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Wiring Schools for the 21st Century

 

All children should have access to a high-quality education, but many in the United States are denied this opportunity because of a wide range of contributing factors, some easier to solve than others.

As more and better instructional tools and materials are becoming available online, it is more essential that schools be wired with adequate, reliable broadband Internet connections. This allows schools to deliver both the content and the interactive online environment where actionable feedback directly guides students’ progress, supporting teachers and allowing them to produce remarkable efficiencies in learning.

The nation’s best blended-learning schools fully integrate technology into their instruction in this way and produce powerful results, especially when it comes to closing achievement gaps. The highest-performing elementary school in Los Angeles, KIPP Empower Academy, achieved over 95 percent proficiency in reading and math, with most scoring advanced levels, in a student population of which 90 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. This achievement stands in stark contrast to urban districts around the country.

In Virginia, Richmond Public Schools — with 77 percent eligibility for free or reduced-price lunch — scored proficiency rates of only about one-third on the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Schools and districts could learn much from the success of KIPP Empower and other top blended schools. The growth of such high-quality blended-learning models across public education, however, depends upon schools having reliable, adequate broadband Internet access. Unfortunately, we are nowhere near where we need to be in that regard.

Increasingly, experts have noted that schools need Internet connection rates of at least 100Mbps for every 1,000 students/staff in a school. EducationSuperHighway, the leading national nonprofit organization dedicated to ensuring that every public K-12 school has adequate bandwidth, projects that by 2017 minimum bandwidth requirements will grow by 900 percent.

Last month, Virginia schools took part in a test of school Internet speeds, working with EducationSuperHighway.

In America, people living in poverty have considerably less Internet access than their wealthier peers. A 2011 Pew Internet survey revealed that only 41 percent of households with annual income less than $30,000 have high-speed broadband, compared with 89 percent of households earning more than $75,000. Parents’ educational attainment is also linked to home Internet connections.

Unsurprisingly, gaps in broadband access also persist between states. States with wealthier average populations — such as Connecticut, New Jersey and Massachusetts — all have broadband use rates of at least 70 percent. Conversely, states with lower median incomes — such as Arkansas, Tennessee and West Virginia — have broadband adoption rates below 50 percent. Virginia ranks somewhat above the median nationwide, with 61 percent broadband use.

The federal Schools and Libraries Program, commonly known as E-Rate, is designed to provide discounts on telecommunications and technology equipment for schools and libraries. A subset of the Universal Service Fund of the FCC, the E-Rate program aims to provide affordable connectivity so that schools and libraries can deliver “the rich teaching and learning … necessary for their students and patrons to participate fully in American society.”

E-Rate funding formulas are weighted so that those located in rural (and, to a lesser degree, urban) areas, and those serving a higher proportion of students in poverty, receive greater discounts. In addition, E-Rate funds such basic expenditures as Internet connections at a higher priority than peripheral equipment, such as network routers and switches.

But the program’s funding priorities are more in line with the 1996 world in which it was created, than the digital world in which we live today.

In a speech this summer, FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai pointed out that “E-Rate today prioritizes long-distance telephone calls … over wiring (classrooms for Internet access).”

With a few basic steps, E-Rate can be improved to support the additional funding required to address the Internet needs of our nation’s public schools:

• Explicitly update E-Rate guidelines to focus the program’s resources on broadband access, and deprioritize or exclude less relevant, dated technology.

• Update funding formulas and acceptable uses of E-Rate funds to prioritize expenditures directly related to classroom instruction, and ensure that students in high-poverty areas, both rural and urban, attend well-connected schools.

• Provide clear, forward-thinking guidance on bandwidth rates and access to funds to ensure that all schools have broadband connections that meet current needs for teaching and learning, and are poised for inevitable growth in bandwidth requirements.

As classroom technology continues to improve on its stunning results and cost efficiencies, such changes will only become more important for all students.

Note: this article was produced in collaboration with and is cross-posted at The Lexington Institute, a non-partisan think tank based in Arlington, VA.  It ran in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on November 8, 2013.

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