BUZZ: NBER Study Finds Computers for Low-Income Kids Do Not Change Educational Outcomes

This article is cross-posted from edtechtimes.com, where I currently serve as editor-in-chief.

kidshackingLast week, the National Bureau of Economic Research released a working paper with a surprising conclusion — giving computers to low-income families does not affect student educational outcomes.

The basics, from the working paper:

  • Here’s how the study was set up:
    • Researchers from University of California, Santa Cruz conducted a randomized control experiment with 1,123 students in grades 6-10 attending 15 schools across California.
    • All of the students participating in the study did not have computers. Half were randomly selected to receive free computers, while the other half served as the control group.
    • In order to evaluate the effects of the computers alone, no training or other assistance was provided.
    • Administrative data from the end of the school year was used to test the effects of the computers on numerous educational outcomes.  Follow-up surveys given in conjunction with administrative data.
  • And the results:
    • No effect on outcomes: grades, standardized test scores, credits earned, attendance, disciplinary actions, time spent on homework, turning in homework on time, software use, and general computer knowledge.
    • Overall, access is unlikely to greatly improve or negatively affect educational outcomes.

Now, the buzz:

TechCrunch ran the article first, with Gregory Ferenstein highlighting the impact of this study on the socio-economic gap:

“But the real problem is that many poor kids never even get a shot at information technology jobs, and the rich-poor gap is only getting worse. The SAT gap has grown 40 percent and college completion has skyrocketed 50 percent since the 1980s.  This means that the likely culprit is far more insidious: the family and environment.”

Education News summarizes TechCrunch’s Ferenstein, saying:

“The good news is that lack of a computer will not present as insurmountable an obstacle to student success as has been previously assumed. The bad news is that giving out free computers seemed like the most straight-forward solution to the achievement gap between poor students and their better-off peers and now it’s been proven to have no measurable impact at all.”

Slate’s Matthew Yglesias weighs in about the null finding:

“If access to home computers was associated with improved school performance, that would be strong evidence that simply fighting poverty with money could be highly effective education policy. The null finding tends to suggest otherwise, that the ways in which high-income families help their kids in school don’t relate to durable goods purchases and may be things like social capital or direct parental involvement in the instructional process that—unlike computers—can’t be purchased on the open market.”

Education writer Annie Murphy Paul asks the following question on her blog:

“I wonder what would have happened if the children in this study and their families were provided with training on how to use the computers for educational purposes? Of course, even that extra step would only go a little way toward closing the gap between rich and poor that Ferenstein rightly highlights.”

EdSurge’s summary focuses on the following point:

“Of course, they also ‘fessed up that “no training or assistance was provided.” An immediate follow-up question might be: is anyone surprised?”

Truthfully, we SHOULD be a little surprised.  MIT’s Tech Review reported earlier this year on a similar observational initiative with the One Laptop Per Child program in Ethiopia:

“Earlier this year, OLPC workers dropped off closed boxes containing the tablets, taped shut, with no instruction. ‘I thought the kids would play with the boxes. Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, found the on-off switch … powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child, per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs in the village, and within five months, they had hacked Android,’ Negroponte said.”

If children in Ethiopia have that self-motivation to learn and make use of their technology, what does this study imply about the differences in needs for low-income American students to overcome this gap?

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