Supporters of 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 law makers.
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 districts.
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 state:
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 highest.
“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 governor.
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 professional development.
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 online.”
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 said.
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 in February.
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 the initiative.
“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 economy.”
Freedom to Learn program