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Are computers for every student a wise investment?


A low student-to-computer ratio is a factor in boosting graduation rates, researchers say.


Default Lines column, August 2010 eSchool NewsDaily technology use in core subject-area classes, frequent technology use in intervention courses, and a low student-to-computer ratio can play a critical role in reducing dropout rates, new research suggests—and the study’s authors argue that a federal investment in mobile computers for every child would pay huge dividends in terms of national productivity.

“Technology is an investment, not an expense,” says Project RED (Reinventing Education), the group behind the research.

The project’s researchers surveyed nearly a thousand schools with diverse student populations and varying levels of ed-tech integration. The researchers found that 45 percent of all schools said their dropout rates are going down—but for schools that have implemented one-to-one computing programs, that figure is 58 percent. And for schools that are implementing 1-to-1 programs effectively, employing strategies such as regular formative assessment and frequent teacher collaboration, that figure jumps to 81 percent.

Based on these findings, Project RED says policy makers should consider the economic impact a federal investment in 1-to-1 computing and education technology could have on the nation’s future.

“The huge economic cost of dropouts is well known,” the group says. “The difference in lifetime tax revenues between a dropout and a college graduate is approximately $200,000. … Schools with a 1-to-1 student-to-computer ratio are cutting the dropout rate and reaping this broader benefit.”

There were 3.7 million seventh graders in U.S. public schools in fall 2007, according to the Education Department’s most recent Digest of Education Statistics. If the federal government spent $400 to supply each seventh grader with a mobile computing device, and then did this for every subsequent class of seventh graders, the cost would be about $1.5 billion per year.

The high school graduation rate of U.S. students has ranged from 71 percent to 74 percent for the last decade. A rate of 74 percent means 962,000 of the seventh graders from 2007 likely will not graduate. If just one-tenth of these potential dropouts were actually to finish school and go on to college, that would result in 96,200 more college graduates—and about $19 billion more in tax revenues over the next 40 years. Not a bad rate of return for an initial $1.5 billion investment.

Of course, this hypothetical scenario relies on a few assumptions, the first being that the lower dropout rates in schools with 1-to-1 computing programs are a result of these programs and not some other factor.

When we first reported on Project RED’s findings online, a few readers wondered whether the demographics themselves of 1-to-1 schools might account for the difference.

“Seems to me that a school in a community with better educated parents or higher incomes would be able to better afford the 1-to-1 [student-to-] computer ratio,” wrote one reader in the comments section of the story. “Those two factors alone could account for much of the improvements that the schools are experiencing.”

But Jeanne Hayes, president of the Hayes Connection and a co-author of the study, said the assumption that 1-to-1 schools are more affluent—and therefore have more resources to bear that might affect their dropout rates—is unfounded.

According to the characteristics of survey respondents, schools with 1-to-1 ratios “appear to be quite different than the stereotype: They are more urban, more western, less likely to be very low-enrollment, … and no more poor or affluent than other schools,” Hayes said. “So the notion that these schools are more affluent than the average school is not the case.”

Another huge assumption is that schools would implement 1-to-1 programs effectively if the federal government invested in the hardware. As Project RED discovered, this is easier said than done: Even among schools that were strongly committed to the success of a 1-to-1 program, “very few” had adopted many of the implementation factors that researchers identified as important, “despite large investments in infrastructure and hardware.”

Supporting the mobile computing devices could prove challenging for schools, and it would certainly cost them money. But Project RED says schools could save enough money on printing costs to offset at least some of the expense of maintaining a 1-to-1 program.

“The average large high school spends $100,000 on copy machine expenses [annually],” said Tom Greaves, chairman of the Greaves Group and the study’s other co-author.

That figure was reported by several school finance officers, Greaves explained, but it did not come from a statistically valid survey or a detailed examination of several school budgets. Still, if the number is accurate, it means schools could save about $40 per student, per year, if they cut their copying budgets in half by distributing materials electronically to students and staff.

Project RED is sponsored by Intel, Apple, and other companies that stand to profit by a federal investment in computers for every student. Because of this, it would be easy to dismiss the group’s research as biased. Yet, federal officials might want to see if they can replicate the study’s findings, especially if they’re as committed to lowering the dropout rate as they say.

If the potential payoff is as high as Project RED believes it would be, it’s worth at least considering whether 1-to-1 programs might be a wise federal investment after all.

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Dennis Pierce

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