One Laptop Per Child? Er…Maybe Not.

by Robert Pondiscio
July 1st, 2010

Here’s an eyebrow-raiser:  Reading and math scores of middle-school students, especially those from disadvantaged homes, tend to decline once a computer arrives in their homes, according to a study by Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy.  Say what?!?  Isn’t putting a laptop with high-speed Internet access into every low-income child’s home supposed to close the gap between technology haves and have-nots and boost achievement?  Professors Jacob Vigdor and Helen Ladd say “such efforts would actually widen the achievement gap in math and reading” according to a post on

“And it isn’t because they are spending less time on computers, it is that they have not been a generation raised to regard it as a productivity tool and instead see it as a social one.   The results might be even more dramatic today, because the cutoff for the study was before Facebook and Twitter took hold.”

The study looked at test scores for more than 150,000 students in North Carolina from 2000 to 2005. “The data allowed researchers to compare the same children’s reading and math scores before and after they acquired a home computer, to compare those scores to those of peers who had a home computer by fifth grade and to test scores of students who never acquire a home computer,” notes the report. “The negative effects on reading and math scores were ‘modest but significant,’ they found.”

Predictably, the study found middle school students mostly used their home computers for socializing and games, and that productive use of computers was higher in homes where Mom and Dad monitored their use.  ”In disadvantaged households, parents are less likely to monitor children’s computer use and guide children in using computers for educational purposes,” the study notes.

The study, titled “Scaling the Digital Divide: Home Computer Technology and Student Achievement,” is published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Update:  Common sense on this from Larry Ferlazzo.


  1. [...] just not be reading the blogs that are writing about it), but it certainly has been raised in some education-related blogs that I respect but don’t necessarily focus ed [...]

    Pingback by My “Take” On Recent Study Saying Home Computer Usage Can Lead To Lower Test Scores | Larry Ferlazzo's Websites of the Day... — July 1, 2010 @ 4:14 pm

  2. Mr. Pondiscio, I recently stumbled across your blog and am now a suscriber. Very nice.

    For the last twenty years I have been in education, the first eleven teaching, the last nine as headmaster of a small private school.

    I wrote a similar blog recently. Starting next year, our local public high school is giving every student their very own ereader to replace textbooks. Of course, these ereaders are wireless-equipped. By making students sign a pledge to avoid inappropriate sites, they hope to keep the students focused on academics, not social sites. Good luck.

    Comment by Colin Taufer — July 2, 2010 @ 11:28 am

  3. Monitoring student’s use probably isn’t the only difference between advantaged and disadvantaged families — I’d guess that how parents use their own computers plays a role.

    Though I’m a bit surprised that even less than optimal computer usage wouldn’t be a good distraction from TV.

    Comment by Rachel — July 2, 2010 @ 12:11 pm

  4. “When I was young and naive, I believed that important people took positions based on careful consideration of the options. Now I know better. Much of what Serious People believe rests on prejudices, not analysis. And these prejudices are subject to fads and fashions.”

    Paul Krugman here is talking about the current economic orthodoxy, but it applies equally to the current education orthodoxy which insists that technology will greatly improve education. Will studies such as this one make any dent in our prejudices? Will we make empirically-based judgments about whether to keep buying billions in tech, or continue to buy buy buy –egged on by the corporate sales juggernaut –without a moment’s use of our cherished “critical thinking skills”?

    Comment by Ben F — July 2, 2010 @ 12:30 pm

  5. Computers in schools are only as effective as the teacher in each classroom is computer-savvy. For teachers to continue to avoid this twenty-first century gift of technology in their every day practice is a mortal sin and should be reflected in their evaluation. Monitored, mandatory, professional development is the missing component here.

    Too many districts have spent millions updating their networks for potential good only to experience, lethargy, avoidance, and obstinate reluctance on the part of faculties too set in their ways to bring innovation into their practice. This has to change.

    Read Paul Peterson’s new book, Horace Mann to Virtual Education, to get a better grasp on what some progressive states and districts are doing with this state-of-art technology in their schools.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — July 5, 2010 @ 7:23 am

  6. The real “twenty-first century gift” is the understanding of the importance of high quality educational research. While there is some research suggesting that computers are a useful learning tool for older students, this does not hold true for younger students. Teachers should be evaluated on how much their students actually learn in their classrooms.

