The Last Back-to-School Sale Ever

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What if we could stop wasting our money on crap and really improve education?

Originally published in The Pulse: Education’s Place for Debate

I nearly forgot that it was Labor Day until I walked into my local office supply superstore and was assaulted with memories of back-to-school shopping. As a kid, getting new cartoon pencils or bookcovers reduced the horror associated with another school year. As a parent, I resented buying materials the public school should provide and wasted too many brain cells trying to remember if “Trapper Keepers” were required or banned this year. The hole in my wallet resulted from satisfying the fetishes of teachers who (it seemed) each required a different color of ink, or no ink at all. Why should I have to remember which teacher required a spiral-bound notebook and which one required a looseleaf? Oh yeah, last year’s metal looseleaf binder is now verboten because a kid in Omaha figured out how to turn it into a radio so he could listen to the World Series during class.

Why must we engage in this orgy of consumerism?

Well, we don’t have to.

I know some of you must be thinking, “But Dr. Stager, how can my child possibly take a job away from an Indian student without my investment in glitter pens?”

We could work smarter and buy every schoolchild in America a personal laptop computer. The laptop is the protean device. At the most primitive level it’s crayons and pens and paint and calculator and notebook and index cards and protractor all in one package. However, the laptop performs all the functions of those tools better and in combinations previously impossible. The sum of the parts is greater than the value of the parts themselves.

Most importantly, traditional school supplies do nothing to make school more relevant or modernize the learning experience for today’s students. Pens, papers and notebooks reinforce educational practices of a bygone era and don’t require teachers to rethink their practice. Ubiquitous computing has the potential to change everything. With the money spent on school supplies why wouldn’t we at least try to make schools better?

You ask, “But Dr. Stager, doesn’t a laptop cost even more than a pair of sneakers?” Yes, a bit, but in most school districts a laptop costs less than your kid playing football (not including personnel costs). It has long been the case that the cost of a full-function multimedia Toshiba or Apple laptop – including bag, insurance and extended warranty – costs less per month, per student, than the cost of a trombone rental. We have long valued the investment in a musical instrument and schools know how to provide an instrument for a child who can’t afford it.

At the recent EDUCOMM Conference, Anytime Anywhere Learning Foundation President & Founder Bruce Dixon presented a vision of how the complete student laptop package can cost less than $20/student per month today. I’ve long proposed that states could offer generous tax credits for parents who buy their children a laptop and relieve schools of the burden of being in the computer business.

Think I’m crazy? According to the National Retail Federation, Families with school-age children will spend an average of $563.49 on back-to-school merchandise – $18.4 billion in total. That’s the equivalent of between 18-20 million full-featured student laptops at current retail prices, before a volume discount. The National Retail Federation reports that the average student will spend $94.02 on school supplies. Add the cost of a calculator and the One Laptop Per Child Computer is paid for immediately. Chuck a few textbooks and we actually save money. Since laptop costs are usually amortized across three to four years, we could revolutionize education by next year’s back-to-school.


Photo by Vlada Lazerien – http://flickr.com/photos/alvarez/434514751/ – Creative Commons Non-commercial, attribution & no derivative works license.

Comments

7 Responses to “The Last Back-to-School Sale Ever”
  1. Melissa says:

    Which got me thinking…how much DID I spend on schools supplies this year? And why CAN’T I buy my ADHD/Aspberger’s/TAG son a tablet since we will go through a Costco sized case of pencils this year since he can’t keep one longer than a day no matter how hard he tries.
    My favorite item on this year’s school list was post-it-notes. I can’t wait to talk to that teacher at Open House tonight…
    Seriously, I would indeed invest in a tablet (being an upper middle class person who can, thankfully, afford to) for my son, but his school is one of the worst in our district when it comes to effectively using instructional technology. I know this because I work in ed tech at the district level. So I could sign him up for web-based resources for purposes of organization and cohesion between his in school and out of school worlds. But why bother since his school doesn’t have wireless and wouldn’t know what to do with it if they had it.
    With everything you’ve been saying about Logo, I’m thinking about installing it on his desktop computer. As a parent, I’m not opposed to enriching my son’s education; it’s very frustrating to have to address huge sections of it that he’s not going to get any other way. I just count myself and my son fortunate that I actually know what those things are…

  2. Gary says:

    Melissa,

    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with me.

