Just over three years ago, when Maine's then-Gov. Angus S. King, Jr., proposed an unprecedented program to provide laptop computers to every seventh and eighth grade student in the state's public schools, supporters and critics wasted no time debating whether the plan would work, and whether the tens of millions of dollars it would cost might be better spent.
Now, with 17,000 seventh graders about to complete their first full school year using the laptops, both sides agree that the program does, indeed, work. But the debate continues about the funding.
State Sen. Mary R. Cathcart, D-Orono, chair of the Joint Legislative Appropriations Committee, says that almost $6 million from the General Fund is earmarked to expand the program into all eighth grade classes this fall, and "so far there hasn't been the political will to take it away." That's not to say, though, that people aren't trying.
"Some people, and I would be among them, thought it wouldn't do any harm to delay that for two years and use that money for mental health, say, or education," says Cathcart, "but the new governor also is a strong supporter of the laptop program."
Indeed, Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat, says he is "determined" to keep the laptop program alive, adding, "I've been hearing from parents that their children stay after school to do homework, that they enjoy doing homework, that they love the ability to work the laptops... I think it is going to be helpful in the economy and telecommuting, and I see a lot of positive developments from this."
It's also good for Maine's image. Scotland, France and Australia have sent delegations to study the program, as have the Canadian provinces of Ontario, New Brunswick and Quebec. In addition, New Mexico, Iowa, Pennsylvania and Vermont have sent observers. According to Baldacci, the visitors "were very impressed with what the state has been able to do."
Maine last year signed a four-year, $37.2 million contract with Apple Computers for the laptops, software, training and technical support, and last September some 20,500 iBooks were sent to students and teachers at 241 schools throughout Maine. "I don't know that we had an exact idea of what we were looking for, but when you look at the scale of what had to be put in place and the time frame on which it's working, the fact that it's gone this well has been very encouraging," says Tony Sprague, project manager for the Maine Learning Technology Initiative, the state agency that oversees the laptop program.
Just how well it has gone was summarized in a study by the Maine Education Policy Research Institute: "Mid-year evidence indicates that the laptop program is having many positive impacts on teachers and their instruction, and on students' engagement and learning."
For example, an Institute survey showed that 82.7 percent of the students said the laptops improved their school work, 51 percent of the teachers said the computers helped them develop instructional material, and 89 percent of the principals said parents were "positive" about the program. The report quoted one teacher as saying, "I think the computers are the best thing that has happened to education in the last 20 years," with a parent adding, "Simply put, my seventh grade son is loving his laptop... he's learning more material, and he's learning it faster. He's excited about learning."
In statistical terms, the report said that school absenteeism had dropped considerably, and that there had been a marked reduction in discipline referrals.
Larry Frazier, technology coordinator for kindergarten through high school in the Town of Yarmouth, says that computers in schools are nothing new, but adds, "We never really saw the transformation of teaching. Now we're seeing kids and teachers thinking about instruction differently. We're seeing them thinking about it as an integral part of the instruction, rather than as a way to showcase something the kids have done... Now they are doing new things."
Where once students would use outdated library books for research, they now regularly use the Internet; where once they made primitive research projects, now they make movies and design Web sites. "In the art room," says Frazier, "there's now another whole way of exploring. You know, they had paint, they had clay, well now they have graphics, and it's just become totally imbedded more than I ever thought possible in a single year. It's an amazing thing... Kids have just taken these things and run with them."
But not in the traditional sense: Fewer than 25 out of 20,000 computers have been lost or stolen, and less than 2 percent have been broken, according to Sprague.
When the Legislature's Education Committee last March recommended leaving the laptop program intact, it cleared the way to distribute an additional 16,400 computers to incoming seventh graders this fall; those advancing to the eighth grade will continue to use the laptops they received last September.
Cathcart says that while funding will be "an ongoing question of one year to the next... chances of survival are good. Once they get into the hands of all the eighth graders, then you've got parents, teachers, everybody saying, Don't take away the laptops.'"
Frazier agrees, but he's concerned. "Because this has become such an integral part of their teaching and of their learning and the teachers using it," he says, "I cannot imagine what happens when those kids go to ninth grade if we don't follow this through... Literacy is not the issue here. It's changes in instruction. It's how teachers and kids are looking at teaching and learning. That's the piece, and that piece very much has leveled the playing field here."