A major change announced by the Federal Communications Commission yesterday will help provide high-speed internet connections to public schools around the nation. It is an important step, but it is only the first step.
The agency estimated in 2010 that some 80 percent of the nation’s 100,000 public elementary, middle and high schools have inadequate broadband internet connections to reliably use for education purposes. Changes to the E-Rate program will redirect an additional $1 billion each year from the agency’s telecommunications universal service fund to support broadband networks in schools and libraries.
The agency estimates that the change will connect at least 15,000 new schools (and an unspecified number of libraries) in its first two years. This means that funding the push for school broadband through the new E-Rate funding could take a decade or more. Meanwhile, some observers have raised doubts that revenues from the universal service fund tax can be expected to maintain their current levels, as dynamics within the telecommunications industry continue to change.
President Obama has called for providing 99 percent of U.S. students with high-speed internet at school, but in truth we don’t actually have enough information to know how much that would cost. San Francisco-based nonprofit Education Superhighway is currently working with state education departments to conduct a systematic inventory of schools’ internet connections – critical information for estimating implementation costs. Meanwhile, in a welcome development, a coalition of companies including Apple, Verizon, Sprint and Microsoft has committed to provide $750 million in technology and services to assist this undertaking.
What is the urgency for this massive new expenditure, with education budgets stretched tight across every level of government? While the nation’s schools continue to struggle to close large achievement gaps, and particularly those facing its students of color and from low-income families, recent advances in education technology that use broadband represent our most effective strategies to increase the productivity of the public education sector to address these gaps.
While the impact of education technology on American education is certainly nothing new, results from today’s cutting-edge, technology-infused instructional programs represent something especially powerful:
∙ KIPP Empower Academy was the highest-performing elementary school in Los Angeles last year, with over 95 percent reading and math proficiency levels for a school population of whom 90 percent is eligible for free or reduced-price meals.
∙ Students at Carpe Diem’s charter school in urban Indianapolis averaged three years of learning gains in reading, and four years in math, in the school’s first year last year.
While these powerful outcomes were produced in charter schools, traditional school districts across the country have begun to implement similar, technology-based personalized learning models. Forward-thinking education leaders in school districts like Washington, DC, Houston and Oakland are moving ahead with blended learning plans that threaten to make unprecedented progress closing achievement gaps. These instructional approaches rely on reliable, robust broadband internet access.
Not surprisingly, internet access currently divides across similar socio-economic lines as student achievement, with households and schools in high-poverty areas considerably less likely to have strong internet. The urgency of strengthening our schools’ instructional productivity and efficiency is greatest in these communities. And the powerful education outcomes that the new personalized learning capabilities have to offer are highly measurable, bringing accountability for school results to unprecedented levels.
Improved internet access alone will not produce these results, but it is a critical foundation. Prominent among the other policy changes required to harness the transformative potential of these new personalized learning approaches is the implementation of competency-based learning policies – arrangements that do not restrict students’ progress with outdated seat-time requirements, but reward their mastery with advancement.
Funding sturdy broadband internet access in schools sounds expensive, and it is. But the powerful gains in educational productivity that we have seen it make possible, if managed smartly, represent as valuable an investment as any we can make, and measure.
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