    I have a large set of real three dimensional shapes along with real world examples (cylinders, soup cans, spheres, balls). My students love being able to actually hold the shapes in their hands and discuss their similarities and differences. Later they get paper templates that they can make into the various shapes. Now our school has a technology enforcer who runs around with a clipboard making sure that we have done our mandatory quota of computer usage. He insisted that I show the children a website about 3-D objects. Really, they just found it confusing.

    Maybe this makes be obstinate, but my students had the highest growth this year in both reading and math, yet I continue to get dinged for not using enough technology. I am so sick of the micromanaging. If my students are doing well, that should be what really counts.

    Comment by Ray — July 5, 2010 @ 5:59 pm

  7. I taught 5th and 6th grade in a technology charter school. It was a middle school for grades 5th through 8th. Each student had his or her own laptop. The student and their parents signed an agreement to use the laptop for academics. Teachers checked the history each morning. The students did not have textbooks only projects. These projects were created by the teachers and covered all of the necessary information.

    I found a remarkable respect from our students. They used their laptops for exploration and discovery. They used the latest application and technology to design, present and create movies, music, essays, plays and time lines for class assignments. Our students were eager, focused and produced incredible presentations that demonstrated understanding and mastery. I believe the underlying factor to this success was that the teachers and older students modeled enthusiasm, interest and seriousness with each topic and project assignment.

    Having the first set of the youngest students from many elementary schools, I had the opportunity to set the stage for each student. I helped them understand the technology usage guidelines. My students then watched and listened to the older students on how they treated their laptop computers and learned to use their laptop with respect.

    With this charter school teaching experience, it is important to provide this generation with the practice to access information using this technology successfully and respectfully. I believe using the laptop in the classroom will advance this generation to become knowledgeable, curious, and constructive and be able to put together information quickly, accurately and with success.

    Comment by Melanie Loring — July 6, 2010 @ 3:11 pm

  8. Technology is fine, but I think that it has become the end, not the means to the end. I’ve been reading Marcus Aurleius’s Meditations which begins with his acknowledging all his teachers and what he learned from each. “To my mentor Fronto I owe the realization that malice, craftiness, and duplicity are the concomitants of absolute power; and that our patrician families tend for the most part to be lacking in the feelings of ordinary humanity.” I wish more American kids had the sort of education that Marcus Aurelius had (I know, not very 21st Century is it?). What I fear we’re getting instead is empty souled beings who can do little more than “put together information quickly, accurately and with success”.

    Comment by Ben F — July 7, 2010 @ 12:31 pm

  9. Ben F., I see your point. I cannot imagine myself as a student their age researching information, processing it, organizing it into a presentation, deciding the type of media to use to present the information and then present the information successfully to peers with passion. As a student, I was given the information from a paragraph, memorized it, answered a few questions about it, if I raised my hand and then took a test on what I memorized. Lifeless. And this was 15 years ago?

    Society has changed so much and so fast I think it is hard for a lot of us to comprehend its impact. We know the benefits of technology and also identified its negatives. I look at like this. When my students enter the working force, who will get the job? Will it be an interviewee with experience analyzing, processing, organizing information accurate enough, under deadline to make a difference for their company or someone who does not? I need to make sure my students have the 21st century job entry skills that will impact them in a few years. I need to make sure they can keep their job when the global community contacts them with using technology.

    My responsibility is to prepare them to be productive, adaptable, successful, passionate working citizens. Technology will continue to make an impact during the next 15 years. It my job to prepare them for their future.

    Comment by Melanie Loring — July 7, 2010 @ 1:09 pm

  10. Melanie,

    I have no doubt that you’re a good and smart person with the best of intentions and work habits. And you probably are doing your students a favor for providing training in skills they will need in the future. But humans should be much more than just good workers –they should be educated souls. And I mean “educated” in the classical/Renaissance sense of the word –and I’m sorry I cannot give a quick, precise definition of what this means at the moment –it’s rather inchoate in my own mind. I believe that humans ought to be so much more than good Google employees and good consumers of Google products, and I know that schools need to be part of giving them that “more”.

    Comment by Ben F — July 7, 2010 @ 10:59 pm

  11. Hear, hear Ben. I’d also argue (and I’ll freely admit this is a bias) that students who are well-educated by your definition are more likely to be high-functioning employees and consumers than those “trained” for such a role. I think the starting point of productive citizenship and participation in the economy is the sense that there are things worth sharing in.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — July 7, 2010 @ 11:03 pm

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