It has been four years since Baltimore County’s first elementary school children excitedly put their hands on their own laptops, beginning a $147 million rollout aimed at giving students from first to 12th grade access to technology and transforming the way lessons are taught.
But the ambitious program has yet to show the results many had hoped for. 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 if 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.
Absent across-the-board increases in student achievement, some parents and teachers are questioning whether the computers are worth the investment.
“These devices do not seem to be improving my kids’ school experience,” said Suzanne Persaud, the parent of three middle and high school boys. The school system is “giving them the hardware,” she said, “but not the courses to advance beyond the devices.”
With the majority of the school board turning over this month, the future of the initiative seems in doubt. While there haven’t been calls to end the laptop program, some have suggested scaling it back so that not every student has their own device.
The new county executive, Johnny Olszewski Jr., doesn’t yet have a position on the initiative, but said his administration would take a hard look.
“I want to be a data-driven, evidence-based leader here for Baltimore County,” Olszewski said. “Any program that’s not having the intended gains that we’re spending money on we need to re-evaluate. Especially if it’s compromising our ability to meet other priorities.”
Overall, Baltimore County students in grades three through eight scored 18th in the state for math and 19th in English, according to a State Department of Education analysis of Maryland’s 24 school districts.
In contrast, Baltimore City — where elementary and middle school students don’t have the same access to technology — saw significant achievement gains last year across nearly all grades and subjects on the state tests, though the percentage of city school students who passed them is still lower than in the county.
Baltimore County school officials counter that the laptop program wasn’t begun solely to raise achievement, but rather to provide equity between students who have access to technology at home and those whose families cannot afford internet service or laptops.
“It has never been about laptops increasing achievement,” said Interim School Superintendent Verletta White. “You have to take a look at all of the impacts and the levers that impact instruction.”
In addition, school system officials say teachers might have had too little time to adjust their instruction and reshape lesson plans for achievement gains to be seen. All high school students had laptops only as of this school year.
Most elementary students, however, have had them for three or four years. The Hopkins researchers had posited at the program’s outset that any measurable gains might be seen by now.
Across the nation, as more school systems have invested in computers for every child, researchers have begun focusing on the impact. An analysis in 2016 of 10 studies concluded that giving every student a laptop does boost achievement in math, English, science and writing. But the authors, from Michigan State and the University of California at Irvine, cautioned that computers alone don’t increase academic performance and must be accompanied by other changes in teaching.
Jennifer Morrison, one of the Hopkins researchers looking at Baltimore County’s program, suggests that the school system examine its curriculum if it wants to improve instruction.
“The devices are just the delivery mechanism,” Morrison said. Whether the lessons are on a laptop or not, she said, “the underlying instructional message should be the same.”
School officials have begun to question whether the math curriculum could be flawed and needs to be rewritten. White said she plans to ask the school board to approve a contract for an audit of the math curriculum.
The Hopkins study does not suggest the county ditch laptops. The researchers found that the technology program generally is supported by county teachers and parents. The most striking finding, Morrison said, is that 85 percent of teachers surveyed reported their students appear to be more engaged in their lessons than before the initiative, a sign that achievement should rise.
However, teachers also said the devices have sometimes made it more difficult to manage the behavior of students. More than half of middle school teachers who completed a survey said their students had “frequent or extensive” inappropriate use of the computers. They reported students were breaking through firewalls and using the computers to play games or find an academic shortcut, such as searching for an answer.
Some teachers believe academic achievement might have stalled because the laptop program siphoned money away to pay for the new technology. The $147 million spent on the program for the first four years covered the laptops and the support system needed to keep them repaired and operating. Last spring, the school board approved a second four-year $140 million contract.
Those price tags do not include other costs associated with the technology, such as online curriculum and math programs that have cost millions more.
Dulaney High School science teacher Martin Stranathan said he likes the convenience laptops provide his students when they want to quickly research a question, but overall he doesn’t believe the devices are making a significant difference. In fact, he believes paying for the computers has bled his school and many others of resources that could have improved achievement.
Countywide, the student-teacher ratio has risen from 14.6 to 1 during the 2013-2014 school year to 15.2 to 1 this year. That’s because as enrollment grew by 6,887 students, the county added only 164 teachers.
Stranathan counts 20 to 25 fewer teachers in his school than there were eight years ago. His class sizes have risen so that none is under 30 students now, he said. Moreover, individual school budgets have been slashed, and Stranathan says he is less likely to get supplies from the principal. He is using six-year-old college-level biology textbooks for his Advanced Placement classes.
“Baltimore County never really justified why we needed the laptops,” he said.
Between the 2014 and 2018 budget years, the school system cut its spending for individual school budgets by 36.5 percent — from $17.6 million to $11.2 million. While the money is a small part of the system’s overall $1.5 billion annual budget, it represents the discretionary funds principals receive to pay for school field trips and extra staff or instructional materials. The reductions occurred even as county enrollment grew.
School district officials say schools weren’t disadvantaged because the central office picked up some technology costs that schools previously paid for, such as computers, copy machines and some textbooks.
Persaud has similar concerns about the amount of money that has been spent on the laptops. She said she would rather have more teachers, particularly to teach coding and technology, for her high school children. For a family that already has computers at home, she said, her kids haven’t benefited much.
“I personally haven’t seen any advantages to them having a school device versus the technology we have at home,” she said, though acknowledged that they might be valuable for some families.
Having children carrying the laptops back and forth to middle school can be stressful, she said. They get lost and left at school.
And Persaud isn’t sure that they are helping her children learn. She believes they are playing math games on the computers, but isn’t convinced they have a math curriculum that stresses the basics. “I am concerned that in some classes and in some levels they are creating assignments to be able to use their devices rather than creating a curriculum that is integrated and well thought out,” she said.
The Hopkins evaluation recommended the school system consider having middle schoolers leave their devices at school.
In the next year, the question of whether the laptop initiative continues is likely to be the subject of debate throughout the county. While Olszewski and the council don’t have the authority to decide whether the initiative continues, they have influence because they approve the school system’s budget.
Several school board members have gone on record questioning the program, including Julie Henn, an appointed member of the former board who won election last month.
Henn said she believes many factors are involved in raising achievement, and that she would support “a balanced investment across programs” toward that end.
Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.