A Misguided Criticism of E-Rate Misses Real Need: Educator PD

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A recent article in Politico claims that the federal E-Rate program produced no gains in student SAT results in North Carolina public high schools. With this assertion, the author concludes that federal programs supporting school connectivity nationwide should be eliminated, or at least halted until investments can demonstrate a stronger relationship with student outcomes. But the article’s underlying study doesn’t support such a sweeping conclusion, and the author fails to recognize the key role played by professional development for teachers in improving classroom learning through technology.

The article attempts to correlate SAT performance with federal E-Rate program spending. However, only about half of high school students take the SAT and the majority of test takers are not low-income students. The E-Rate program on the other hand provides subsidies for broadband connectivity to schools and libraries based on the number of low-income individuals served – meaning the author’s chosen measurement of E-Rate “success” is primarily based on the academic performance of students for which the E-Rate program provides little to no support. Higher income students, those more likely to participate in the SAT, are also shown to be more likely to have access to high-speed internet and other technology outside of the classroom.

The article’s underlying report is a contribution to an ongoing research program.  The report’s authors accurately say, “Existing research has yielded mixed results. Some studies find a positive effect on learning outcomes, others a negative effect, and still others no effect.” Many of these existing studies find the E-Rate program increases Internet access in schools, which thereby enables the use of new Internet-based learning technology, an effect that the North Carolina study does not even assess. One negative finding in a stream of research is not a scientific consensus, and should not be a basis for such a broad Draconian conclusion as the end of a twenty-year Federal program.

Moreover, the report’s findings are not uniformly negative. It shows that the e-Rate program in North Carolina increases the number of Internet-connected computers per student, which in turn increases some test scores. The idea is that Internet access, brought about by E-Rate support, increases the demand for computers and other educational technology by the school and a more sustained use of technology in the school improves student outcomes.  The study finds that the E-Rate program indirectly improves outcomes in this way.

As the very nature of the internet and technology and their place in the classroom has changed dramatically since the inception of the E-Rate, the federal program often remains the only support for schools to keep pace. In 1998, most schools were connecting to the internet via slow dial-up connections. The internet consisted almost solely of static, unengaging content because connections could not handle audio or video features. In 2016, high-speed broadband and wireless have ushered in an internet filled with dynamic, interactive content where students instantly connect with anyone in the world and stream audio and video to personal devices on-demand, anywhere.

Over the last two decades, schools have used their E-Rate funds to install their very first dial-up connections for computer labs only to replace those with broadband or fiber connections and now wireless classroom connections for 1:1 or “bring your own device” programs. With E-Rate supported connections, schools have moved into the 21st century shifting instructional content towards online, interactive digital material that can be tailored to an individual student’s learning needs and delivered wherever the student may be. Students collaborate on group projects using online group documents, video chat, and messaging applications. Some students with chronic illnesses requiring frequent or extended out of school time are now even able to keep up with school work and social connections through connected virtual presence robots.

The author cites a few examples of disappointing technology implementations. But these are exceptions, not the rule. Only recently have schools even been able to provision powerful, personal, affordable technology rather than clunky desktops in a single computer lab. The first viable tablet devices weren’t introduced until 2010 – just six years ago. As these powerful tools have moved into the classroom, educators have often been denied the necessary professional development to be able to effectively leverage these new learning tools – sometimes treating them the same as they would a trip to the computer lab.

Every job in every sector of today’s global economy requires some level of technical skill. Schools must keep pace with these changes and expectations or students will lose out on future opportunities. For technology investments to realize their potential in schools, policymakers and appropriators must ensure educators are equipped with meaningful professional development resources.

One opportunity is before Congress today if they are willing to seize it. The overwhelmingly bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was enacted last year. As part of ESSA, Congress authorized $1.65 billion for the Student Support and Academic Enrichment grants which could provide professional development in the effective use of technology. The latest proposed appropriation levels in the House and Senate amount to only a fraction of that authorization – short changing students and educators. Congress must fully fund the Student Support and Academic Enrichment grants.