Taking Back America By Taking Back Our Schools
Is giving students laptops a terrible idea?
Inside Hoboken’s combined junior-senior high school is a storage closet. Behind the locked door, mothballed laptop computers are strewn among brown cardboard boxes. Others are stacked one atop another amid other computer detritus. Dozens more are stored on mobile computer carts, many of them on their last legs.
That’s all that remains from a failed experiment to assign every student a laptop in this northern New Jersey suburb of New York City. It began five years ago with an unexpected windfall of stimulus money from Washington, D.C., and good intentions to help the districts’ students, the majority of whom are under or near the poverty line, keep up with their wealthier peers. But Hoboken faced problem after problem and is abandoning the laptops entirely this summer.
“We had the money to buy them, but maybe not the best implementation,” said Mark Toback, the current superintendent of Hoboken School District. “It became unsustainable.”
None of the school administrators who initiated Hoboken’s one-to-one laptop program still work there, but Toback agreed to share Hoboken’s experiences so that other schools can learn from it.
Despite tight budgets, superintendents and principals around the country are cobbling together whatever dollars they can to buy more computers for their classrooms. This year alone, schools are projected to spend almost $10 billion on education technology, a $240-million increase from 2013, according to the Center for Digital Education. Educational technology holds the promise of individualizing instruction, and some school systems, like Mooresville, North Carolina, and Cullman, Alabama, have shown impressive student learning gains. But districts like Los Angeles and Fort Bend, Texas, who jumped on the tech trend without careful planning, have had problems with their programs to distribute a laptop or a tablet to every student, and are scrapping them, too.
By the time Jerry Crocamo, a computer network engineer, arrived in Hoboken’s school system in 2011, every seventh, eighth and ninth grader had a laptop. Each year a new crop of seventh graders were outfitted. Crocamo’s small tech staff was quickly overwhelmed with repairs.
We had “half a dozen kids in a day, on a regular basis, bringing laptops down, going ‘my books fell on top of it, somebody sat on it, I dropped it,’ ” said Crocamo.
Screens cracked. Batteries died. Keys popped off. Viruses attacked. Crocamo found that teenagers with laptops are still… teenagers.
“We bought laptops that had reinforced hard-shell cases so that we could try to offset some of the damage these kids were going to do,” said Crocamo. “I was pretty impressed with some of the damage they did anyway. Some of the laptops would come back to us completely destroyed.”
Crocamo’s time was also eaten up with theft. Despite the anti-theft tracking software he installed, some laptops were never found. Crocamo had to file police reports and even testify in court.
Hoboken school officials were also worried they couldn’t control which websites students would visit. Crocamo installed software called Net Nanny to block pornography, gaming sites and Facebook. He disabled the built-in web cameras. He even installed software to block students from undoing these controls. But Crocamo says students found forums on the Internet that showed them how to access everything.
“There is no more determined hacker, so to speak, than a 12-year-old who has a computer,” said Crocamo.
All this security software also bogged down the computers. Teachers complained it took 20 minutes for them to boot up, only to crash afterwards. Often, there was too little memory left on the small netbooks to run the educational software.