Ex-Governor Angus King on Lessons from Maine's 1-to-1 Laptop Initiative (Transcript)
Angus King: In 2002 we started off first with nine middle schools, sort of-- we call them "Exploration Schools". The fall of 2002 we went statewide, every single seventh grader in Maine had a laptop, every single seventh grade classroom was a wireless network, north, south, east, west, rural, urban, statewide. The next year, seventh and eighth. The original design of the project was to phase in a year each year and go all the way to high school, then budgets collapsed in 2003, 2004, so the project essentially stopped at middle school. But the good news is it's still going strong, it was renewed-- it was a four-year lease purchase, the first project starting in '02, so in '06 it was renewed by the governor and the legislature without my having to be there to hound them about it, they did it because it's worked. And now I think about 20 of our 150 high schools have gone one to one on their own, and then there's the middle school project that’s still going on, seventh and eighth grade. It's about 40,000 computers, 36,000 students, 4,000 teachers, every classroom, and it's turned out to be better than I thought.
We thought it was a good idea back in 2002, in retrospect, my thinking has gone through sort of an evolution. Good idea, then I realized about the second year in that it was really a radical idea because of the changes in pedagogy and the approach to changes in education. It was-- it's a different kind of teaching and learning. Now, as I'm looking around the world and seeing what's happening with globalization and the kind of hollowing out of the American economy, I think it's a necessary idea.
It has empowered and created a lot of the things that everybody's been after in education for so long. You can involve the parents, if you do the technology right, you engage the students. If you ask teachers in Maine for one word to describe the project, it's generally "Engagement". And any teacher will tell you that if your students are engaged, you can teach them anything. If they're not engaged, you can be Socrates and not teach them anything. So engagement has been very powerful, involving the students, individualized learning. I mean, this is a list of, you know, what everybody's chasing in education and have been for 100 years. It really seems to be happening.
The laptops allow a level of connection and engagement in real stuff. Searching out-- for example, there's a program in Maine where they use the laptops to analyze water data or invasive species and, you know, they're acting like scientists. And that’s real and it has a kind of intrinsic interest that-- particularly for kids that aren’t, you know, all that linear, and I mean, if you think about it, our education system is really designed for certain kids. And there are kids who are very bright, but who-- that’s just not the system that they're gonna be-- they're not going to shine in that system. And the laptops are enabling kids to do all kinds of different ways to present what they're doing, and that’s one of the strengths. It allows a kind of individualization that is impossible if it's "Okay, everybody write five paragraphs."
One of the things I've learned from this is execution is as important as vision. You can have a great idea that makes sense, and everybody says "Aha!" But if it's not executed right, if the network doesn’t work, if the computers crash or if the teachers-- the biggest learning is if the teachers aren’t properly prepared in a lot of professional development, it just isn't going to work. We're now trying to build on what we've learned and really take the professional development to the next level, that’s the biggest part of it. If you hand out the laptops and don’t do the professional development, it's going to fail, there's just no question.
It's not as expensive as people think. In Maine our project-- we can put real, hard numbers on it, it's nine million dollars a year for every seventh and eighth grader in the state, plus professional development, tech support and network, that’s the whole package. And that represents about four-tenths of one percent of our annual school budget in the state. So we're talking about one-half of one percent, it's not a massive program, nine million out of over two billion. And when you look at it that way, in terms of its impact and potential impact, how long do you have to think about that? I mean, if I came to you at the school board and said "I'm going to give you something that’s going to significantly improve writing scores", which everybody's interested in, we can talk about that in a few minutes, but it's also going to decrease discipline problems, increase attendance and provide your students with true 21st century skills and it's going to cost about the same as your snowplowing budget, it seems to me it's pretty hard to say "No".
What I tell people is don’t promise standardized test scores because the tests don’t test what the laptops teach. We're doing 1980s testing when we want 21st century skills. Solving problems, collaboration and use of information, that’s what the laptops teach, but the testing, the standardized testing that we're doing is testing, you know, "When did Columbus discover America" and, you know, "What's eight times seventeen"? And so there's a mismatch here, and that’s why I think maybe at some point we'll be able to design tests that really test, you know, 21st century skills. So that’s why I tell people don’t promise standardized test scores and you’ve just gotta calm the politicians down, because all they want is test scores, and there's a heck of a lot more than that at stake.