Ladue School District One-to-One Laptop Computer Initiative

The Ladue School district is currently considering an initiative to provide laptops at the high school. What should parents know about this program?

The Ladue School district is currently considering a One-to-One initiative which would provide a leased laptop computer for every high school student.  I wanted to express a few of my concerns with this program and get some feedback.  My understanding is that the board will only approve the program if they can find enough savings through implementing the program or if the program can be funded through private donations.  Although cost is certainly an issue and I feel there are better ways to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars (my son has 31 students in his AP Calculus class and given my choice of a smaller class size or a laptop program, it’s not a difficult choice for me), my primary issue with the One-to-One initiative is the lack of educational value in the program.  I can speak from personal experience as my daughter’s school initiated a similar program during her freshman year in high school.

Hundreds of school districts across the country have implemented programs such as this.  What is interesting is that a sizeable number of them are now taking the laptops out of the schools after finding there was no improvement in scores.  In fact, in some cases, they found their scores had actually gone down. 

I believe the number of Ladue students who don’t have access to, or understand, technology is very small.  Most have one or more smart phones, iPads, laptops or desktop computers at their disposal.  Computers are simply a tool, not an educational strategy.   

My daughter graduated from Harvard last year.  She lived with 5 girls in her dorm.  Three of her roommates went to elite college prep boarding schools which routinely send 70% or more of their students to Ivy League colleges.  Of the five girls, only my daughter had used a computer in the classroom.   While my daughter and her roommates had laptops, none of them took them to class. In fact, many colleges now ban laptops in the classroom because the professors can’t get the students to pay attention with the world of social media at their fingertips. 

One of the reasons given for the one-to-one initiative is that it is “important for students to learn how to communicate, collaborate, solve problems and interact with others in a civil and respectful manner”.  I believe this is important, as well.  How does technology in the classroom facilitate this collaboration process?  Watch a couple of dozen students outside of the gym waiting for their parents to pick them up.  You will usually see two dozen heads down looking at a smart phone with no interaction between the students.  I want my son engaged in class, debating topics in government, discussing literature, and learning physics from a physics teacher, not a computer. 

I see a significant difference in how my employees over 30 years of age interact as compared with those under 30.  My “older” workers are much more likely to discuss an issue or work collaboratively to solve a problem than the younger workers, who typically will communicate via email rather than in person.  The younger workers often waste time trying to do an Internet search for a solution rather than collaborate with colleagues.  There are, of course, multiple studies showing that technology has reduced the ability of people to relate to each other verbally.

My daughter’s experience with the computers at her school was almost laughable.  We went to the parents program discussing the initiative and were told things like:

  • How do we know the kids won’t be on Facebook or email all day? 

 “We’ve got everything locked down so that won’t happen.”  I asked my daughter the evening of the first day how well things were locked down.  She laughed and said students were easily able to access games, Facebook, email, texting, and pretty much anything else that was “locked down” by lunchtime on the first day.  She sat near the back in one class and, from her vantage point, estimated 75% of student screens were on something other than the particular link to which the teacher directed them.  Not once, mind you, but on a regular basis.

  •  What happens if a computer breaks down in the middle of a class?

 “This won’t be a problem because we’ll have plenty of spares for students to use.”  In actuality, this was a huge problem.  There were technical issues with the computers on a regular basis.  Students forgot to bring them to school.  Students forgot to charge the battery.  The student is now left without access to the materials until he or she can go to the technology center to get a replacement or help with the computer.  What does the student do in this case if instructional materials are only accessible through the laptop?  Isn’t this like taking away their textbooks?  The first few months of the program at my daughter's school were so bad that they discontinued the use of the computers for several months while they tried to work out the kinks.  As the parent of a son who will be a senior next year, I would hate to have him be a part of the first year of a program which will be very disruptive to learning.

  •  What if my child’s teacher isn’t trained on using the computer?

 “Every teacher will receive direct training on using the computers and how to integrate them into their curriculum.”  While this may be a true statement, it didn’t solve the problem of teachers not being able to use the computers.  My daughter told me entire class periods were sometimes wasted on a teacher trying to help a student get connected to a particular web site.  In the Ladue video describing the program, it was mentioned that it was a “cool learning environment” because sometimes the students had to help the teachers with the computers.  I’m assuming that the pilot program teachers were well-trained on the computers, correct?  If so, the training was clearly inadequate.  Frankly, I’d much rather have my son’s math teacher attend a mathematics conference than spend a week learning how to troubleshoot a laptop.

  •  What if a course doesn’t lend itself to using the computer as part of the curriculum?

