New Research Suggests de Blasio’s Unbanning of Cell Phones in NYC Schools May Have Been a Bad Idea

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 Portrait of schoolgirl holding smart phone.
Photo: Hero Images/Corbis

In March, New York’s Department of Education, responding to a nudge from Mayor Bill de Blasio, ended a decade-old policy banning cell phones in the city’s schools. Administrators couched it partly as a matter of basic convenience — parents often need to get in touch with their kids, and vice versa — but also as an issue of socioeconomic fairness. “Lifting the ban … reduces inequality, as students in communities with metal detectors will no longer have to pay outside vendors to store phones,” Schools chancellor Carmen Fariña told the Daily News, referring to a common arrangement in which students pay a little bit of money to a bodega or a truck parked near their school to hold onto their phone (it was apparently a $4 million business in 2012, according to the Post).

All of that may be true, but there could also be unintended consequences to the new policy. A new working paper suggests that banning cell phones in schools leads to a substantial increase in academic performance, particularly among the lowest-performing students. For the paper, which was published by the London School of Economics’ Centre for Economic Performance, economists Louis-Philippe Beland of LSU and Richard Murphy of UT-Austin took advantage of the fact that there is “no official policy or recommendation set out by the Department of Education in England regarding mobile phone usage in schools.” In other words, schools have to figure out what they want to do about this issue on their own, leading to a smattering of different policies.

So in 2013 the researchers surveyed schools in four British cities — Birmingham, London, Leicester, and Manchester — to see what their current cell-phone policies were, and used follow-up questions to construct timelines of what the policy had been for each school going all the way back to 2000. This information, combined with administrative data about students’ performance, allowed for a neat natural experiment: The economists could simply track which bans went into effect when, and whether test scores went up in the period that followed.

And go up they did. At the most basic level,there were "positive relationships between the introduction of a mobile phone ban and student test scores of 5.67 percent of a standard deviation." In an email to Science of Us, Murphy explained that this translates to approximately as much performance bang for the buck as adding an extra hour to the school day, or an extra week at the end of the year. But where a kid already sat on the bell curve when the ban went into effect mattered a lot: For those in the bottom quartile of test scores, test scores went up more than twice as much following the imposition of a ban — 14.23 percent of a standard deviation — "whilst students in the top quartile [were] neither positively nor negatively affected" by the presence or absence of cell phones. 

Sure, one can apply all the usual caveats here to argue that this study isn’t directly applicable to de Blasio’s move — different country, different students, and so on. But the finding, the authors write, fits neatly into previous scholarship showing that "multitasking is detrimental to learning and task execution," and the fact that low achievers were more affected certainly makes sense: Kids with high test scores are likely already better at filtering out distractions and staying on-task.

Some of the logistical issues highlighted by de Blasio are valid, for sure, and it’s definitely unfair that an entire economy has sprung up around milking a dollar a day out of the very kids who are least likely to have a lot of money. Ideally, there would be a way for kids to have access to their phones when they need them, but not in the classroom (though imagining what such a policy would look like in a school system with 1.1 million kids in it is a bit dizzying).

But still: These findings are pretty strong, so it’ll be worth keeping an eye on test scores in New York now that cell phones are allowed again. After all, Beland and Murphy conclude their paper by noting that "banning mobile phones could be a low-cost way for schools to reduce educational inequality." We’ll have to hope that unbanning them doesn’t have the opposite effect in New York.