Cellphones in schools hurt low-performing students

Students from New York's Washington Irving educational complex line up to leave their cellphones and other electronic devices, for a dollar a day per item, in a privately operated truck parked near their school.
Students from New York’s Washington Irving educational complex line up to leave their cellphones and other electronic devices, for a dollar a day per item, in a privately operated truck parked near their school.

Teenagers depend on their cellphones for keeping up with friends and trends on social media. But should they be allowed to have them in school?

Some schools have policies banning phones in class because of potential for distraction, while others promote the use of smartphones as a learning tool.

Last March, New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio removed a 10-year ban prohibiting cellphones on school premises, arguing that revoking the ban would lead to reduced socioeconomic inequality. That’s because rather than have their students leave cell phones at home, families would pay businesses to hold the phones while school was in session.

“For a lot of kids, a lot of families, this meant a dollar a day or even up to $5 a day. Families that didn’t have any money were paying this out,” De Blasio said.

But last month, a study from the London School of Economics for the first time provided hard evidence that banning phones in school boosts student achievement.

“Mobile phones now are a ubiquitous part of a teenager’s life,” said

Richard Murphy, an economist with the London School of Economics’ Center for Economic Performance and one of the co-authors of the study. “Practically all teenagers now own a mobile phone, but there’s been no academic study looking at what impacts this new technology has had on students’ academic attainment.”

The study found that, in schools that banned mobile phones, student scores on standardized tests went up 6.4 percent on average. Lower performing students benefited the most from phone bans.

“We find, actually, that a mobile phone ban doesn’t have any impact on students in the top 40 percent of previous test scores,” Murphey said. “So if your child is in the top 40 percent of their cohort, banning of a mobile phone doesn’t seem to have any significant effect on their later test scores.” But students in the lowest group before a cellphone ban improved their test scores by 14.2 percent afterward.

The study was based on surveys of public schools in England’s four largest cities: London, Manchester, Birmingham, and Leicester.

The researchers report 94 percent of teenagers in the United Kingdom own a mobile phone. And surveys of schools in Britain show that between 2001 and 2012, the percentage of schools banning phones increased from zero to 98 percent.

According to the study’s authors, because cellphones have such a significant negative effect on low-achieving students’ performance, allowing them may unintentionally increase, rather than decrease, inequalities of outcomes.

“I think what our paper shows is that the unstructured use of phones in schools has a detrimental effect on low-achieving students,” the authors concluded.

Schools that allow cellphones, Murphy said, will eventually have to deal with the issue of their negative effects on those easily-distracted students: “Just ignoring the presence of phones is something that schools shouldn’t be doing.”

Listen to Michael Cochrane’s report on cellphones in schools on The World and Everything in It.

Michael Cochrane
Michael Cochrane

Michael is a retired Defense Department engineer and former Army officer who is an adjunct professor of engineering management at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. He is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute’s mid-career course. Follow Michael on Twitter @MFCochrane.