You may want to stop and reconsider whether you think a home computer will help your child with reading and math.
A new Duke University study says North Carolina middle school students' test scores dropped after they got home computers, suggesting they spent more time playing "The Sims" than working practice math problems.
The study by Jacob Vigdor and Helen Ladd at Duke's Sanford School of Public Policy challenges the accepted wisdom that children who don't have computers at home are at a disadvantage compared with their wired classmates.
"Our sense is that kids in middle school are using them more for socializing," Ladd said. "We don't want to send the impression that there are major declines in math or reading scores. [But] We are very confident the effects are not positive."
Vigdor and Ladd cut off the study in 2005, in the age of primitive activities like instant messaging and before Facebook and Twitter became obsessions. They concluded that students get the most educational value from home computers when parents are there to make sure the students are not goofing off.
Their report, published this month on the National Bureau of Economic Research website, comes when schools and community groups want to get more children's fingertips on computer keyboards. School districts consider computers to be so important to student achievement that some high schools lend students laptops. Charities give away home computers so students can use them for schoolwork.
Mark Dibner, founder of a Durham nonprofit that gives computers to low-income families, said he had heard of studies like this one and suspects they don't tell the whole story. The Kramden Institute has given away more than 6,000 computers over the past seven years to North Carolina families.
"Duke studies have been around for awhile," he said. "I would love to ask them, if that's true, do you take computers away from your kids at home?"
Students need home computers for research, to learn how to use spreadsheets and other programs, and to communicate with teachers, he said.
Dibner said he'd like to have someone find out what happens to students' schoolwork after families get computers from Kramden, because he has only anecdotal evidence that they help.
"I've never had a teacher say, 'Kids in my class, when they get computers, they get dumber,'" he said. "It's always the other way around."
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