Public school spending on classroom Internet connections appears to have no measurable impact on student achievement in California, concludes a recent study by two University of Chicago economists.
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An educational technology expert, however, said the study failed to delve deeply enough into the issue.
Released last month, the study set out to examine the impact of the federal E-rate program, which helps schools acquire telecommunications services, and the effect classroom Internet connections have had on student achievement. The researchers used data from the California and U.S. departments of education for every school in the state.
“If you take as a narrow focus of the program, just to increase access, the E-rate appears very successful in doing that,” said Austan Goolsbee, who teaches in the University of Chicago’s graduate school of business. “It’s on the broader topic—is that a good goal or not—that we haven’t found any evidence that it is [providing academic benefits].”
Elusive Achievement Link
Mr. Goolsbee and his colleague, Jonathan Guryan, matched information from E-rate applications of the California schools with student scores on mathematics, reading, and science on the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition.
“The results show no evidence that Internet investment had any measurable effect on student achievement,” their report says, basing that conclusion on the mean test scores from the schools studied, the fraction of students from each school scoring above the 75th percentile for the state, and the percentage of students scoring above the 25th percentile.
The researchers, who allowed one year for increases in Internet connections to have an impact in the classroom, found the same result regardless of the grade level or the poverty level of a school.
But Norris Dickard, the director of public policy for the Washington-based Benton Foundation, which studies issues related to school access to technology, called the researchers’ conclusions overly simplistic.
He said test-score improvements are unlikely to stem from any one factor in education, such as Internet connections.
“I would say, number one, it’s too early to tell” if there is a link between Internet connections and student achievement, Mr. Dickard said. “Second of all, we’ve got to do a lot more with teachers’ professional development—we’ve been saying that for years.”
He added that, in business and industry, hard evidence of the beneficial impact of technology has also been elusive, but that hasn’t stopped American companies from investing heavily in technology for their operations.
Mr. Goolsbee said the study was only a first crack at trying to determine if there is a link between spending on educational technology and student achievement.
“It’s not strong—the finding on test scores,” he acknowledged. “Few things appear to influence test scores in the immediate term; we tried to make that clear in the report.”
Seeing an effect from Internet access, he added, “could take a while.”
Still, Mr. Goolsbee said, he hopes to continue the study with data from future years.
Using federal data from 1996 to 2000 and the annual E-rate applications submitted by California’s schools, the University of Chicago economists also examined how the education-rate program affected trends toward increasing classroom connections to the Internet in schools that serve students of varying levels of poverty.
Mr. Goolsbee and Mr. Guryan confirmed conclusions from other studies that the poorest schools have received the lion’s share of funding for wiring classrooms. In other words, the priority goal of the E-rate program—to help the poorest schools most—is being met.
Since 1998, schools have received about $2 billion a year in E-rate funds.