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May 19, 2015

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School cell phone bans found to raise test scores

May 19, 2015
Courtesy of the University of Texas at Austin
and World Science staff

Ban­ning cell phones in schools reaps the same ben­e­fits as ex­tend­ing the school year by five days, ac­cord­ing to a new stu­dy in the U.K., with low-achieving stu­dents see­ing the great­est gains.

“New tech­nolo­gies are typ­ic­ally thought of as im­prov­ing pro­duc­ti­vity, how­ev­er this is not al­ways the case,” said study co-author Rich­ard Mur­phy, an econ­o­mist at The Uni­vers­ity of Tex­as at Aus­tin. “When tech­nol­o­gy is mul­ti­pur­pose, such as cell phones, it can be both dis­tract­ing and dis­rup­tive.”

Mur­phy did­n’t rule out that “prop­erly struc­tured” cell phone use, on the oth­er hand, might be ben­e­fi­cial.

Mur­phy and Louis-Philippe Be­land of Lou­i­si­ana State Uni­vers­ity sur­veyed 91 schools in four Eng­lish ­ci­ties be­fore and af­ter strict cell phone poli­cies were im­ple­mented, com­par­ing test scores and mo­bile phone poli­cies from 2001 to 2013.

In class­rooms that banned cell phones, test scores im­proved by 6.41 per­cent of a stand­ard de­via­t­ion, a sta­tis­ti­cal meas­ure that in this case trans­lated in­to a 2 per­cent great­er like­li­hood of pas­s­ing the re­quired ex­ams at the end of high school, the re­search­ers said.

That was “e­quiv­a­lent to an ad­di­tion­al hour a week in school, or to in­creas­ing the school year by five days,” Mur­phy said. For low-achieving stu­dents, the im­prove­ments made them 4 per­cent more likely to pass the ex­ams, he added, while special- educa­t­ion stu­dents and those el­i­gi­ble for free school meals saw in­ter­me­diate gains.

The re­search­ers found that strict cell phone poli­cies had lit­tle ef­fect on both high-achieving stu­dents and 14-year-olds, sug­gest­ing that high achiev­ers are less dis­tract­ed by mo­biles and young­er teens own and use phones less of­ten.

“This means al­low­ing phones in­to schools would be the most dam­ag­ing to low-achieving and low-income stu­dents, ex­ac­er­bating any ex­ist­ing learn­ing in­equal­i­ties,” Mur­phy said. “Whilst we can­not test the rea­son why di­rect­ly, it is in­dic­a­tive that these stu­dents are dis­tract­ed by the pres­ence of phones, and high-abil­ity stu­dents are able to con­cen­trate.”

Though phone own­er­ship among Eng­lish teens is high­—90 per­cent owned a mo­bile phone by 2012—re­sults are likely to be sig­nif­i­cant in U.S. schools where 73 per­cent of teenagers have one, Mur­phy said. The four ­ci­ties in the study were Bir­ming­ham, Lon­don, Leices­ter and Man­ches­ter.

“Ban­ning cell phones in schools would be a low-cost way for schools to re­duce educa­t­ional in­equal­ity,” Mur­phy said. “How­ever, these find­ings do not dis­count the pos­si­bil­ity that mo­bile phones could be a use­ful learn­ing tool if their use is prop­erly struc­tured. Re­gard­less, these re­sults show that the pres­ence of cell phones in schools can­not be ig­nored.”


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Banning cell phones in schools reaps the same benefits as extending the school year by five days, according to a new study, with low-achieving students seeing the greatest improvements. “New technologies are typically thought of as improving productivity, however this is not always the case,” said study co-author Richard Murphy, an economist at The University of Texas at Austin. “When technology is multipurpose, such as cell phones, it can be both distracting and disruptive.” Murphy didn’t rule out that “properly structured” cell phone use, on the other hand, might be beneficial. Murphy and Louis-Philippe Beland of Louisiana State University surveyed 91 schools in four English cities before and after strict cell phone policies were implemented, comparing student exam records and mobile phone policies from 2001 to 2013. In classrooms that banned cell phones, test scores improved by 6.41 percent of a standard deviation, a statistical measure that in this case translated into a 2 percent greater likelihood of passing the required exams at the end of high school, the researchers said. That was “equivalent to an additional hour a week in school, or to increasing the school year by five days,” Murphy said. For low-achieving students, the improvements made them 4 percent more likely to pass the exams, he added, and intermediate gains were seen among special- education students and those eligible for free school meals. The researchers found that strict cell phone policies had little effect on both high-achieving students and 14-year-olds, suggesting that high achievers are less distracted by mobiles and younger teens own and use phones less often. “This means allowing phones into schools would be the most damaging to low-achieving and low-income students, exacerbating any existing learning inequalities,” Murphy said. “Whilst we cannot test the reason why directly, it is indicative that these students are distracted by the presence of phones, and high-ability students are able to concentrate.” Though phone ownership among English teens is high—90.3 percent owned a mobile phone by 2012—results are likely to be significant in U.S. schools where 73 percent of teenagers own a mobile phone, Murphy said. The four cities in the study were Birmingham, London, Leicester and Manchester. “Banning cell phones in schools would be a low-cost way for schools to reduce educational inequality,” Murphy said. “However, these findings do not discount the possibility that mobile phones could be a useful learning tool if their use is properly structured. Regardless, these results show that the presence of cell phones in schools cannot be ignored.”