 “We feel the computer can be used in every classroom and have encouraged our teachers to do so.”  In fact, teachers at my daughter’s school were specifically instructed to “find a way” to use the computers in their classroom.  I spoke to my daughter’s teachers and the vast majority of them felt the computer was a detriment to their teaching.  My daughter’s French teacher simply refused to use the computers.  Her first words every morning were (in French) “put the computers away.”  Ninety percent of her French AP students, by the way, received a 5 on their AP test so they were apparently able to learn without the aid of the computer.  By my daughter’s senior year, only a handful of teachers (none of hers, thankfully) were using the computers in the classroom.  My son has contacted more than two dozen teachers at the high school across multiple disciplines and has only found one teacher who was in favor of the program and even she had doubts about whether it would actually improve the student educational experience.

Without teacher support, this program cannot succeed.  Were teachers polled to ask if they approved of the program?  Were parents polled on their thoughts? 

I could go on and on with the problems my daughter experienced with the computer program at her school.  In the end, the computers were a detriment to her learning. 

Please understand that I feel the Ladue School District is exemplary and I have every hope that it continues in its fine tradition of academic excellence.  I feel more study as well as teacher, parent and student buy-in are required before the one-to-one initiative has any hope of being successful. 

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flyoverland November 21, 2012 at 02:52 AM
Schools seem to have developed their own vernacular like "one to one," "technology," etc. We're talking about computers. You hit the nail on the head. These kids already know more about computers than adults can teach them. This shouldn't be about introducing kids to "technology." That job is done. Without an integrated hardware and software system, its exactly as you describe. Some of the private schools have been using computers for a number of years. Unless you are willing to install a major infrastructure, it is a waste. You are correct. It will take years to get it right. The cost is not just the actual devices. The cost is the network, the one at our school connects to you to school system no matter where you turn on the computer. There are full time technologist positions that will be required to keep the system and the devices running. Software isn't cheap. We need to make sure that the School Board is including all the costs as well as the add backs when we evaluate this program. As a taxpayer, I expect that whatever device they settle on will be considered the same as any school supply. Taxpayers should not have to pay for laptops for the children of millionaires. We can discuss those who legitimately cannot afford a device, but the lease cost of a computer should be well within the reach of a vast majority of parents in the LSD.
PaulRevere November 21, 2012 at 09:19 AM
Excellent points throughout this comment. One-on-one Computers would not produce any better "mind-talent". Computers are actually "Libraries" of information. Any discussion about public computers taking a front seat on Teaching would have to seriously consider Home based Public school Technology. The costs saved in number of LIVE teachers would be an interesting study. I see it possible to start a new era of High school "Home based Digital Schooling". Companies regularly Train employees using online hookups to 1 offfsite Teacher or Instructor viewed from multiple states. 1st-Actual costs must be presented. 2nd-Any justification for using computers should have one outcome--Lower total School budget, not higher school budgets. That cannot happen unless total Teachers and paper products are reduced. Ditto to Flyoverland comments.
flyoverland November 21, 2012 at 02:08 PM
I would also like to mention the gentleman's concern about the overcrowding in his son's classroom. One needs to look no further than the budget for the answer. Ladue, like most schools, spends 80% on the generous largesse paid by the taxpayers (over $20,000 per student), on payroll. I am not surprised there's never any money left to pay for other things. You mentioned your job and how computers work there. Please don't use that example with the School board. They love to tell you, "you can't run a school like a business." We certainly are proving that. I just got my tax bill. I am paying over $8000 towards this school system. There is plenty of money. Our employees are not underpaid. They have all received raises while most of America did not. This is a management issue, not a money issue. I urge you as a parent to get involved with the decision to hire a new Supt. and a new principal. If the past is any predictor, "the best candidate in the world," will just happen to have been right here all along. The school board has lead the parents around like sheep in the last two elections. This computer program should have been an issue in the election, but somehow, the board didn't bring it up until after it got its money. Since educators and some parents have a bigger wish list than a five year old at Christmas, there's never a shortage of things they "must have." It is time for the parents and taxpayers to re-take control of this school system.
Dave Cole November 21, 2012 at 03:20 PM
I think both of you raise valid points. My concern is not so much on cost as I understand the board will only approve the program if they can find enough savings through implementing the program or the program can be funded through private donations. My questions for the district and the board would include: 1) Without full support of the teachers , the program will undoubtedly fail. Have the teachers been polled for their input? If the results show that only 20% of the teachers would use the computers in the classroom, are there other alternatives? 2) Were the full costs considered? This includes the network bandwidth, additional personnel to support the computers and network, software, online textbooks, and so on. 3) If approved, how will the program be implemented? Will it be all 4 grades at once or a rolling implementation starting with freshman? 4) I would love to get some specifics on how the computers will be used. How will an English teacher use them? How about math? Foreign language? 5) What happens if the private funding dries up or is insufficient to cover the costs? My overall concern is that this will be a detriment to learning in the classroom. I would encourage anyone with questions to attend the next board meeting. The decision for the program is coming up quickly, so if you have questions or concerns, now is the time to bring them up. You can also email the board with questions or comments at ladueboard@ladueschools.net.
