George Lucas Educational Foundation
Technology Integration

A Computer on Every Desk: Each Student Can and Must Get Wired

An open letter to Margaret Spellings, the new U.S. secretary of education.

February 8, 2005

Congratulations on your new job, Madame Secretary. You're no stranger to Washington politics, but I think you'll find your new job contains a unique set of challenges.

As an education secretary with children in the classroom, you know firsthand how critical your role is in shaping the future of our nation. I hope this memo helps make the case for how to put our education tax dollars to effective use.

Education is the second-largest industry in the United States, behind only health care, and one of the largest public investments. U.S. educational expenditures for primary through postsecondary school amount to more than three-quarters of a trillion dollars annually. Our yearly education funding exceeds the entire gross national product of all other countries except (in order of GNP) Japan, Germany, France, Italy, and the United Kingdom.

Despite this extensive investment, our educational system is stagnant. The largest investment in the history of investing also looks like the largest nonperforming investment ever.

If we compare math and science achievement in the United States with other countries, we're not performing as we should. In the 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), U.S. fourth graders were compared to their peers in twenty-four other countries in math and twenty-five in science. They outscored students in thirteen other countries in math and sixteen in science, which, though hardly stellar, put them above the middle of the pack.

By eighth grade, when compared to students in forty-four other countries, U.S. students remain in relatively the same position in math (nineteenth place) and do somewhat better in science (twelfth place). This doesn't represent the dramatic decline seen in the 1995 and 1999 TIMSS studies, but we shouldn't be complacent. Now is the time for improvement, not acceptance.

What is Happening?

The potential educational boom represented by digital technology -- something that we've talked about for twenty years -- has not happened. Specifically, the promise of one-to-one computing (one computer for every student) is nowhere near being fully realized. And that's where I believe your tenure as secretary of education can make the biggest difference.

I believe that the goal of one-to-one computing should have the same urgency as NASA's singularly driven race to the moon in the '60s. Worried about the cost? Don't be. The federal government needn't pick up the entire bill -- 83 percent of education dollars come from state and local funds -- but Washington can provide the catalyst through matching grants and inspirational leadership.

Through federal E-Rate legislation, almost all schools and classrooms have been wired for broadband Internet access in the past seven years, transforming the technology infrastructure of the U.S. school system. The federal government provided more than $13 billion for this purpose, and the schools have responded. But there is a problem. E-Rate provided wiring but not enough money for teacher training, maintenance, hardware, software, and pedagogy. Some schools are well equipped, but on average, five students still have to huddle over a single computer in class.

Critics of classroom technology claim that the computer isn't an effective tool for education. This is nonsense. Imagine a one-to-five ratio of textbooks to kids; books would not be an effective educational tool in that scenario, either. The technology revolution in business has been fueled by collaboration and connectivity, but white-collar productivity gains didn't happen until penetration in the workplace and at home exceeded a one-to-one ratio of professionals to computers.

Much is made of the reluctance of educators to use technology. But this is a superficial argument and certainly not the root of the problem. Look past the rhetoric and consider the following facts:

  • Many kids have grown up digitally literate and are comfortable with and attracted to technology.
  • Although teachers as a group have been slow to adopt technology, most are either comfortable using it or are open to training.
  • The great success of distance learning in higher education shows that technology can help deliver a higher-quality educational experience.
  • Billions of venture capital dollars have been invested in innovative educational-technology companies working on solutions to specific educational challenges, from privacy issues to security, training,communications, and data management.
  • Content publishers spend more than $4 billion annually on textbooks and ancillary material.The movement to electronic content represents a major opportunity for textbook publishers to increase their growth and profitability.

Making One-to-One Job Number One

Let's consider a few other facts. Learning gains have been recorded in one-to-one pilot programs for grades K-12 in school districts like Lemon Grove, in San Diego County, and in states like Maine, where, thanks to former governor Angus King's Maine Learning Technology Initiative, every middle school student has a laptop computer. These programs provide us with knowledge about how one-to-one computing fits into the school environment and what is needed to make an effective "digital ecology," including support, training, and content.

I believe that the following beacons should guide us to a successful one-to-one educational world:

  • Quality: Administrators are tempted to cut corners in order to cut costs. But we must not make the mistake of cutting functionality. Small black-and-white PC screens, insufficient battery power, poor support, and superficial training are a few of the misguided compromises made in technology programs.
  • Access: Students don't leave their textbooks in the classroom, and they don't study just in school. While it might seem that allowing students to take their laptops home will result in a lot of damaged equipment, this has not been the case in Maine, the first one-to-one state. True network access also requires the extension of ERate connectivity to the household. This is probably the single biggest challenge to one-to-one computing. However, innovative ideas are being implemented, again in places like San Diego, where cable and telephone companies are finding ways to accelerate the rollout of broadband access, while lowering costs to state and federal governments.
  • Experience: There is a lot of accumulated knowledge about how consumers and kids use computing devices. Strategic News Service's Project Inkwell ( is developing basic software standards of one-to-one computing so that the tech industry can design products to fill classroom needs.

E-Rate II (The Sequel)

Sooner or later, Madame Secretary, reaching the goal of one-to-one computing comes down to money, the kind of cash that only a federal budget can generate. Although 83 cents of each education dollar comes from local and state authorities, every large-scale U.S. education initiative has required federal funding and presidential leadership. Currently, the United States spends only $40 per student per year on computing.

Let's assume the kind of computing capability required for productive work costs about $1,000 per machine in hardware and support. At this rate, if computers last five years, the average annual amortized amount spent per device (and hence per student) would be no more than $200. There are about 50 million K-12 public school students in the United States, so that's roughly $10 billion per year for there to be a computer on every desk.

The question is simple: Is our ability to have a high-performing education system a large economic opportunity? I'm sure you and the administration will agree that the answer is a resounding yes. To achieve one-to-one computing, the IT industry will have to decrease the total cost and increase functionality by using the economy of scale that our national school system will provide. Technology leaders must recognize both the potential for a wider societal impact and the tremendous business opportunity.

The New Education Century

Six decades ago, the end of World War II and the benefits of the federal GI Bill transformed the future of the nation. Today we face similar circumstances, as a new world economy demands that we prepare our workforce for a more complex, more competitive future.We must think of this new century as the time to reinvest in our future. I hope you will join me, Madame Secretary, in moving to a brighter educational world.

Kosmo Kalliarekos, a founding member and a partner in the Parthenon Group, a Boston-based strategic consulting firm, is a member of Project Inkwell's steering committee. Write to

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