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Texas Chairman Touts Laptops in Lieu of Textbooks

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Jack Christie, the chairman of the Texas state school board, is convinced that replacing traditional textbooks with laptop computers will boost student achievement. But now he has to sell his plan to the legislature, not to mention his colleagues on the board who think it's merely a pie-in-the-sky idea.

"We're big on equity in Texas, and there's nothing more equitable to every child than to have equal access to information," Mr. Christie, a chiropractor from Houston, said last week.

The suggestion, which Commissioner of Education Mike Moses says he is interested in exploring, was brought up at a state board meeting this month in the midst of a discussion about the upcoming schedule for state textbook adoptions, which are expected to reach a cost of $1.8 billion over the next six years.

Jack Christie

The commissioner and Mr. Christie believe the move to laptops could save the state money and provide teachers and students with the most up-to-date information and teaching materials.

Mr. Christie and Mr. Moses plan to meet with legislative leaders in the coming weeks to discuss the rising cost of supplying the state's 4 million students with texts and the possible laptop alternative.

But some state board members believe the chairman's plan is a misguided notion that doesn't address what students truly need.

"Children are not learning to read. Until that happens, I don't want to talk about anything else," said Donna Ballard, a board member from east Texas, who accused the chairman of orchestrating a "dog-and-pony show" by bringing his laptop to the meeting. "Laptop computers for every child are not a high standard. They're a luxury."

And David Bradley, a board member from Beaumont, said the cost of training every teacher to use a laptop effectively would be "astronomical."

Gov. George W. Bush has expressed support for the plan, but would prefer to see it piloted in a few large districts across the state.

But Mr. Christie believes now is the time to act. "Someone has to make that shift, and I just hope Texas is the leader," he said.

Light Demand

While publishers already market textbooks on CD-ROM, the products aren't selling very well, said Rick Blake, the vice president for the school division of the Association of American Publishers in New York City.

Donna Ballard

"Our people can go either way," he said, but added that meeting such a huge demand would be a "major adjustment" for the industry. Mr. Blake, who attended the recent Texas state board meeting, said he isn't certain that the switch to laptops would save money. "You'd probably save in some areas and spend more in other areas," he said. "I did not get the impression that this [plan] had gotten a lot of thought in advance."

But Mr. Christie anticipates that vendors would jump at the chance to offer the state a tremendous deal on durable laptops designed especially for student use. He expects to be able to get the machines for about $400 each.

While there still isn't much proof that the use of computer technology raises student achievement, a 1996 study by the Center for Applied Special Technology in Peabody, Mass., showed that elementary and middle school students with access to on-line resources produced better projects on the civil rights movement than those who used only books, computer databases, and CD-ROM encyclopedias. ("On-Line Access Appears To Benefit Student Projects, Study Finds," Oct. 23, 1996.)

Advancements in school technology, however, should be accompanied with staff development for teachers, according to a study released this year by the Washington-based Benton Foundation. ("Computers Have Little Use Without Teacher Training, Study Says," July 9, 1997.)

"A computer is no good without a good teacher," said Jay Levin, the director of government relations and programs for the 90,000-member Texas State Teachers Association, a National Education Association affiliate. He said he would prefer state officials focus on raising teachers' salaries.

Proceed Slowly

Although intrigued by Mr. Christie's plan, others in the state want to move cautiously.

"While the idea of putting a laptop in every student's hand is a worthy goal, a lot of thought needs to go into the decision," said Barbara Williams, a spokeswoman for the Texas Association of School Boards.

James Crow, the executive director of the association, said upgrading computers and software already in the classroom might be a better use of money.

And Zane Chalfant, the executive director of the Texas PTA, said he wonders whether it would be more efficient to increase access to the Internet in students' homes.

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