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Researchers gave hundreds of computers to California students who didn't have them at home. Nothing changed.

Roughly one in four children in the United States lives in a home without a computer or Internet access, and this digital divide is often cited as a factor in the intractable achievement gap between poor students and their well-off peers. Give these kids a computer, the logic goes, and you may increase their chances of succeeding in school. Entire philanthropies are built on this idea.

But a jarring new National Bureau of Economic Research working paper concludes that all of this hardware may have no effect, at least in the short term, on educational outcomes. Matt Yglesias pointed us to the research, by University of California at Santa Cruz economists Robert W. Fairlie and Jonathan Robinson. Their randomized control trial included 1,123 sixth-through-10th grade students in 15 schools across California, making this the largest study of its kind. None of the students had computers at home at the start of the study. Half were given refurbished computers (the other half, the control group, were given computers after the study was completed so as not to unfairly taunt students for science).

On average, these were schools with more students on free or reduced lunch than the California average, and they had above-average rates of minority enrollment. These are the types of schools where we'd like to think that technology might go a long way. At the end of the school year, however, Fairlie and Robinson found no real difference in grades, test scores, disciplinary actions or attendance between the students who now had computers at home and those who did not. The students with computers were also no more likely to turn in their homework on time, or to have greater computer skills.

It's possible that these students may benefit from these computers in some other way that this study didn't detect. Maybe they'll be better positioned down the road to apply for jobs requiring IT skills, or they'll simply have an easier time searching online for the right college. But, as Fairlie and Robinson write:

Our results indicate that computer ownership alone is unlikely to have much of an impact on short-term schooling outcomes for low-income children. Existing and proposed interventions to reduce the remaining digital divide in the United States and other countries, such as large-scale voucher programs, tax breaks for educational purchases of computers, Individual Development Accounts (IDAs), and one-to-one laptop programs, need to be realistic about their potential to reduce the current achievement gap.

As Yglesias writes, this suggests that "the ways in which high-income families help their kids in school don't relate to durable goods purchases." And this would be consistent with what we already know about the environments children experience before they ever even enter their first classroom: Researchers have found that by age 3, low-income children have heard 30 million fewer words spoken than their high-income peers. That means that when we give a struggling low-income kid a computer in the eighth grade, the intervention is already years too late. It may also be targeting the wrong problem.

Top image: FotoBug11/Shutterstock.com

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