Economists are trying to measure a home computer’s educational impact on schoolchildren in low-income households. Taking widely varying routes, they are arriving at similar conclusions: little or no educational benefit is found. Worse, computers seem to have further separated children in low-income households, whose test scores often decline after the machine arrives, from their more privileged counterparts.
Ofer Malamud, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Chicago, is the co-author of a study that investigated educational outcomes after low-income families received vouchers to help them buy computers.
“We found a negative effect on academic achievement,” he said. “I was surprised, but as we presented our findings at various seminars, people in the audience said they weren’t surprised, given their own experiences with their school-age children.”
Professor Malamud and his collaborator, Cristian Pop-Eleches, an assistant professor of economics at Columbia University, did their field work in Romania in 2009, where the government invited low-income families to apply for vouchers worth 200 euros (then about $300) that could be used for buying a home computer.
The program provided a control group: the families who applied but did not receive a voucher. They showed the same desire to own a machine, and their income was often only slightly above the cut-off point for the government program.
In a draft of an article that the Quarterly Journal of Economics will publish early next year, the professors report finding “strong evidence that children in households who won a voucher received significantly lower school grades in math, English and Romanian.” The principal positive effect on the students was improved computer skills.
At that time, most Romanian households were not yet connected to the Internet. But few children whose families obtained computers said they used the machines for homework. What they were used for — daily — was playing games.
In the United States, Jacob L. Vigdor and Helen F. Ladd, professors of public policy at Duke University, reported similar findings. Their National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, “Scaling the Digital Divide,” published last month, looks at the arrival of broadband service in North Carolina between 2000 and 2005 and its effect on middle school test scores during that period. Students posted significantly lower math test scores after the first broadband service provider showed up in their neighborhood, and significantly lower reading scores as well when the number of broadband providers passed four.
The Duke paper reports that the negative effect on test scores was not universal, but was largely confined to lower-income households, in which, the authors hypothesized, parental supervision might be spottier, giving students greater opportunity to use the computer for entertainment unrelated to homework and reducing the amount of time spent studying.
The North Carolina study suggests the disconcerting possibility that home computers and Internet access have such a negative effect only on some groups and end up widening achievement gaps between socioeconomic groups. The expansion of broadband service was associated with a pronounced drop in test scores for black students in both reading and math, but no effect on the math scores and little on the reading scores of other students. In the report, the authors do not speculate about what caused the disparities.
The study also goes to show just how much positive or negative influence parental involvement and supervision have on student achievement.
Of course President Hopey/Changey is expanding broadband service into poor and rural areas as part of his miracle education cure and grant-based stimulus package.
Along with his BLAME TEACHERS FIRST education policies, his Race to the Top initiative, and his No Child Left Behind Jr. re-do set to pass after the November elections, President Hopey/Changes puts all his faith in just about every miracle cure that doesn't actually work.
Here's some advice, Hopey/Changey:
Start with parents. Get them involved. Hold parents accountable when students don't come to school, don't study, don't pay attention, don't show effort.
If he had read this study (or actually read any study on education not funded by the Gates or Broad Foundations), he would know that parents are the linchpin to student achievement and success.
Given the financial, employment, environmental, agricultural, and education policies he pursues, I wonder if President Hopey/Changey isn't spending entirely too much time on the Internets and not enough time reading policy papers and material NOT written by hedge fund managers or foundations funded by hedge fund managers and/or Bill Gates and Eli Broad.