Every afternoon, Ms. W, a Ward 6 teacher, stacks broken laptops on a cart, where they wait to be repaired by a technician who visits twice a week. The aging laptops, which are unreliable and slow, sometimes stop working in the middle of class while students are accessing online lessons. The DC Public School (DCPS) technology inventory includes computers from as far back as 2007. At another Ward 6 school, only eight of 21 Smart Boards, interactive whiteboards that connect to a computer, are fully functional. As time passes, teachers give up hope for repairs, and grudgingly use the broken Smart Boards as regular whiteboards.
These problems are symptoms of a system that hinders rather than enables our children to be prepared for future technology-driven jobs. And instead of being able to focus on helping their students learn and succeed, teachers are forced to spend significant portions of their week figuring out how to get help and serving as unpaid tech support.
A review of over 70 research studies by Stanford Graduate School of Education researchers shows that technology, when used effectively, can raise student achievement and engagement. Technology can enable teaching of coding and other science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education skills, which in turn will open up STEM career choices to students. Our schools’ current technology challenges are an opportunity not just to “catch up” to some minimum baseline, but to be a national model for preparing students for a rapidly changing workforce, and closing the digital divide between technology haves and have-nots.
Let’s be clear about this: the problem is also fundamentally an issue of fairness. Students without access to computers at home need every possible chance to practice using computers at school, especially because many education programs and the annual high-stakes PARCC test must be accessed online. Computers that slow down or malfunction during lessons and tests are not only frustrating, but lead to a misrepresentation of students’ knowledge and academic needs.
Across Ward 6 (and the city), many schools are struggling to manage educational tools such as computers, smart boards, and Internet access. The core issue is minimal support from DCPS. Instead of centrally purchasing and managing technology, DCPS places that responsibility on schools, which often lack the funding and expertise to do it well.
Some schools are able to fund computers through their parent-teacher organization (PTO) or secure one-time grants (Near Southeast Community Partners has provided over $108,000 for technology to local schools.) to partially address technology gaps. But these efforts constitute a short-term solution that lasts only until the technology becomes outdated or starts to break down, and parents should not have to take on the burden for funding basic equipment needed for their children’s education.
What DCPS needs is a comprehensive technology plan that outlines how technology fits into its educational goals and articulates a sustainable model for funding and maintaining technology. In October 2017 the DC Auditor recommended that DCPS develop and make public a multi-year technology needs plan, including expected costs and planned funding sources. A year later, DCPS has not released any such plan.
Meanwhile other school districts, including nearby Arlington County, are already at or moving towards a 1:1 student-to-computer ratio and have developed comprehensive technology plans. The issue is not that DCPS is uniquely challenged; many of these other school districts are also large, urban, and have a high percentage of at-risk students. The issue is also not that the city government can’t find the money; most of these other districts spend less per student than DCPS and are in cities with lower economic growth. The issue is that technology management is not viewed as it should be: as an essential function of operating a modern school district.
Until these challenges are addressed, we will continue to see negative impacts on students, especially those who also lack access to technology at home. Computer literacy is not only needed for college and STEM careers, but also for entry-level jobs in many professions. Our students deserve better. This is a fixable problem if only our leaders would prioritize fixing it.
Grace Hu is head of parent advocacy of the Amidon-Bowen Elementary PTA, a former middle school teacher, and an advocate for educational equity. She can be reached at ghgracehu at gmail dot com.