Kids get computers, scores fall

Closing the “digital divide” doesn’t boost test scores, concludes a new study reported in Ed Week’s Inside School Research.  Jacob L. Vigdor and Helen F. Ladd looked at North Carolina students in fifth through eighth grades who got home computers from 2000 to 2005; they also studied Internet access.

The news was not good, though: The researchers found that students who gain access to a home computer between 5th and 8th grade tend to experience a slight — yet persistent — decline in reading and math scores. With regard to the introduction of Internet access, the researchers found that the technology had a more negative impact on some students than others — possibly because parents of those students exercised less control of their activities on the Internet.

Apparently, computers are more likely to serve as a distraction than an educational tool for middle schoolers.

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  1. Has anyone ever gotten computers to work as educational tools?

  2. Michael E. Lopez says:

    I had a good experience in a programming class once.

  3. I suspect computers could be useful educational tools, but only after a teacher had motivated a student to learn, pointed them in a cogent direction and monitored their progress.

    If the kid is mostly using the computer to IM and download tunes, then no.

    I think the real potential for computers in the classroom won’t be reached until we get much more sophisticated hardware and software. Think “interactive textbook” rather than “web browser.”

  4. I had a good experience in a programming class once.

    OK wise guy. Has anyone, among the zillions of computers-in-education projects that have afflicted the public education system gotten them to work as a generalized adjunct to education?

    Rob, the problem is that the classic use of computers in business is to cut head count. That’s obviously not an advantage in public education where the more people you can get on the payroll the better job you’re doing. Hence the uniform failure of computers in education (other then programming classes of course); who needs ’em?

  5. I give and hear nothing but very happy reviews of the website for teaching children letters, sounds, and other ingredients of reading in an engaging, interactive way. Some children as young as two years old can navigate their way through the website alone. As a bonus, it’s free.

  6. (Mike): “I had a good experience in a programming class once.”
    LOL, literally.

    TIMSS results, among others, as long ago as 14 years indicated that computers add little to basic instruction. This result parallels a similar assessment of the contribution which early use of calculators makes to Math performance. These are statistical results–“facts”, if you will–which admit various explanations and suggest various extrapolations.

    First, note that most of these studies of school performance use standardized tests of reading comprehension and Math. As a wise lady from the ETS once said: “We can’t measure what’s important so we measure what we can.” When Chubb and Moe determined to study the relation between institutional structure and school performance, they used student gains between 10th and 12 grade on standardized tests of reading, Math, and Science. They did not use Social Studies scores because Social Studies scores did not correlate with anything (which is pretty funny if you know anything about statistics).

    Second, computers have transformed so many industries one might reasonably project that they will transform the education industry when decision-makers face an incentive structure which rewards the choice of effective means. At Jay Greene’s blog, guest blogger Matthew Ladner described a successful charter thus: “Carpe Diem is a 6-12 school with 240 students. A value added analysis of test scores found that they have the biggest gains in the state of Arizona. Their math results are really off the chart, with some grades averaging at the 98th percentile on Terra Nova. Carpe Diem is a hybrid model school, rotating kids between self-paced instruction on the computer and classroom instruction.” Perhaps in the Vigdor and Ladd study we see the result of inept implementation and not a defect in the principle.

    Third, skills improve with practice, and people will practice what they enjoy. When programs adjust the practice which they present to any student to that student’s skill level and when programs compose infinitely variable practice routines, it’s hard to see how they will not enhance student performance. Consider computer chess.

    As usual: “What works?” is an empirical question which only an experiment (a decentralized public-policy regime or a competitive market in goods and services) can answer.

  7. Richard Aubrey says:

    Electronic page-turners.
    But the concept fools the rubes (voters) and the school system’s purchasing agent gets a free lunch or something.
    Costs a bazillion dollars not to mention the teachers’ time learning how to use it and the techs’ time trying to make it work.
    I don’t see the problem.

  8. It really isn’t possible to do research without a computer now. I haven’t seen a card catalogue in years.

    I have very limited access to computers in the classroom (we share one laptop cart among 15 teachers), but I manage to do quite a bit.

  9. Michael E. Lopez says:

    “Kids get calculators. Average times table proficiency plummets.”

    “Kids get books on tape. Average phonetic recognition drops.”

    “Kids get the Internets. Average ability to read through more than 10 pages disappears.”

    “Kids get good parents. Calculators and Internets have no effect on learning.”

  10. Richard Aubrey says:

    So what kind of research is necessary? In your field? As a matter of methods?


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