Tara Stamm

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This article was written on 15 Aug 2014, and is filled under Sociology of Education.

Digital Divide Widening

My research on whether access to a home computer and internet access will improve the academic performance of low-income racially segregated middles schoolers has not yet been published so I am going to discuss some of what I think are important findings here and provide an update on the state of technology education for kids who really need it. My research is unique in that it provides one of the first tests of whether computer access initiative yields academic benefits for disadvantaged students that might thereby narrow social disparities in education. The analysis compares middle school students standardized test scores before and after the implementation of a program I call Digital Equity (D.E.). I found very modest to no improvements on test scores. The results suggest that improving the material educational resources in the home have little effect relative to other disparities that result in Orange Middle School’s students low standardized test scores. The hope of the D.E. program and others like it is that redistributing educational resources more equally automatically improves achievement for all students. As this study demonstrates, discrete interventions in the non-school environment do not immediately or easily translate into academic achievement gains.
Evidence from the SESAT scores in reading and mathematics indicate that there are no significant differences between 6th grade students who received a free computer and free internet access for their three years in middle school compared to prior students of the same school who did not get the same tools. This finding also indicates that the student population is relatively homogenous from year to year despite school interventions. That is, all students from this neighborhood enter middle school performing at the same level from year to year. There are moderate increases in both reading and mathematics scores in the 7th grade for the students who participated in the D.E. program. The score increases are most significant for the first D.E. cohort. Unfortunately, the dramatic increase is not maintained in the subsequent cohort. There is also an important narrowing of the range of reading scores in the 7th grade year that speaks to an equalizing effect. The narrowing is small however, compared to the possible range of scores. The results provide reasonable evidence to assume that in-home access to a computer and internet service is better than no access at all for 7th grade students in both reading and mathematics. When we look a little closer we found that students who were already performing at or above grade level made the most gains from an in home intervention. Those students who were performing below grade level continued to have poor academic performance despite new resources.
Results from a recent Khan Academy study have turned up similar results. They find that when advanced skills or resources are offered it is typically those students who are already wired that take advantage of the opportunities. Even though the good folks at Khan Academy are providing easier access to tools such as programming and coding, those tools are only accessible to students with access to home computers. But those students are already doing fine! Additional skills continue to widen the achievement gap. Educational disruptors should continue their pursuit of reaching all students regardless of socio-economic status or geographic isolation. Let’s try creating courses that are accessible by smart phone. Let’s meet the students where they are now and give them the tools they need to engage the digital marketplace.

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