A Laptop for Every...Teacher!

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Florida’s governor unveils a different kind of 1-to-1 computing program.

“In the event of an emergency, an oxygen mask will drop down. If you are seated next to a child, put the mask on yourself first, then assist the child.”

FOR YEARS I have been ranting that this is exactly what we have not done in technology and education—we have not taken care of the adults first. But Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has a remedy: He has put a program into his budget that does indeed take care of the adults. Bush has proposed spending $188 million to obtain a laptop for every teacher in Florida. This is part of a $239 million initiative to recruit and retain teachers in the state.

The program is called T3 (Technology Tools for Teachers). According to the governor’s Web site (www.flgov.com, laptops for teachers will “ensure more time is spent with students and less time on paperwork. The laptops also allow each teacher to access Sunshine Connections (www.sunshineconnections.org)—a Web-based system that provides teachers with quick and easy access to classroom management tools, and links them to student data, curricular materials, and other educators around the state.” What’s interesting is that the governor and other key policymakers endorsing the initiative think of technology as a substantial incentive in the recruitment and retention of teachers—so important that it takes up nearly three-fourths of the funding for the entire program. Other elements of the plan include:

  • Forty million dollars in matching grants for local districts’ recruitment and retention efforts. Funds may be used for signing bonuses, professional development, housing assistance, payment of student loans, or virtually anything else that a local district deems effective.
  • Nearly $10 million for the Critical Teacher Shortage program, which reimburses teachers for up to $10,000 in student loans if they teach in a critical-shortage subject area.
  • Further support for the Florida Department of Education’s job fair, a Web site (www.teachinflorida.com), and an advertising and public relations effort.

Is This Good Policy?

Any policy that attempts to attract—and especially hold on to—teachers is a good policy. “No Dream Denied,” a recent report from the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (www.nctaf.org), explains how we are losing teachers faster than we can replace them. The US produces enough new teachers to meet our needs—we may be lacking in specific areas such as math, science, special education, and bilingual education, but overall we are producing enough. The problem is retention: About a third of US teachers leave teaching sometime during their first three years on the job, and almost half leave during the first five years. In addition, there are about as many teachers who were trained to teach but never did, as there are active teachers.

But is the laptop program good technology policy? At the risk of sounding like the recovering bureaucrat that I am, it depends. At this stage, Bush’s plan is merely a budget proposal. The enabling legislation has yet to go through the legislative process, and then the rules for implementing the program have to be determined by Florida’s Education Department. The governor’s press release states, “The DOE will work with all districts to evaluate their individual needs, negotiate the purchase of the laptop computers and provide support and maintenance when necessary.”

The statement begs some questions. If I were a technology coordinator in one of Florida’s 67 school districts, I would have several, such as:

  • Who owns the laptops?
  • Will there be a maintenance agreement for these computers separate from what I have for everything else?
  • If I am an all-(insert brand) district, do I get the same brand for this program?
  • Can I get more bandwidth instead? Without more bandwidth, these new laptops will stop my already slow network.
  • I just bought laptops for all my teachers this year. Can I use the money elsewhere?

A Call for Flexibility

My advice for policymakers, in Florida or elsewhere, who are considering such a program is rather simple: Provide maximum flexibility. Sixty-seven school districts is not that many for a state the size of Florida, but they certainly are different in size, population, and technology needs, and they need to be dealt with accordingly.

The argument for allowing districts some latitude in using the proposed laptop money gets a boost from the national statistics from Market Data Retrieval (www.schooldata.com), which indicate that virtually every teacher in the country already has a computer. Therefore, districts need to be given the freedom to use the money for other technology purchases, within certain guidelines. Those guidelines should include two criteria in particular: 1) Does the purchase help the cause of teacher recruitment and retention; and 2) does the vast majority of teachers in the district agree with the decision to do something other than buy laptops for all of their colleagues? If the program is aimed at teachers, the last thing a district should do is make a decision without consulting them.

What’s interesting is that the governor and other key policymakers endorsing the initiative think of technology as a substantial incentive in the recruitment and retention of teachers.

From a technology standpoint, the state needs to ensure that software, maintenance, and support are part of any laptop-purchasing agreement. In addition, the state needs to work with technology companies to make certain that maintenance and support agreements are flexible, and can be coordinated with or added to existing district programs. Finally, districts need to be able to pick the brand of computer they want for their teachers.

As for the program itself—and this is sure to be heresy to T.H.E. readers—if its purpose truly is to recruit and retain teachers, then allow the laptop money, if needed, to be spent on things other than technology, or give the district a reasonable length of time to delay using the money until the expenditure fits better into the district’s technology plan. If helping teachers pay off student loans is a more effective recruitment strategy than adding a computer to the one they already have in the faculty room, then allow that.

Programs like this usually do not grow out of a state’s larger technology plan, nor are district plans generally a primary consideration. Yet it is the districts that get to implement the them. The good news is that Gov. Bush’s proposal may help teacher retention in some districts and further the cause of technology integration. There is no bad news, if districts are afforded some flexibility in implementing the program. Let’s hope the Florida legislature and Education Department are able to provide it.

 

Geoffrey H. Fletcher is editor-at-large of T.H.E. Journal and executive director of T.H.E. Institute.

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/2006 issue of THE Journal.

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