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 to ensure that such a costly government program 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 … there were about 66 percent more internet classrooms than there would have been without the subsidy,” the study found.

But increased access to the web apparently hasn’t translate into better academic results, based on scores for the state-mandated Stanford Achievement Test, the researchers 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 learning left him wondering what the web was being used for in schools. “We need to have more data collected before we can figure that out,” he 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.

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 students. Perhaps the internet is used in subjects not tested by the exams, or maybe it’s too early to see any measurable progress yet.

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.”

The eRate has provided nearly $10 billion since 1999 to connect schools nationwide to the internet. The program 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 started surfacing.

Links:

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

“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