Study: Computer Ownership Doesn’t Mitigate Income Achievement Gap

A new study casts doubt on the assertion that raising computer ownership rates among low-income families could go some way towards closing the poor-rich academic achievement gap, TechCrunch reports. The findings are based on a randomized trial in California where researchers tracked outcomes after giving out free computers to students around the state.

Authors Robert W. Fairlie and Jonathan Robinson noted that having a computer at home did have an impact on ownership rates and usage time, but didn’t translate to actual improvement in student achievement. Computer ownership didn’t have an impact on any of the standard measures used to gauge achievement, including grades, standardized test scores, attendance, or credits earned.

Based on the (reasonable) fear that lack of computer access was hurting poor students, California gave out computers to 1,123 students in grades 6-10 attending 15 schools across the diverse central California area. Most importantly, the data-savvy administrators randomly selected half the students as participants, so that we wouldn’t have to worry about whether those who took up the offer were unusually motivated.

True to their worries, 49 percent of the children didn’t even know how to download a file from the Internet. Naturally, computer use went up, but so did their access to less-than-educational games. “We find that home computers increase total use of computers for schoolwork, but also increase total use of computers for games, social networking and other entertainment, which might offset each other,” surmise the researchers.

Gregory Ferenstein sees both good news and bad in the study results. 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.

Of course, having computers may have non-educational benefits. Basic computer literacy certainly helps in a knowledge economy. 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 grown40 percent and college completion has skyrocketed 50 percent since the 1980s.

Now what? Well, as Ferenstein explains, this means that those working to close the gap will have to go back to the drawing board and figure out ways to mitigate problems that are much messier than lack of computers: the students’ social and family environment.