Give Poor Students Computers and Watch Nothing Happen

What happened when researchers gave computers to randomly selected California schoolkids whose families had no computer at home? In short, nothing.

Matthew Yglesias reports:

. . . kids reported an almost 50 percent increase in time spent using a computer, with the time divided between doing homework, playing games, and social network. But there was no improvement in academic achievement or attendance or anything else. There wasn’t even an improvement in computer skills. At the same time, there was no negative impact either. The access to extra computer games didn’t reduce total time spent on homework or lead to any declines in anything. They broke it down by a few demographic subgroups and didn’t find anything there either. It’s just a huge nada. Nothing happening.

More Yglesias:

We know that kids from higher-income households do much better in school than poor kids. But that of course raises the question of why that is exactly or what one might do about it. . . 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.

Forget the “may be”. That is how high-income families help their kids in school. We also know kindergartners begin school with serious differences in vocabulary based upon their parents’ socio-economic status. Some kids luck out with two parents, one who might stay at home with them. When they’re not napping, they’re talking. Less television, more talking, much more extensive vocabulary. Think of that above-average age 5 vocabulary as kindling in the fireplace of formal schooling.

“Direct parental involvement in the instructional process” takes many forms. When I went to my youngest daughter’s first field trip when she was five, at a local farm, there were 24 pipsqueaks and 36 parents. We had the kindergartners and animals outnumbered. High-income parents volunteer in their children’s primary schools, they regularly meet with their teachers, they read to their children at night, they (especially grandparents) buy them books by the bushel, they organize school fundraisers, they make sure their school is well supplied, they monitor homework, and they hire tutors, counselors, and related specialists when something is amiss. Most recipients of that type of care think, “I don’t want to let them down.” Think of that resolve as the matches in the fireplace of formal schooling.

Social capital is the network of already well educated people—both within and outside one’s family—who collectively create positive momentum in well-to-do families. Often, it’s subtle, nuanced, and indirect. College-related stories are told at dinner, a new job or promotion is discussed, older siblings succeed. Achievement is assumed. At other times, it’s anything but subtle and nuanced as when a family member or influential family friend asks acquaintances in high places to grant an interview, internship, or job.

Given this dilemma, conservatives argue that spending more money on low-income students is pointless. Progressives draw a different conclusion. We gladly accept the Right’s premise that equal opportunity is essential, but we point out what they conveniently ignore. We can’t have equal opportunity writ large if young people don’t enjoy equal educational opportunity.

And since schools don’t have the wherewithal to level the pre-natal to before school playing field, or balance parent school involvement, or equalize social capital, it’s imperative that school’s compensate for societal inequalities that are not the fault of low-income students. If free computers aren’t that answer, what is? Some possibilities: smaller classes, the best teachers (who usually teach the best students); summer remediation programs; community-based internships and mentors; and longer school days/years.

All of those together won’t close the academic achievement gap. At best, they’ll partially reduce it.

4 thoughts on “Give Poor Students Computers and Watch Nothing Happen

  1. Parental involvement with their kids is also diminished with low income families where birth control is not used. Making it tougher for teens to abort an unwanted pregnancy means more low-income kids are coming into this world with one parent who may or may not have a high school education. Likely too, if they became pregnant as a result of birth control being restricted through religious-right legislation, they will likely have to work odd jobs, if they can find it, at times that don’t allow them to attend school functions or working with their kids during normal waking hours. Such family lives are often fraught with apathy and drugs adding even more obstacles to creating the social capital required to making it easier for kids to succeed.

  2. Take it a step further. My experience in working in native schools in Madagascar showed me that kids can achieve up very high standards with just a notebook and a pen. When two daughters of some of my wife’s Malagasy friends immigrated to America, they proved the point.
    As 9th grade students in Madagascar, they took a placement test and were put into either 11th or 12 grade here in the US. On top of that, they knew three languages. They did have parents who highly valued education and had an A+ work ethic.

  3. Really enjoyed this article. There’s no point throwing money at a problem (i.e buying computers) if it’s missing its target. Countries like the US and Australia and others like them need to lift their game when it comes to educating their kids. It is particularly frustrating when we know that a good education can help end the cycle of poverty. On a lighter note I’m very jealous of your 24:36 child parent ration on a field trip. I accompanied my 7 year old on his recent field trip and was given responsibility for five students at a zoo. It was like herding cats and was exhausting! ;)

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