A recent—and controversial—study from the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based National Bureau of Economic Research casts a critical eye on the eRate, the $2.25 billion federal program that provides telecommunications discounts to schools and libraries.

Looking at data from California schools, the study concludes the eRate was successful at connecting that state’s schools to the internet, accelerating the process by as many as four years. But the program has done nothing to improve the test scores of schoolchildren so far, researchers say.

Supporters of the eRate say that’s too broad a leap to make. They argue that it is unfair to judge the success of the program yet based on its impact on academic achievement, given that schools are only now beginning to reap the benefits of classroom internet access.

Besides, they say, the eRate was intended only to provide the infrastructure necessary for schools to take advantage of the internet, and it’s up to schools themselves to supply the training and support needed to make the web an effective teaching tool. Criticizing the eRate for not raising test scores is like saying expenditures on textbooks and chalkboards were wrong because students aren’t learning, they say.

While the two University of Chicago researchers who authored the study acknowledge that test scores are dependent on a number of factors beyond the mere existence of internet access in schools, they say they are surprised so few data have been collected on such a costly government program to ensure that it has tangible benefits.

For the report, titled “The Impact of Internet Subsidies in Public Schools,” the researchers analyzed the number of internet connections in California’s schools from 1996 to 2000.

During that period, the eRate provided California schools with nearly $937 million in internet access subsidies. By the 2000-01 fiscal year, two-thirds of the state’s classrooms were connected to the web.

“Overall, by the final year of the sample, there were about 66 percent more internet classrooms than there would have been without the subsidy,” the study found.

After finding that the eRate had improved internet access—especially in poor schools—the researchers checked to see whether student achievement on the state test also had improved. But increased access to the web apparently hasn’t translate into better academic results, based on scores for the state-mandated Stanford Achievement Test, they say.

“The increase in internet connections has had no measurable impact on any measure of student achievement,” the study concluded, though it acknowledged, “It is possible that it is too early to evaluate long-term investments in information technology, or that the gains took place in areas other than test scores (better researched papers, for example).”

In an interview with eSchool News, Austan Goolsbee, the economics professor who co-authored the study along with colleague Jonathan Guryan, said the shortage of data available about the eRate and its impact on educational outcomes left him wondering what the technology was being used for in schools.

“We need to have more data collected before we can figure that out,” Goolsbee said.

Figures exist on how many classrooms are online, but there are no data to indicate how often these internet connections are used, if at all. “Nobody answers questions like that. No one even asks questions like that,” Goolsbee said.

“It is kind of surprising that there hasn’t been more effort made to gather data to study the outcomes of this program,” he added.

Goolsbee gave a number of reasons why the eRate appears to have had no measurable impact on student achievement in California schools so far: Perhaps students aren’t using the internet much in their classes, he said, or maybe teachers don’t have the technology skills needed to use the internet effectively with their classes. Perhaps the internet is used in subjects not tested by standardized exams, or maybe it’s too early to see any measurable progress yet.

“All of those things are possible, and we say those things in the paper,” Goolsbee said.

Larry Irving, a former assistant secretary for the Department of Commerce who helped devise the eRate during the Clinton administration, agreed that it might be too early to draw any conclusions about the eRate’s benefits.

“We’re in the really early stages of learning how to use information technology. We’ll get better at it,” he said. “We’re really just seeing the first generation of teachers [who] have learned to use it.”

Keith Krueger, executive director of the Consortium for School Networking, said the study assumes the only benefit of the eRate is improving student achievement. But the program has larger goals as well, he said, such as helping students learn the 21st-century skills needed for today’s workplace.

“The eRate was an infrastructure program. It’s up to other efforts to make sure we are leveraging that infrastructure effectively,” Kruger said. “Thoughts like, ‘If you provide internet connectivity, our test scores are going to go up,’ are simply unrealistic.”

The eRate has provided nearly $10 billion since 1999 to connect schools nationwide to the internet. The program was enacted out of concern over the “digital divide” between wealthy and middle-class areas that could afford to give youngsters crucial computer skills and poorer, mainly minority and inner-city communities that could not.

While overall home access to the internet reached 44 percent of the U.S. population in 2001, minorities and lower-income Americans were less likely to have it, according to figures from the Department of Commerce. Among all kids ages 10 to 17, less than one-third of blacks and Hispanics have internet access at home, while at least two-thirds of whites and Asians have home access.

The eRate has been the subject of intense criticism since its inception, mostly from conservative members of Congress, although this reproach has been muted in recent years as anecdotal evidence of the program’s impact began to surface. Early critics in Congress labelled the program the “Gore tax” after the fomer vice president who was a vocal advocate for its creation.

Links:

National Bureau of Economic Research
http://www.nber.org/papers/w9090

“The Impact of Internet Subsidies in Public Schools”
http://gsbwww.uchicago.edu/fac/austan.goolsbee/research/erate.pdf

U.S. Department of Commerce
http://www.commerce.gov

Consortium for School Networking
http://www.cosn.org