Laptop Program Shows Early Success
eSchool News, July 11, 2005
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Michigan's one-to-one computing project are citing marked
improvements in standardized test scores in reading, writing,
science, and math as reasons to restore funding to the program.
Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, had eliminated most
of the program's funding from the budget she proposed to state
Michigan's Freedom to Learn (FTL) initiative, produced in
collaboration with Hewlett-Packard Co. and Microsoft Corp., aims
to provide middle school students and teachers with access to
wireless laptop computers. FTL is one of the largest programs of
its kind in the country, with some 20,000 middle school students
and 1,200 teachers participating from 188 schools across 95
Though most students just got their laptops last fall,
supporters already are crediting the program with improving
grades, motivation, and discipline in classrooms across the
In Bendle Middle School in Burton, Mich., reading proficiency
scores on the Michigan Education Assessment Program (MEAP) test
administered in January reportedly increased from 29 percent to
41 percent for seventh graders and from 31 percent to 63 percent
for eighth graders;
In 2004, 53 percent of Leland Middle School students were
proficient in MEAP writing, six percentage points above the
state average of 47 percent. This year, 87 percent were
proficient--a jump of 34 percentage points, and well above the
state average of 53 percent;
Across the Eastern Upper Peninsula ISD, student proficiency on
standardized tests reportedly has increased in science from 68
percent to 80 percent and math from 57 percent to 67 percent in
just one year; and
Seventh grade reading scores in the Flint school district
reportedly jumped from 29 percent to 41 percent, and eighth
grade math scores increased from 31 percent to 63 percent.
"Usually, such overwhelmingly positive results like this aren't
seen for three or four years out," said Bruce Montgomery,
executive director of the FTL program at Ferris State
University. "Clearly, FTL is doing what it is designed to do for
our school children--enhance student learning and achievement in
core academic subjects."
Sandee Lowthian, a fifth-grade teacher at Bendle Middle School,
could have retired from teaching when the school year ended this
spring, but she's having too much fun to leave now. The
51-year-old educator told an Associated Press reporter that her
renewed passion for teaching came from the FTL program.
"I've been teaching for a lot of years, and I've never seen
students work so well as what I am seeing now," she said. "I am
so excited about the students learning that it's really hard for
me to even think about retiring."
The program was the brainchild of former state House Speaker
Rick Johnson, a Republican, who wanted to see it eventually
provide laptop computers to all sixth graders in the state.
A tree farmer from the northern Michigan town of LeRoy, Johnson
said he wanted to make it easier for children in rural areas to
have access to advanced classes their school districts otherwise
might not be able to offer.
"In the [Upper Penninsula], where districts are so much farther
apart, small schools aren't going to have enough kids for a
physics class. But with technology, they can connect five
students with a number of other schools," Johnson said.
Johnson helped set aside about $40 million for the first two
years of the program before he left office in December. Although
the program saw its funding increase in the past few years,
other areas of the state budget have been dramatically reduced.
That has made the laptop program a target for criticism from
some lawmakers and advocacy groups.
Rep. Paul Condino, a Southfield Democrat, said the funding now
going to the laptop program would be better spent on efforts to
increase jobs in Michigan, which saw its unemployment rate hit
7.1 percent in May to tie with Mississippi as the nation's
"Michigan is in crisis right now," he said. "We need to make
sure the parents of these kids are working."
Granholm proposed cutting $3.7 million in state funding for the
program in the new fiscal year that begins on Oct. 1 as the
state struggles to fix an estimated $772 million shortfall.
The program's federal funding could drop from $17.3 million to
$4.6 million in the new budget year, state budget office
spokesman Greg Bird said.
The elimination of all but a few million federal dollars would
prevent the program from expanding to other schools and keep
teachers already in it from fully implementing some parts of the
program, including a student achievement assessment, program
spokeswoman Leslie Wilson said.
Schools that already have laptop computers through the program
would be able to keep them because they have been purchased from
HP, which signed a four-year, $68 million contract with the
state, said Wilson, who is the director of professional and
curriculum development for the program.
