- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 13, 2010

One of these days, someone is going to conduct some scientific research and discover that billions of dollars could be saved by not doing so much scientific research.

For example, the New York Times last week carried an interesting story by Randall Stross titled, “Computers at Home: Educational Hope vs. Teenage Reality,” in which the author previews an upcoming scientific paper on the effects of home computers on the educational outcomes of low-income students.

The study’s authors — professors from the University of Chicago and Columbia University — used fieldwork from a Romanian computer voucher program to prove that low-income students who received home computers actually achieved lower test scores than students who applied for, but did not receive, the vouchers.

Here’s the part where we could pocket some research grant money: Mr. Stross quotes researcher Ofer Malamud as saying, “We found a negative effect on academic achievement. I was surprised, but as we presented our findings at various seminars, people in the audience said they werent surprised, given their experiences with their school-aged children.”

Who needs stark regression discontinuity to establish something that any competent, responsible parent can tell you over a cup of Starbucks? If you’re trying to raise a well-educated, well-rounded child, you need to limit — not increase — the time he spends on the home computer.

Of course, now that there’s scientific research to prove the point, will educators and government bureaucrats take notice?

After all, much is being made of the “digital divide” between the haves and the have-nots, especially children of low-income families who do not own home computers. Such students are condemned to use school computer labs or (gasp!) access the Internet on free computers at the public library. Improving access for all students is assumed to be necessary in order to level the playing field of educational opportunity.

In fact, assumptions on the part of educational experts about the need for greater Internet access are behind the Obama administration’s push to provide free high speed broadband to low-income rural homes. (Dial-up is simply insufficient if a poor child is to keep up in a 21st-century global economy).

Yet this study contradicts the knee-jerk solution of resolving an inequity with government dollars. In fact, it’s just one more example of a cure that makes the disease even worse.

The research showed that low-income students who received home computers didn’t use them to enhance their schooling, but rather, used them to play games. (Act surprised). Their scores in three academic subjects actually declined, but at least their proficiency in computers was measurably higher, so I guess the experiment wasn’t a total loss if what you’re looking for is a generation of low-income computer gamers.

The unvarnished truth is that the digital divide isn’t what’s holding back America’s underprivileged children. The real problem is a discipline divide. Regardless of socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity or religion, where there are strong, skilled, supervising parents, you will find successful students. And where there aren’t, you’ll find gamers.

It’s time to stop throwing money, technology and excuses at poor children and calling it education. The only way to close any sort of gap is to stop selling kids short on competent teachers who are committed to imparting knowledge and skills rather than using the classroom to affect “social justice,” and to hold their parents accountable for the privilege of a free public education.

A well-educated person — no matter what his economic background — will figure out how to get a computer in his home and use it to his advantage.

On the other hand, an uneducated child who gets a computer will use it to find www.freegamesonline.com and while away the hours that most certainly would be better spent turning the pages of a book.

Maybe I should start applying for research grants.

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