Published July 27, 2018 by Rebecca Goldfine

An Economics Major Asks, Are Laptops in Maine Schools Helping Students?

In 2002, Maine launched an initiative ahead of its time: it provided every seventh and eighth grader with a laptop. Then what?
Eric Giesler '18
Eric Giesler '18

Seven years later, the Maine Learning Technology Initiative (MLTI) was expanded to give high school students laptops of their own. The idea was to “leverage technology to improve student learning experiences” and to ensure that all students, no matter their family income, had access to computers.

But after spending millions of dollars on the initiative — it costs taxpayers roughly $11.5 million a year and is the largest of its kind in the country — some elected officials began to voice doubt about the program. Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican, has described it as a “massive failure.” The program’s critics noted that Maine students’ test scores had not seemed to improve, for example.

The program, and the controversy around it, piqued the interest of economics major Eric Giesler ’18. He wanted also to apply the knowledge and skills he had learned in a class he took with Bowdoin economics professor John Fitzgerald. The course, Economic Evaluation of Public Programs, teaches students how to measure the effectiveness of government programs, such as Head Start, job training, and housing vouchers.

Giesler said he is also interested in educational inequity and studying the effects of technology introduced into schools. “And I saw there was kind of a hole in the quantitative analysis on the effectiveness of the MLTI program.” Giesler warned that existing studies are “plagued with biases” and that “policymakers are making decisions on whether to pursue education technology based on studies that have issues with internal validity.” He was determined to develop a study of the Maine initiative that would avoid these problems.

Fitzgerald, who served as Giesler’s advisor, said that his student’s honors project is “significant because existing evidence is mixed about whether computers in the classroom produce achievement gains.”

Early in the research process, Giesler reached out to the Maine Department of Education to gather data about the high schools that opted into the laptop initiative in 2009 and the one that did not. That left him with 46 schools in the initiative and 53 that are not. The fact that some schools had opted in and not others created a “natural experiment” that offers rich opportunities for analysis. He made a point of collecting statistics from 2006 to 2013, allowing him to analyze data three years before the laptops were introduced and three years after their implementation.

His goal, he said, was to understand the relationship between the MLTI and educational outcomes — while paying attention to other important variables. He not only looked at scores from a statewide standardized test given to eleventh graders, called the Maine High School Assessment, but also considered school attendance, free and reduced lunches, and average teacher salary.

Giesler’s findings indicate that Maine’s laptop program has had little or no impact on student test scores in math, reading, or writing. Instead, he found that teacher salaries have a stronger positive correlation with test scores. But that doesn’t necessarily point to a direct link, he added. “I am cautious about this finding because teacher salaries might be a proxy for a school’s overall resources,” he said. “There might be other things at play.”

Giesler exercised caution in interpreting his findings. Despite determining that the MLTI has had no bearing on academic achievement scores, Giesler is hesitant about recommending that the program be scrapped, he said. “While my findings consistently demonstrate that the MLTI has no effect on the Maine High school Assessment, this doesn’t necessarily mean the program isn’t effective.” For one, the standardized high school test might not be the best way to measure student ability, he said. And it likely increases students’ technological literacy, a skill that helps them beyond high school. “The MLTI could enhance the academic ability of students in other ways even if they didn’t show up on the test,” he said.

He also suggested that if Maine were to keep the program, it should invest more in teachers, to teach them best strategies for using the laptops, as well as interactive educational software, in their classrooms. “A number of teachers have voiced frustration with the lack of professional development,” he said. “They know there are good websites and tools, but they don’t know where to find them.”

After graduating from Bowdoin, Giesler will start a job at Piper Jaffray in Minneapolis, working with healthcare investment. He said he suspects that both the time management and statistical analysis skills he developed this past year will serve him in his new job.

Pursuing an independent research project for one year at Bowdoin was gratifying, he noted. “You take classes every semester and then you leave the class. With an honors project, you get to do something from start to finish, which you rarely get to do in other classes. I’ll have this project for the rest of my life, and I think that’s pretty special.“