flyoverland November 21, 2012 at 04:35 PM
Dave, the fact that you feel some teaches "would not use" the computers, if the program existed points out the problem. Who is running the district? If the Board adopts it, hopefully after consultation, then why would a teacher have the latitude to refuse and still expect to be employed? If you want to see a program that has been around for a while and seems to work well, find someone you know at MICDS. They have had computers for about the past six years. The system was rolled in gradually and now every kid has one. Parents sign a four year lease which makes the computers affordable and it covers replacement and repairs, as well as software updates. Most classes use the computers. Class outlines and notes are available on line. They made the investment in a network that works both at school and home. At the end of the lease, the kid gets to keep the computer. Computers are expected to last four years. However, the cost for the device and the software is borne by the parents. I think this can be a valuable program, however, my position has been and remains the cost should be neutral and the cost of the device should be borne by parents just like any other school supply. I also found you are correct about college. My child will attend a very selective college next year. On our recent visit, I was waiting for the computer line item. Guess what? There is no computer required. Of course our kid will have one, but there is no system like that being contemplated here.
Dave Cole November 21, 2012 at 04:50 PM
It's interesting that a large number of professors, and in some cases entire colleges, which are implementing "no computer" policies in the classroom. My daughter used hers extensively at college but did not take it to class. Regarding your point about a teacher having the latitude to refuse to use the computer in the classroom, I have a bit of a differing opinion. A computer is a tool which may or may not be effective in the hands of a particular teacher. You can't hand someone a hammer and tell them to "find something to bang on". A good teacher is going to use multiple methods to teach. I wouldn't want to tell a teacher you have to use a particular method. As an example, my son is taking an AP English class. The desks are arranged in a circle to facilitate discussion. Learning to discuss and debate topics is an important learning tool. A group discussion in Calculus, on the other hand, would not likely be effective. When you tell a teacher who is perhaps not as tech-savvy that they have to find a way to use the computer in the classroom, you will likely (and not unreasonably) get results which are not optimal for the learning experience.
flyoverland November 21, 2012 at 09:23 PM
The School Board will make the decision and has the right to expect that its employees will adopt it. Will it work perfectly? No. The only good way to implement something like this is to phase it in. However, then you will hear the screams that "my kid" isn't getting what someone else's kid is getting.
PaulRevere November 21, 2012 at 10:15 PM
A boring premise follows: Computers are needed primarily for: 1) Research. 2) Entering meaningful data. 3) Converting the data to Language or Calculated numerical results. 4) printing It eliminates tedious hand-writing and math calculations. Lightning speed and precise memory are qualities of a computer. (All Human impossibilities) Computers are 100% justified to increase efficiency and therefore work output. Reduced Labor costs must be a factor in that decision. Public school boards must go through that process. Note, the major emphasis is on the Schools' education process improvement. Not the student Any attempt to use computers in classrooms for Education can be done with one large screen replacing the "Whiteboard" and one computer in the Teacher's control. I would try that first. The Teacher should take the lead in how to use the computer for Teaching, rather than the student using the computer TO LEARN. The teacher can then make notes and improvements to the software needed before going ALL-IN with One-to-one. There are literally thousands of off-the-shelf software Teaching programs that can be adapted for public schools. With an experienced LIVE classroom teacher , any pre-programmed education software would eliminate Teacher memory and knowledge dificiencies now possible in all our schools. Any Board justification report should include all the improvements in Education that will happen with total computerization. A tough sell. IMO Get my point?
PaulRevere November 21, 2012 at 10:56 PM
Another side of this: It's no secret how I feel about Public schools already excessive budgets and educator wages. In business, I never would proceed to computerizing without first getting current operations under cost control. I sense a hesitancy in "Teacher" abilities to adapt to any Technology teaching methods. I'll be blunt. (As I always am here), that our whole school official troop needs to hire a different breed of educators. Our Public schools have competition, and if the officials start justifying Technology by comparisons to non-public schools, then may I suggest they include Wages/benefits in those comparisons. Public school Wages/Benefits cost 80% of the budget. I know of no commercial enterprise with that lop-sided payroll budget %. Why do our public schools? Is the Board prepared to justify the 80%? When residents/businesses are asked to pay up to 2% of their home values annually to support what is essentially "Teacher Pay" disguised as education, adding any uncertain Technology costs, scares me. Would our schools hire only Union styled Technology consultants? (Their pay based on home values, rather than competiton) Who would the board suggest in Hire? Like the Post office, Public schools are overpricing their welcome. Technology? Yes--but I am not convinced that step has been financially achieved.
flyoverland November 22, 2012 at 12:05 AM
Just to prove your point, Goldman Sachs, which is also a people intensive business (no factories, stores, etc.) pays out 40% of income in wages. And, you know what the unions say about them.
Jill Moore November 23, 2012 at 02:07 AM
Thank you so much for this article Dave. I agree that the concerns go much deeper than cost. I feel the costs are being underestimated and the program will likely cost the district money even if they plan for it to be "cost neutral" or covered by donations. That worries me. But what worries me more is that I don't feel it will be educational. Your points are so valid and I hope they are heard!


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