Home Computers and Educational Outcomes: Evidence from the NLSY97 and CPS

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The federal government has made the provision of computer and Internet access to schoolchildren a top priority. Spending on the E-rate program, which provides discounts to schools and libraries for the costs of telecommunications services and equipment, is roughly $2 billion per year (Puma, Chaplin, and Pape 2000; Universal Services Administration Company 2005). Recently, the U.S. Department of Education released the National Educational Technology Plan as part of the No Child Left Behind Policy. The plan calls for increased teacher training in technology, e-learning opportunities for students, access to broadband, digital content, and integrated data systems (U.S. Department of Education 2004). Several state and local governments and private programs have also created one-to-one computing in selected schools through the provision of laptop computers to schoolchildren and teachers. (1) In a recent national survey funded by the U.S. Department of Education, nearly all principals report that educational technology will be important for increasing student performance in the next few years, and a clear majority of teachers report that the use of technology is essential to their teaching practices (SRI International 2002). The result is that nearly all instructional classrooms in U.S. public schools have computers with Internet access, with an average of 3.5 computers per classroom (U.S. Department of Education 2005).

In contrast to the ubiquity of computers in the classroom, nearly 20 million children, representing 26% of all children in the United States, do not have computers in their homes. This disparity in access to technology at home or the so-called digital divide may have implications for educational inequality. Surprisingly, however, the role of home computers in the educational process has drawn very little attention in the literature. There is also no clear theoretical prediction regarding whether home computers are likely to have a negative or positive effect on educational outcomes. Home computers are clearly very useful for completing school assignments and may facilitate learning through research and educational software. The use of home computers may also alter the labor market returns to completing high school, "open doors to learning" encouraging some teenagers to stay in school (Cuban 2001; Peck et al. 2002), and reduce crime. On the other hand, home computers are often criticized for providing a distraction to children through video games and the Internet or for displacing other more active forms of learning (Giacquinta et al. 1993; Stoll 1995), and the Internet makes it substantially easier to plagiarize and find information from noncredible sources. Therefore, it is an empirical question as to which of the two opposing forces dominates and the magnitude of any effects.

Indeed, the few previous studies examining the relationship between home computers and educational outcomes find somewhat mixed results. (2) Using the National Educational Longitudinal Study of 1988, Attewell and Battle (1999) find that test scores and grades among eighth graders are positively related to home computer use. Using more recent data from the United States, he 2001 Current Population Survey (CPS)--Fairlie (2005) finds a positive cross-sectional relationship between home computers and school enrollment. Schmitt and Wadsworth (2006) also find evidence of a positive relationship between home computers and performance on the British school examinations from analysis of the British Household Panel Survey between 1991 and 2001. In contrast, Fuchs and Woessmann (2004) find a negative relationship between home computers and math and reading test scores using the international student-level Programme for International Student Achievement database. The conclusions drawn from this literature on the relationship between home computers and educational outcomes are limited; however, because of the mixed results, the primary focus is on test scores instead of other educational outcomes and on the lack of a comprehensive approach to addressing the potential endogeneity of computer ownership. …