Politicians and education activists believe computer access is creating a generation of "have not" students that will be unable to compete in a digital world.  Their very expensive solution is to guarantee subsidize home computers and even high-speed Internet service.

It may not only be incredibly expensive but also a bad idea for the poorest kids, according to a new study by Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy, who say such efforts would actually widen the achievement gap in math and reading scores. Students in grades five through eight, particularly those from disadvantaged families, tend to post lower scores once these technologies arrive in their home.

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.

Professors Jacob Vigdor and Helen Ladd analyzed responses to computer-use questions included on North Carolina's mandated End-of-Grade tests (EOGs). The students reported how frequently they use a home computer for schoolwork, watch TV or read for pleasure. The study covers the years 2000 to 2005, a time when home computers and high-speed Internet access expanded dramatically - by 2005, broadband access was available in almost every zip code in North Carolina, Vigdor said.

The study was much larger than previous research that suggested similar results - a sample size numbering more than 150,000 individual students. 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. The negative effects on reading and math scores were "modest but significant," they found.

The social technology was more primitive than today, Vigdor said. "IM (instant messaging) software was popular then, and it's been one thing after the other since then. Adults may think of computer technology as a productivity tool first and foremost, but the average kid doesn't share that perception."

Kids in the middle grades are mostly using computers to socialize and play games, with clear gender divisions between those activities.   The researchers concluded that home computers are put to more productive use in households where parental monitoring is more effective. In disadvantaged households, parents are less likely to monitor children's computer use and guide children in using computers for educational purposes.

The research suggests that programs to expand home computer access would lead to even wider gaps between test scores of advantaged and disadvantaged students.    Several states have already pursued programs to distribute computers to students. For example, Maine funded laptops for every sixth-grader, and Michigan approved a program but then did not fund it. 

This may be one scenario where a bad economy and less money for unscientific progressive good works does a good thing for students.

"Scaling the Digital Divide: Home Computer Technology and Student Achievement", published online by the National Bureau for Economic Research. The research was funded in part by the William T. Grant Foundation.