Friday, May 04, 2007

No One Ever Learned From a Free Laptop

Several years ago, giving away laptop computers to high-school and younger students was all the rage. The economist and former Harvard President Lawrence Summers once said that no one in history ever washed a rented car, and it turns out that people don’t get much use from or take very good care of laptops that they get for free. Alas, for that and other reasons, the big laptop giveaway seems not to have worked out as planned. The New York Times has the scoop:

The students at Liverpool High have used their school-issued laptops to exchange answers on tests, download pornography and hack into local businesses. When the school tightened its network security, a 10th grader not only found a way around it but also posted step-by-step instructions on the Web for others to follow (which they did).

Scores of the leased laptops break down each month, and every other morning, when the entire school has study hall, the network inevitably freezes because of the sheer number of students roaming the Internet instead of getting help from teachers.
So the Liverpool Central School District, just outside Syracuse, has decided to phase out laptops starting this fall, joining a handful of other schools around the country that adopted one-to-one computing programs and are now abandoning them as educationally empty — and worse.

Many of these districts had sought to prepare their students for a technology-driven world and close the so-called digital divide between students who had computers at home and those who did not.

“After seven years, there was literally no evidence it had any impact on student achievement — none,” said Mark Lawson, the school board president here in Liverpool, one of the first districts in New York State to experiment with putting technology directly into students’ hands. “The teachers were telling us when there’s a one-to-one relationship between the student and the laptop, the box gets in the way. It’s a distraction to the educational process.”


The output of education depends on numerous inputs, some of which schools can provide and some of which must be provided outside the school. The inputs that come from the school – lower student/teacher ratios, free laptops, whatever – can be substitutes or complements for the inputs that come from outside the school – parental emphasis on education, neighborhood norms that reinforce or stigmatize learning, etc. They are assumed to be complements, and I think this is reasonable. However, the degree of complementarity is probably very small.

An acquaintance of mine who does research on public-school performance once said that 90% of what public schools turn out depends on what goes on in the home. Shattered family structure, lots of television, parents who themselves do not value education much and thus expect the school to do all the teaching – no amount of “school reform” or computer giveaway or increased funding will make up for this. I suspect that if we account for such problems, there are probably a lot of proposed education policies for which there is “literally no evidence it [has] any impact on student achievement.”

2 Comments:

Anonymous Amanda said...

First, thank you for posting on my blog (several weeks back). I was quite honored to see your post.

Second, about technology in schools, I have never understood this. Not because I think I have all the answers, but because the primary problems in schools didn't seem to have anything to do with not having technology. Kids couldn't read. There were poor reasoning skills. Math and science are obviously week. I run into a lot of people who can't write - writing is nothing more than composing and synthesizing thoughts (which is admittedly difficult, but, that is why you go to school). You don't need technology for any of this; you need committed teachers and high academic standards.

About the home situation, that is a good point. I can't imagine that 90% of what schools turn out, though, is due to what occurs at home. I could imagine 60 to 70%. If a child is properly challenged, they can leave their life at home and greatly enjoy (and throw themselves into) the learning process at school.

Third, have you ever written on the topic of the output of economists? I have almost no economics background but, from the little I know, I've been amazed to see, essentially, the social proposals put forward by economists. This is not because I don't think they should put forward whatever proposal they might have but that I never would have guessed their training prepares them for that. Economists seem to dabble greatly in social issues. Perhaps I don't understand. But I think it would be interesting to see something on the relationship between economics and society. Just a thought.

5:41 PM  
Blogger Evan said...

This is not because I don't think they should put forward whatever proposal they might have but that I never would have guessed their training prepares them for that.

Economists generally work from a single model of human behavior - people rationally pursue their self-interest given constraints they face. This is not a model limited to financial issues, but applies to all kinds of human activity. Is it a good model for matters beyond money? That's a separate question, of course.

11:58 AM  

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