Thanks in part to its promising early results, House Republican
leaders are taking a different approach to the program than the
They've set aside $11 million for the program, including $3
million in state funds and $3 million in federal money expected
to be left over from this year. Their plan requires that
one-quarter of the federal funding be used for statewide
Many program participants say it's worth the price tag, because
it gets students more excited about learning, boosts attendance,
and reduces behavior problems.
Peggy O'Keeffe, director of instruction for the Bendle Public
School District, said laptops used by students between grades
three and eight are encouraging more research and more writing.
"I've been involved in education for over 20 years, and this is
the most exciting project I've ever been involved with,"
O'Keeffe said. "It changes the assignments so the students are a
lot more actively engaged. If students are studying the American
Revolution, they do a PowerPoint presentation, they do research
O'Keeffe also said the program is helping bring new technology
and internet access to many children, and their parents, who
don't have them at home. More than half of the district's 1,247
students are from poor families and qualified for a free or
reduced-price lunch in the last school year.
The district provides computer training for parents so they can
learn about software applications such as word processing and
understand what their children are doing at school, O'Keeffe
Granholm's office referred all questions about FTL to Ferris
State University, which now oversees the program. Oversight was
transferred from the Michigan Virtual University to Ferris State
When asked about the change, Wilson said the thinking had always
been to move oversight of the program to a more formal education
setting--a move that some legislators, including program
developer Rick Johnson, thought would add more credibility to
"Our constituents lobbied hard for the program, and legislators
in the House and Senate agreed to put $10 to $12 million worth
of new money back into the program," Wilson said. "When the
Senate and the House saw that results of [the study], that is a
big part of what brought them to their decision. No one
anticipated we would see these kinds of results this early in
the program ... It's very good news."
Though the state legislature rebuffed Granholm's recommendation
to cut funding for the program, "it's not a done deal," Wilson
said. The final budget isn't expected to be approved until late
August or early September. Still, Wilson remains confident. "It
would be highly unusual for [the budget committee] to cut any
program that has the full support of both houses," she said.
If, for some reason, the money does get cut, Wilson estimates
FTL has enough money on hand to run at its current level of
implementation for one to two more years.
When FTL originally was unveiled, the goal was to provide
laptops to all 132,000 sixth-graders across the state. While the
vision seemed a grand idea at the time, Wilson says, "it was
probably a little unrealistic" to think that Michigan actually
could put a laptop into the hands of every student in the state.
Though program leaders still hope to expand the program, she
said, the goal isn't necessarily to provide a computer for every
student. Rather, the idea is to create a blueprint that other
school districts across the state can draw from as they attempt
to roll out similar one-to-one initiatives on their own.
"Schools need to look at their budgets and develop best
practices and really see what they can do," she said. The
ultimate goal is "to prepare kids for success in the global
at a glance
as the "Learning Without Limits" pilot program in 2002; intended
to eventually provide a laptop computer to all sixth-graders in
using the suggestions of students participating in the program.
million secured for the program in its first few years as other
areas of the state budget saw significant reductions to offset a
drop in revenues.
laptop computers and technical assistance to nearly 20,500
students, 1,400 teachers, and 400 school administrators.
Granholm has proposed eliminating all funding for the program in
the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1 and dividing its $3.7 million
in state funding between the Michigan Virtual High School and
the Center for Educational Performance and Information.
Republican leaders proposed setting aside $11 million in federal
and state dollars to continue the program in the upcoming budget
learned and best practices from its 2003 pilot project, the
program was expanded last year with a focus on middle school
students using complete technology solutions from HP and
Microsoft, along with Classroom Connect, Broad Education, and
others. Further enhancements to the program include the addition
of a Scantron assessment tool for immediate review of progress
and the implementation of Microsoft's Learning Gateway
FTL is jointly
coordinated by the Michigan Department of Education and Ferris
State University (FSU) and is based at FSU. Further information
can be found at
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