    Remain vigilant on behalf of your son. Too many “learning disabilities” are created by traditions, tools and content that go unchallenged from generation to generation.

    The school doesn’t need net access for tablet to be invaluable for your son and his classmates. There is plenty they can do with the computer without connectivity.

    All the very best,

    Gary

  3. Wayan @ OLPC News says:

    I hate to break it to you, but the XO computer from OLPC is now $176 dollars and climbing, and can only be bought by governments in units of 250,000.

  4. Stephen says:

    Wow… I guess we are not an average family, then. Perhaps it is due to the fact that both our sons are in elementary school, but I think we spent a total of perhaps $80 on back to school items, including clothing and supplies. Oh yeah… I bought a hair clipper kit and am now cutting my boys’ hair, too. The kit cost $19 and both haircuts would have come to $22. I am sure that won’t make it past middle school!
    As for computing ubiquity, there are so many excuses for why this is not possible. BUT, until my children’s teachers are prepared to teach effectively with such an incredible tool and access to incredible resources, I would rather that they stick to pencil and paper. Too much technology gets dumped into schools without budgeting for innovations in teaching. A mediocre teacher without technology is a worse teacher with it, in my opinion.

  5. Gary says:

    Wow!

    If we’re haggling over less than $100 difference, then I guess we’re really close to being able to provide a laptop per child for roughly the price of school supplies.

    If we abandoned the expense of standardized testing and test-prep, every kid could have a retail laptop tomorrow.

    I’m not advocating the XO (OLPC/$100 laptop) model for American schools, but merely offering it as an example of what may be done for little more than the current AVERAGE investment in school supplies.

    Technology prices change. I know. My family has three iPhones which dropped by 1/3 in 9 weeks.

    You may also have noticed that OLPC originally would not sell in orders smaller than one million units. That requirement has been reduced by 75 percent. Things change.

    It is hardly a matter of if every child will have a laptop, but a matter of when. Is your school ready?

  6. Melissa says:

    Steven, yup. The clippers last until about 7th grade. They do pick back up in the I-have-no-money-college-days tho so it’s not a complete loss. And my hubby uses our ever other week.

    Gary, I’m well aware of the advantages of a laptop and/or tablet in an educational setting outside a wireless connection. When I asked about it last year, tho, I was told that since my son goes out of his way to call attention to himself, adding a laptop would make it worse. Points right back to so many of the problems in current education – we must all be the same. we must all follow the teacher’s rules. we must all conform. the only way to measure student success is to compare them to the students around them using the same measurement system. Snort.

    On a positive note, tho, I asked the post-it-note teacher if my son could do a movie trailer instead of the traditional Book Jacket project and was pleasantly surprised that I got an unhesitating “yes, as long as it still includes all the same elements.” THAT’s a great answer that gave me some hope for this year.

    And all his sped designations are just so teachers will HAVE to pay attention to the fact that he’s not a sit down, shut up, do things my way type of kid (which none of them should be). Another joy of being on the inside of the system is that I’ve learned how to work it.

  7. 8Amber8 says:

    I bet the teacher who included post it’s is proud to have thought outside the box and do something different in her classroom, only to be scoffed at it. As a former teacher, I am offended at that thought and as an administrator, I have to agree with Melissa. Buying a computer for every student *sounds* great, but who would train, support, and maintain such a system? And upgrade, and repair, and make sure it is being taken care of?

    I also didn’t say it was impossible, I said I find that concept difficult to imagine on the TEACHER side.

    I work in a VERY large district that is namely title I…I can’t imagine the majority of our parents affording that, especially since I know personally how many can’t afford uniforms, much less school supplies. Just because there is technology included, that wouldn’t make the education system any better…