Although U.S. government efforts to connect public schools to the Internet have been highly successful, they have failed to result in an increase in student achievement on standardized tests, a recently published study says.
"If the goal of the program was to increase the proportion of schools hooked up to the Internet--and, specifically, disadvantaged schools--it looks like the program was pretty efficient," said Austan Goolsbee, an economist at the University of Chicago and coauthor of the study, The Impact of Internet Subsidies in Public Schools.
"However, we need to pay a lot more attention to the implementation of these types of program so that they provide improved educational outcomes," he said.
In a study of classroom Internet deployment in California from 1996 through 2000 published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, Goolsbee and fellow University of Chicago economist Jonathan Guryan found that during the years studied there were 66 percent more Internet-equipped classrooms in the state than there would have been without a significant federal subsidy helping to fund the deployment of enabling technologies.
Many supporters of the program have argued that spending the funds to provide access to the Internet would have benefits for educating students.
Despite these claims, Goolsbee and Guryan found no measurable effect on student performance in standardized test scores in California from 1997 through 2000.
Other education experts, however, were critical of linking Internet access to test-score performance as a measure of the program's success. Phillip Devin, an analyst at the Santa Monica, Calif., office of the Rand Corporation who specializes in the integration of information technology into teaching and learning, said the study demonstrates the effectiveness of providing economic incentives for schools to invest in technology, but the correlations made with test scores are "a bit too strong a leap."
"The use of test grades to measure student intellectual development is a traditional measure but it is one, as is the case of IQ tests, that is subject to debate," said Devin. "To use it as a standard to evaluate the impact of technology other than in a well-controlled experiment is likely to be misleading."
In 1998, the U.S. government enacted a major subsidy program to counter the perceived "digital divide" between wealthy and poor public-school districts in Internet and communications investment. The Universal Service Fund for Schools and Libraries, also known as the E-Rate program, provides up to $2.25 billion per year of subsidies for schools and libraries across the nation to invest in equipment and wiring for Internet access.
To put the spending amount in perspective, total U.S. public-school spending for computer equipment and related infrastructure-support in 1999 has been estimated at $3.3 billion.
Under the program, installations are subsidized between 20 percent and 90 percent and based upon district location and school need.
Goolsbee and Guryan found that the greatest need for the subsidies was among urban schools and those with large black and Hispanic populations in the state. Rural, as well as predominately white and Asian schools, were found to be in less need of underwriting.
Despite the success of the program at wiring schools, the authors said their corresponding review of reading, math and science test scores on the Stanford Achievement Test found that one Internet-linked classroom increased a school's math test scores by only 0.04 points. They note that it would take 1,000 extra Internet classrooms to increase the mean math score of a school by 40 points, the recognized threshold for institutional improvement on the test. …