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Education Reporter

Closing the 'Digital Divide' Widens Achievement Gap
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Politicians and education activists spent millions of taxpayer and private donor dollars closing the "digital divide" in American classrooms in the last decade; as a result, black and white students reached parity in classroom computer access by 2003. Some insist the racial and socioeconomic academic achievement gap cannot be bridged until all children have access to a computer at home as well, but a new National Bureau of Economic Research paper challenges that assumption.

Two Duke University researchers looked at 5th-8th graders enrolled in North Carolina schools between 2000 and 2005 to determine whether home computer and Internet access improved basic academic performance. The study improved upon previous research in that it drew from a much larger sample size, and its longitudinal nature permitted comparison of test scores before and after students gained access to a home computer.

The data revealed that students who obtained a computer and/or Internet access in the home between 5th and 8th grade showed a statistically significant decline in standardized math and reading test scores that persisted throughout the four-year study. Furthermore, black students and those receiving free or reduced-price lunches experienced a greater decline in test scores than did their peers with equivalent computer and Internet access. In other words, said the researchers, "access is in practice more detrimental for some students than others."

Study authors and professors Jacob Vigdor and Helen Ladd hypothesized that parental monitoring is a key factor in whether students use the computer for educational purposes or to play games and surf the Internet recreationally. More time on the computer generally translates into less time reading or doing homework. Vigdor noted that his team cut off data at the end of 2005 before Facebook and Twitter made it easy for kids to spend hours socializing online; it is possible more recent data would show students logging even more unproductive time online.

The professors said they chose middle school students for their study because many existing laptop initiatives target that age group. For example, the Maine Learning Technology Initiative spent $50 million in 2003 to provide Apple iBook laptops to each 6th-grader; the Texas Technology Immersion Project has provided laptops to students in 22 pilot middle schools since 2004.

While acknowledging that home computers may provide benefits such as increasing computer literacy, Vigdor and Ladd do not recommend government provision of home computers to early secondary school students. "For school administrators interested in maximizing achievement test scores, or reducing racial and socioeconomic disparities in test scores, all evidence suggests that a program of broadening home computer access would be counterproductive."

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