Providence (RI) Journal
A small, but growing number of schools around the country are showing that they can leverage technology in classrooms to drive potent improvements in student outcomes. But now a new division between haves and have-nots among students is emerging, those whose schools have sufficient internet capacity to support these powerful tools and those who don’t.
The Federal Communications Commission recently announced that it would double its funding to expand school broadband to nearly $2 billion annually, slightly less than Americans spend on Easter candy.
Even at this pace, it will likely take ten years or longer to connect the 72 percent of the nation’s public schools estimated to lack adequate internet access for reliable instructional use.
Not all classroom internet use produces powerful academic gains, of course. More than just state-of-the art software and content are necessary. To truly bolster these kinds of productivity gains in our schools, innovative classroom instructional practices that leverage them to strengthen outcomes are critical.
Together, this potent package has been tagged with the label “blended learning,” although not all blended schools are equal in rigor or outcomes. Rhode Island is on its way to becoming a blended learning leader, and a pilot program, starting in Providence’s Pleasant View Elementary School is demonstrating the promise this approach can deliver.
Until recently, most of these exemplary models were found in public charter schools, where obstacles to new innovation tend to be fewer and easier for committed educators to overcome:
∙ KIPP Empower, an elementary charter school in Los Angeles serves a population with over 90 percent of students receiving free and reduced-price lunch; they were the school district’s highest-performing school last year, with over 95 percent of students scoring at or above proficiency in reading and math.
∙ Indianapolis’ Carpe Diem Meridian charter school, in its first year of operation last year, produced average gains of three and four years in reading and math respectively across grades 6-12. These results came at a fraction of the operating costs of public schools in most U.S. cities.
Results like these have proven compelling enough to many education leaders that a growing number of public school districts around the country, including Washington, DC, Houston, and Oakland, have launched formidable blended learning programs. Many others are implementing their own models. Variations abound: New Orleans-based mSchool turns afterschool programs into blended learning centers, boasting as much as three years of growth in math over one academic year.
But the growth of these will be limited by one critical factor: sufficient, reliable broadband Internet access in the nation’s 15,000 public schools. A California nonprofit called the Education Superhighway is working with state education departments to conduct the first comprehensive national survey of school internet access. Its results will offer a good estimate of what it will cost to complete the job.
Meanwhile, the new, online standardized tests favored by the Obama Administration to support the new Common Core state content standards many states have adopted poses another urgent challenge: without robust internet connections, these tests won’t work.
President Obama’s leadership for school broadband is welcome recognition of the problem, but should it become a political issue, it may not prove an advantage to sustaining the process through its completion. Measures that can help include:
∙ Continue refocusing existing programs for wiring schools. For instance, is distributing many FCC E-Rate grants through only “eligible telecommunications carriers” really the most effective way to accomplish their goal of expanding internet access to schools?
∙ Leverage economies of scale for savings for schools. Regional buying consortia help cost savings and improve services.
∙ Advance state-level policies that improve instructional innovation for blended learning, like allowing students to advance based on demonstrated competency when they are ready, rather than being held back by seat-time requirements.
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