The Baltimore County public schools are scaling back an ambitious program that supplied laptops to every student, the first adjustments to a plan that began four years ago to much acclaim but hasn’t had much impact on student achievement.
Beginning next fall, the school system will decrease the number of laptops available to students in the early grades, providing one device for every five first and second graders. The change will require teachers to adjust their lesson plans, according to Mary Boswell-McComas, the school district’s interim chief academic officer. The county also will switch from HP laptop to Chromebooks — far less expensive devices — in all its elementary schools.
“I definitely think it is a move in the right direction. It is more fiscally responsible and developmentally appropriate,” said Leslie Weber, a parent and education advocate who has been critical of some aspects of the technology initiative.
The savings for shifting Chromebooks in the elementary grades are estimated to be about $16 million to $17 million over three years, depending on negotiations with the company that will supply the laptops, and the approval of the Baltimore County school board, according to school officials.
While the laptop program garnered wide support, some parents criticized its expense and the amount of time students spent on the devices. The cost of the laptops became a political issue in the last school board election, and the new County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. supported the switch to Chromebook.
In 2014, the school system began rolling out a $147 million technology initiative that gave students from first to 12th grade access to a laptop. The county was one of a handful of school systems in the state to assign a laptop to every student. Allowing middle and high school students to take their devices home gave students from low-income families access to technology at home for the first time. Just under half of the county’s students qualify for a reduced-price or free meal under federal guidelines.
Despite the saturation of technology, Baltimore County ranks near the bottom of the state in passing rates on standardized tests. The scores are generally flat for students in grades three through eight, many of whom have had the computers for at least three years.
An evaluation of the program by Johns Hopkins researchers found that third grade results at 10 schools that have had laptops longest have shown some increase over four years, but it’s too soon to say whether that will continue.
“The impacts of the [laptop program] on student achievement remain encouraging, but still indeterminate given the still relatively short duration of the initiative,” the report said.
The initiative didn’t just give students more access to technology, it also changed teaching methods. Students get reading materials, assignments and other resources on their laptops. Some textbooks have been eliminated. Teachers plan their lessons differently, knowing that one group of students can be working on the laptop while a small group gets some extra attention. Students can turn in assignments and communicate with teachers online, particularly in the middle and high school grades when students can take their laptops home.
McComas said lowering the ratio of computers to students in the elementary grades will require teachers to adjust their teaching methods because every student won’t be able to sign on to a computer at the same time. That’s a good thing, according to some parents, if it means that the laptops are used less in the earlier grades.
A small number of Chromebooks have been tried out at elementary schools this spring. At Oliver Beach Elementary School on the county’s east side, teachers said most students have found the new laptops easier to use.
“They are so much faster. The kids couldn’t believe it,” said Tracy Tegeler, the Oliver Beach teacher who handles training on the devices. With the four-year-old HP devices, she said, keys fell off and frequent repairs were needed. The new devices are only a few months old, so she doesn’t know whether they will develop problems over time. But so far repairs have been minimal.
In a fourth grade classroom, students sprawled across the floor and sat around tables working on a project about how Native American cultures changed depending on geography. Zoey Randolph, 9, has a practical approach to the new devices.
“If you drop these, the bottom doesn’t come off,” she said, adding that she can erase pencil marks on the new device more easily. Using the old devices meant she “would have to keep logging in again and again,” she said rolling her eyes just thinking of the inconvenience. Now she wastes less time staying connected.
Kindergarten teacher Ashley Eshelman said the switch means little to her students who rarely use the devices and are quick to adjust to new technology anyway. Abby Beytin, the teachers union president, said the switch could be a bit problematic for first and second grade teachers during certain lessons. “When they are using it in a group setting, it could mean they don’t have enough computers,” she said.
Reducing the ratio of laptops in the early elementary grades is positive in the view of Dr. Scott Krugman, a pediatrician who serves on the Digital Health Work Group that advises the county school system.
“We feel it is really important to have balance between active learning and devices, whether it is a laptop, an IPad or a phone,” Krugman said. “Our general stance is that younger students need more active times with physical things and not electronic things.” It is important for young children to be outside in unstructured play at recess and not on a device. Children learn important skills when they have to negotiate how to resolve disagreements over what game to play or who took a ball, he said.
Chromebooks are made by many companies to the specifications of Google. Several school board members, including Kathleen Causey and Julie Henn, had been pressing for the change to Chromebooks for years, but administrators had been reluctant to switch because of data privacy concerns.
Jim Corns, executive director of information technology, said the county has one of the most stringent privacy data requirements of any school district in the area. Those requirements would not have allowed the system to use Chromebooks, which use cloud-based software rather than storing data on a server in the school system. That changed in May 2018, after the European Union began requiring companies to provide a higher level of protection for the data of private individuals, and the school system can now be assured that Google’s Chromebooks will provide the data protection that the school system requires, according to Corns.