Education Opinion

Shockingly Similar Digital Divide Findings from 1998 and 2013

By Justin Reich — June 14, 2013 1 min read
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The New York Times today has a story byMotoko Rich on a study of classroom technology usage conducted by Ulrich Boser of the Center for American Progress. One of the headline findings has to do with the different ways technology is used by students from different backgrounds. The study’s findings come from survey data of fourth and eighth graders who answer questions about their classroom experiences while taking the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the so-called “nation’s report card.” From today’s story:

The analysis of the N.A.E.P. data found that 34 percent of eighth graders who took the math exams in 2011 used computers to "drill on math facts" while less than a quarter worked with spreadsheets or geometric figures on the computer. Only 17 percent used statistical programs. The federal survey data showed striking differences among racial groups and income levels. More than half of the black students who took the eighth-grade math exam in 2011 said they used computers to work on math drills, while only 30 percent of white students said they did. Similarly, 41 percent of students eligible for free and reduced lunches said they used computers for math drills, compared with 29 percent of students whose families earn too much for them to qualify for the lunches.

Remarkably, virtually the exact same study, was conducted by Harold Wenglinsky of the Educational Testing Services Policy Information Center in 1998, with strikingly similar findings. Boser looked at background surveys from the 2009 and 2011 NAEP tests, and Wenglinsky looked at the 1996 NAEP background surveys. To get us in the mood, here’s the 1996 Powerbook and a 2011 MacBook Pro.

In 1996, 34% of eighth graders who took the math exams used computers for drill and practice, while 27% used simulations or applications.(Wenglinsky and Boser report this “simulation/application” category slightly differently; Wenglinsky bins up a couple of categories. I think their findings are basically the same. I also think nearly all of this is available to be picked apart in the NAEP Data Explorer.

In 1996, 52% of black students who took the eighth-grade math test said they used computers for drill and practice, while only 30% of white students said the same. Similarly, 34% of students eligible for free or reduced lunches used the computers for drill and practice, compared with 31% of students from families that earn too much for them to qualify.

Here’s the data in tabular form. Note the caveats.

Fifteen years apart. Different computers. Maybe different software (though the number of students still dying from dysentery on the Oregon Trail every year continues to surprise me). Same patterns of usage. Persistent inequality.

Those trying to argue that technology investments will assuredly lead to dramatic change in classroom practice and student learning in the years ahead have some explaining to do. Those of us trying to help teachers and schools leverage technology to dramatically change classroom practice have our work cut out for us.

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