More Than Half of U.S. Public Schools Don't Have Adequate Wireless Access

Teachers of the lowest-income students are more than twice as likely as teachers of the highest-income students to say that students’ lack of access to digital technologies is a “major challenge.”
AP Photo

A crime is happening in our schools every day. And it’s not the type of crime that hall monitors or security cameras can solve. At issue: Only 39 percent of public schools have wireless network access for the whole school. But perhaps the greater offense—up to this point, at least—has been apathy.

At work and at home, most of us live our very wired, connected lives—moving between wi-fi zones as we give little thought to the millions of schoolchildren around the country who go to school every day without Internet or broadband connections, without access to 1:1 computing, and without the benefit of modern handheld learning devices.
 
Angry mobs of parents should be storming schools with pitchforks over this critical issue of broadband access, US Department of Education official Richard Culatta told this year’s SXSWedu festival. For their part, parents are not, but perhaps there is good reason to believe that the Storming of the Schoolhouse can be thwarted. For now.
 
President Barack Obama’s ConnectED initiative, announced this summer, aims within five years to connect 99 percent of America’s students through next-generation broadband (at speeds no less than 100 Mbps and with a target of 1 Gbps) and high-speed wireless networks in schools. Now we’re talking.
 
In a statement released by the White House announcing the initiative, the administration noted that fewer than 20 percent of educators say their school’s Internet connection meets their teaching needs. In a speech Obama said: “The average American school has about the same bandwidth as the average American home, even though obviously there are 200 times as many people at school as there are at home.” This is simply unacceptable, and the president’s plan works to close the so-called digital divide.
 
A report from the U.S. Commerce Department titled “Exploring the Digital Nation,” found that the digital divide is still very much present in the United States. According to the report, low-income and less-educated households experienced computer ownership and broadband adoption rates well below the national average.
 
In U.S. schools, there is a similar disparity among social classes. According to a recent Pew study, teachers of the lowest income students are more than twice as likely as teachers of the highest income students (56 percent vs. 21 percent) to say that students’ lack of access to digital technologies is a “major challenge” to incorporating more digital tools into their teaching.
 
An integral portion of the ConnectED initiative is the modernization of the federal E-Rate program, which ensures that all eligible schools and libraries have affordable access to modern telecommunications and information services. Since its inception in 1997, the program has had an undeniable impact on connecting these institutions, as the Federal Communications Commission has reported that internet-enabled classrooms increased from 14 percent in 1996 to 94 percent in 2005.
 
If 94 percent of classrooms were classified as “Internet-enabled” in 2005, why are so many teachers of students from lower income families still reporting that they’re struggling with access to technology? In some cases, students may have an internet connection at school but do not have access to devices, like tablets or laptops, to take advantage of that connection. ConnectED will bring the E-Rate program to the next level by (1) connecting 99 percent of America’s students to the internet through high-speed broadband and high-speed wireless within five years and (2) ensuring that U.S. schools and libraries have the bandwidth necessary to fully utilize new digital technologies in the classroom.
 
These upgrades and other aggressive investments in digital learning and technology are critical to modernizing our K-12 system toward the goal of improving student experiences and outcomes. Even companies recognize this as critical to their future workforce. Cisco, a global leader in IT, recently recommended that the FCC put more money into the Obama initiative. We support this recommendation and further urge the FCC to:
 
  • Adopt and fund ambitious goals for broadband that supports digital learning and robust connections in all schools;
  • Fund and ensure eligibility for wireless infrastructure inside schools that supports persistent broadband connections for digital learning; and
  • Authorize the creation of wireless community hotspots that take advantage of high-speed broadband access at school locations, enabling after-hours broadband access for students off campus. Learning, including digital learning, should not end at the close of the school day.

The FCC is correct in its assessment that many schools do not have the bandwidth necessary to take full advantage of digital learning technologies that “hold the promise of substantially improving educational experiences and expanding opportunity for students, teachers, parents and whole communities.”

We would take this a step further: The issue of broadband access—specifically, access that is strong and equal whether you live in Appalachia, Newark, New Jersey, or Silicon Valley—is a moral and economic imperative to ensuring that our students are ready for the world that awaits.
 
Indeed, Obama’s plan lays the groundwork needed to get our schools on the superhighway. Now we have to lay the actual cable and make good on that promise. Not doing so would make us all complicit in what could otherwise be considered one of the greatest crimes of the 21st century.
Presented by

Peter Cohen & Jeff Livingston

Peter Cohen is the president of the McGraw-Hill School Education Group. Jeff Livingston is a senior vice president for education policy at McGraw-Hill Education. 

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