Pierce County schools spending millions on laptops for all. Is it helping kids learn?

Puyallup School District launched a $12.5 million initiative this year to provide computers to all students from fourth to 12th grade.

Bethel School District is two years into a similar program, and other districts slowly are integrating so-called “one-to-one” plans, which provide a computer or digital tablet to every student to use both inside and outside the classroom.

As the movement to go digital spreads nationally, recent studies question the effectiveness of personal screens in education.

Advocates say such plans promote proficiency with technology, an expectation for those entering the workforce. Critics believe parents already struggle to limit children’s screen time, and the expensive addition to the classrooms only offer another distraction.

Marci Braithwaite teaches at Bethel, and her own kids go to school in Puyallup. Braithwaite believes technology is great when it’s used as an added resource to bolster a lesson, but she worries about how helpful it is now that most work is online.

“I have my own concerns about when my kids are allowed to use their screens. I don’t have concerns about iPads and tech in the classroom, but it can be used irresponsibly,” Braithwaite said. “I do worry that the older grades are depending too much on (devices), and they are getting more instruction on the iPads than their teachers.”

National studies have concluded that evidence of electronic devices improving student performance in classrooms is, at best, inconclusive.

A report by the National Education Policy Center, a research center at the University of Colorado at Boulder, cautioned policymakers and education leaders to wait to implement one-to-one programs until the research finds that technology in the classroom helps students.

One review published in the Journal of Research on Technology in Education looked at several studies and found positives and negatives to one-to-one initiatives. Collaboration among students was higher, and lessons were more varied. But as the excitement of a new device dropped off, so did students’ motivation. There was not a correlation between devices and increased engagement in learning, and conflicting results on the academic impact, the study said.

Researchers with The International Journal of Education looked at the impact of handing each student a laptop and found that test scores in language arts and math dropped, with differences ranging from 10 percent to 42 percent.

An MIT-based policy institute analyzed 126 studies on whether technology has improved education and concluded that merely supplying computers and internet alone doesn’t improve students’ academic outcomes, but it does improve computer proficiency.

Tracking impacts

Bethel School District was among the first in Pierce County to provide take-home iPads to a select group of students.

It’s the second year of one-to-one devices for the district’s 20,000 students.

Most measures of effectiveness are anecdotal. Teachers say they’ve seen increased student engagement, participation and on-time assignments with the devices.

Ben Brown, who works in instructional development for Bethel schools, acknowledged that studies are mixed when it comes to effectiveness of technology in the classroom.

“Some will report strong and positive results. Others will report either minimal or no results or even negative results,” said Brown, who’s also working on a literature review of the subject. “But what a lot of them seem to agree on is that the style of teaching matters — how the teachers are using the devices, how they’re teaching the lessons, how they’re bringing students together.”

Bethel funds its devices through a technology levy every four years. The first levy was passed in 2014 at $18 million. The second was passed in 2018 at $22 million. The increase was due to increasing enrollment.

Cost of devices actually has gone down, said Michael Christianson, Bethel’s chief technology officer. Apple made a concerted effort to compete with Microsoft and provides education discounts.

Bethel implemented filtering of certain websites, both on and off school campuses.

“So even if they join a hotspot or they’re in a Starbucks in Italy, they go back through our filter and they get the same level of access,” Christianson said.

At the same time, websites need to remain accessible for projects.

“It’s a cat-and-mouse game to keep kids safe while balancing access to sites that are important to learning,” Christianson said.

Inaugural year at Puyallup

Puyallup School District’s technology director, Mark Knight, said ensuring students are prepared for the workforce includes tech-aptitude. The 11,500 computers given to students from fourth to 12th grade help expand their learning beyond the four walls of a classroom, Knight said.

With the computers, students have access to more research resources, tools to express their creativity and access to a wider audience, he said. While the studies show that academic improvements are murky, Knight said the key is giving students the tools to succeed after high school.

“From the standpoint that we are in a technological world, we have to do our best to prepare students for that world and do it responsibly,” Knight said.

Adding computers doesn’t mean teachers have forgone pencils and paper.

]Teachers decide when adding in a computer is pertinent to the lesson. Knight said he has heard concerns from parents over whether the devices could be distracting and said teachers can lock students’ screens for segments of the day and monitor their screens all at once. All social media is blocked, he said.

Teachers are learning how to choose when it’s appropriate and when to stick with notebooks, spokesperson Brian Fox said.

“It isn’t all day everyday. It is when it’s developmentally appropriate,” Fox said.

The push for one-to-one in Puyallup began four years ago when the School Board voted to use the general budget to train teachers, buy thousands of devices, set up the infrastructure for said devices and purchase software. Over four years, the program has cost the district $12.5 million, Fox said.

From kindergarten to third grade, children have access to computer carts shared by a few classrooms. Starting in fourth grade, students are handed a personal laptop, which they keep at school until seventh grade.

Students keep the laptop for three years before it is cycled down to the computer carts for a couple of years, Knight said.

Creative learning

Some parents, like Amy Lopacinski, believe technology helps tailor learning. Her son is a visual learner, she said. He could listen to a teacher all day long and not absorb the material, but a handful of iPad math games and “he’s golden.”

She’s said she’s glad Puyallaup went one-to-one, because technology is integral now.

“I feel like it’s setting them up for success,” Lopacinski said. “The real world has a lot of technology, more and more everyday. It would be a disservice not teaching them how to use it.”

Elementary school teacher and parent Braithwaite limits her students iPad time. They have them at their desks, but it’s “screens off” until they are part of her lesson. She follows studies suggesting students do better with note-taking in spirals, but incorporates quizzes on iPads to broaden the curriculum.

Most teachers she knows have limits on screen time and don’t use them every day.

“Never once has anyone said it’s OK to have kids on iPad on all day long,” Braithwaite said.

As a parent, she’s noticed much of her kids’ work is on programs and online and wonders if some teachers are using the technology as a crutch rather than a tool.

“We as teachers understand that it’s our responsibility to use our tools responsibly,” she said.

Technology policies

The five largest school districts in Pierce County use technology in the classroom, but not all of them have implemented one-to-one initiatives.

Tacoma (30,000 students): No district-wide one-to-one program has been implemented, and there’s no intent to do so. Students do have access to devices when needed for lessons, said district spokesman Dan Voelpel. The district’s 2019-2022 Technology Plan outlines a ratio of one device for every two students.

Puyallup (22,250 students): More than $12.5 million was spent to provide fourth grade to 12th grade students with laptops. Lower grades have access to computer carts when needed. A technology levy dismissed by the school board this summer was expected to pay for upgrades, so the devices and infrastructure will have to last longer than anticipated.

Bethel (20,000 students): Is on its second year for one-to-one devices district-wide, and was one of the first in the county to make the transition. The district funds the program through a technology levy and spends about $2.1 million per year.

Clover Park (13,000 students): No district-wide one-to-one program, but some schools, particularly those in Joint Base Lewis-McChord schools, have chosen to use devices in the classroom. Much of the funding comes from federal Department of Defense grants or part of a technology levy. All students have access to computer carts shared among classes.

Peninsula (9,400 students): Is in its second year of one-to-one devices in grades 5-12 this school year. Grades 6-12 can bring their devices home while fifth graders keep their devices in the classroom. The district is working to implement one-to-one in grades K-4. The district pays for the devices through its general fund and is spending between $600,000 and $700,000 this year on the program, said Kris Hagel, executive director of digital learning for Peninsula.

Josephine Peterson covers Pierce County and Puyallup for The News Tribune and The Puyallup Herald. She previously worked at The News Journal in Delaware as the crime reporter and interned at The Washington Post.