire campus is a wireless hot spot, with filters to block inappropriate Web sites.) The school also implemented an interactive online program called Blackboard, which allows students to use their laptops to participate in class discussions, organize work, take tests and check assignments, among other things.

Many educators see school-issued laptops as the wave of the future.

Alexandria has leased about 3,400 computers for students and teachers and added six full-time positions for support. The system is insured against losses from lost or broken computers. Administrators say that fewer than 1 percent are lost each year, and many of those are recovered.

But some experts question whether laptops contribute to student achievement.

"There have been studies that try to show that laptops and test scores are related," said Larry Cuban, professor emeritus of education at Stanford University. "There have been correlated rises but . . . no evidence to show that simply giving out laptops will raise test scores or close the achievement gap."

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