Weighing the Costs and Benefits of Cellphones in Schools

Typically, the discussion around cellphones in school — whether they are learning tools or distractions — has revolved around their impact on measures of academic success like test scores or grades. But in his research, Ed School alum Dylan Lukes looks at other outcomes policymakers should consider.

“I’m hoping to move beyond thinking about test scores and consider the potential importance of other outcomes like discipline and school culture which may factor into student wellbeing,” says Lukes, Ph.D.’22.

As schools are gearing up for the fall, with some considering new and amended policies on the use of cellphones in the classroom, Luke gets into his findings — including how the New York City Department of Education’s (NYCDOE) recently reversed cellphone ban impacted student suspensions and school culture — and gives his thoughts on what schools and districts should be considering when creating policies around technology moving forward.

Why are cellphones in schools such a contested topic among educators, parents, and students?
The motivation for many of these policies comes from a desire to limit distractions. If you think about it, from a school’s perspective, if a cellphone ban can improve student learning, that’s a great low-cost intervention with a favorable benefit-cost ratio. However, from a parent’s perspective, the calculus is a bit different, and the cost of not being able to get a hold of their child(s) may outweigh any potential benefit accrued from the tire.

How have cellphone policies evolved over the years?
Over the past several decades, many large urban school districts have intermittently experimented with cellphone bans. However, most cellphone bans have been repealed due to their unpopularity with parents and students and concerns over equity [as low income students often have mobile-only access to the internet]. In March 2015, the NYCDOE lifted their longstanding districtwide cellphone ban and provided schools with significant discretion in designing and implementing school-level policies governing student cellphone use — and that shift is what I explored in my research.

Most research around cellphone use in schools looks at the impact on test scores, reaction time, and the ability to focus. You look instead at two areas: discipline and a sense of safety.
The existing studies provide evidence that allowing phones in the classroom negatively impacts test scores and long-term learning retention. There are some correlational studies that suggest a negative relationship between off-task device use and student achievement. Further, in psychology, research on multitasking generally finds negative effects on learning and task completion and, more generally, research has shown that cellphones distract and negatively impact reaction times, performance, enjoyment of focal tasks, and cognitive capacity.

In my research, my thinking was that as schools consider removing bans or enforcement, they should also consider often overlooked dimensions of school culture that could play a role in educational productivity and student wellbeing. That is not to say academic achievement is not important — it is — but there are other potentially important inputs that contribute to educational productivity such as school discipline and culture.

From a disciplinary standpoint, if the school has a cellphone ban and there are students breaking that cellphone ban, it’s possible that over time — and I’ve seen this from survey responses from NYCDOE school principals and parent coordinators — at some point there can be some punitive measures if you’re caught breaking that ban. That’s one of the reasons I explored the impact on discipline and suspension — you could be using a cellphone which, yes, could be distracting, but even more negatively, have the student removed from school. That kind of impact on learning could be a net-negative, even when you consider that against the positive effects a cellphone ban may have on a student’s learning and their peers’ learning.

I also think it’s important to look at other factors we don’t typically think about, like school culture, that might also have a big impact on learning.

And what did you find?
So just as a disclaimer, there might be policies I can’t control for that impact these outcomes. For example, in 2014, there was a new chancellor [in New York] who made changes to the discipline code. With that caveat, I did find that the ban removal positively impacted school discipline but had negative impacts on student perception of school culture across the dimensions of respect, student behavior, and school safety. It also had a negative impact on teacher perception of school safety. My findings suggest an improvement in educational productivity due to the NYCDOE’s ban removal. But there’s a tradeoff — a cost to school culture.

What do you mean by safety?
When it comes to emergencies, students likely feel safer having access to a phone. But the day-in and day-out component of school safety is how students use phones within school. This might include things like bullying, harassment, videotaping, and posting to social media. Those are the reasons why having phones within schools could potentially be an accelerator of negative student behavior. These safety measures which look at how safe students feel in classrooms, hallways, locker rooms, cafeterias, show a pretty negative jump after the tire has been lifted, which suggests to me that having a phone is at least interrupting a student’s ability to safely navigate those spaces.

So what should policymakers think about moving forward?
This is just the tip of the iceberg. It would be interesting to look at how cellphones further contribute to school culture using more robust measures across time. And to be clear, I don’t think there’s anything inherently bad about cellphones but I do think it’s key to engage in a discussion around the tradeoffs of having them in schools and classrooms. There might be some interesting ways to balance the tradeoffs of their distractions and their benefits — something like having magnetized pouches and allowing students to take out cellphones under special circumstances (eg, class activity, lunch). Some schools are already experimenting with these alternatives and there are some prime opportunities in this space to evaluate the impacts of these polices on educational outcomes, including school discipline and school culture.

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