Maine likes laptops, but do kids learn more?

Ten years after Maine started giving a tax-funded laptop to every public school student in grades 7 and 8, teachers and students are enthusiastic, but it’s not clear students are learning more, writes Ricki Morell of the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting on the Hechinger Report.

FREEPORT, Maine — At Freeport Middle School, students in algebra class play “Battleship” on their laptops as they learn to plot coordinates on a graph. At Massabesic Middle School, eighth-graders surf the web on their laptops to create their own National History Day websites. And at King Middle School, students carry their laptops into the field as they chronicle the civil rights movement through eyewitness interviews.

Laptops “revolutionized the classroom,” says Raymond Grogan, principal of Freeport Middle School, who was a teacher when the program started. Teachers stop lecturing and started individualizing lessons, Grogan says.

Middle school teachers said “the laptops have helped them teach more, in less time, and with greater depth, and to
individualize their curriculum and instruction more,” according to an August 2011 report. However, the program has been implemented unevenly.

“The benefits are difficult to quantify,” says David Silvernail, the report’s author and co-director of the nonpartisan Maine Education Policy Research Institute. “So many other things are going on in schools, it’s difficult to classify what makes the difference. The laptop is a tool, just like a pencil.”

Students can use the laptops at school and at home. There have been problems with “distraction from unrestricted access to the Internet,” educators say. Breakage problems have improved over time.

The free laptop idea spread to other states and school districts, but has faded because of funding pressures and mixed results, Morrell writes.

Beginning in 2004, the nonprofit Texas Center for Educational Research compared the test scores of students at 22 Texas middle schools where students and teachers received laptops with the scores of students at 22 middle schools where they did not. The study concluded that laptops had a positive effect on some math scores but generally not on reading scores.

In Maine, statewide evidence of how laptops affect achievement is scarce. Test scores for Maine from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the Nation’s Report Card, show that the percentage of students scoring proficient or above in eighth-grade mathematics rose from 30 percent in 2000 to 39 percent in 2011, but that was part of a national trend of rising math scores and can’t be linked directly to laptop use. Between 2002 and 2011, the percentage of Maine’s eighth-graders scoring at or above proficient on the national reading test barely changed, rising from 38 to 39 percent.

 Angus King, who pushed through the laptop program as governor, is now running for U.S. Senate. His opponent charges the free laptops have been a waste of money. The state pays Apple a discounted rate of $242 per laptop per year, which adds up to $10 million this year, less than half a percent of the state’s $2 billion education budget.
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  1. Out here in Idaho, we have a similar program. It’s a good thing.

    The cost of the laptops is more than offset by the reduced cost of textbooks. Buying licenses for ebook versions is cheaper, the school leases exactly as many as they need for the current class, the edition used is always up to date, and the students can make notations right next the relevant text. The increasing use of hyperlinks to useful resources for greater context is also a boon to those students wishing to learn more.

    We do have a part to the program that Maine evidently lacks, a requirement that students must take at least one on-line course. (Without much of a limit on the topline.) This allows students in rural districts to have access to the same wide array of classes as students in more populated districts. (It also allows students to avoid especially bad teachers. The union is not at all happy about this.)

  2. I’d like to see data supporting the “teach more in less time and with more individualization” line; particularly for kids at the upper end. That population is very likely to be able to benefit signitficantly from that approach, but I would need to see hard data with real discrimination at the upper end – ie; not state testing and possibly needing SSAT or SAT testing – before I’d believe it. The ed world has been largely uninterested in that group for longer than I’ve been alive. My FIL said it was true when he started teaching in the 30s; “Those kids will do fine, anyway; we don’t need to do anything with/for them.”

  3. Well, all the technology in the world won’t help a student if they haven’t mastered the basics of reading, writing, and math by the time they actually need the use of a laptop (middle school at the earliest), and might be more practical in high school.

    I didn’t have this technology when I attended middle school, somehow the work managed to get done 🙂

  4. Mike Curtis says:

    “out here in Idaho” Your state has not funded for books nor laptops…that’s your state’s cost-reducing measure. After 700 to 1000 teachers leave the system and are not replaced, you can use the “savings” to buy computer courses for your kids to ignore.