[Ed. Note: Over several months, Grace Hu–parent at Ward 6’s Amidon-Bowen Elementary School in southwest DC, former Teach for America corps member, and advocate for educational equity–researched DCPS computer policy and surveyed staff and parents about IT reality in our schools. In this guest blog, Hu shares her conclusions–and a path forward.]
By Grace Hu
When I joined the PTA of my DCPS elementary school, I never thought I’d be helping my school figure out how to manage and raise money for computers and other information technology (IT). Given all the talk about “blended learning” and preparing our students for the workforce, I thought that DCPS had a plan for maintaining, funding, and updating school IT.
But I was wrong.
In fact, DCPS provides minimal support to schools for managing and funding computers and other IT. Schools are largely on their own, and a large technology gap exists between schools that can raise money for IT and those that can’t.
While technology is not a panacea, it can make a difference for educational outcomes. In 2014, a team from Stanford University and the Alliance for Excellent Education reviewed the results of 70 research studies and found that technology in the classroom, when implemented properly, can “produce significant gains in student achievement and boost engagement, particularly among students most at risk.”
Over several months, I examined existing DCPS IT policy and interviewed staff and parents at selected DCPS schools about IT at their schools. Here is what I found.
Some highlights include:
—Computer hardware: For student computers, DCPS recommends a minimum ratio of 1 device for every 3 students in its online testing cohort. These devices should be replaced every 4 years at a minimum. For teacher computers, devices should be replaced every 3-4 years to support instruction.
Schools with at least 25% of students identified as at-risk for academic failure are given funding for technology (“at-risk technology investment”). That often comes out to $20 or $40 per pupil, which does not go far when the cost of a student laptop purchased through the DCPS-approved vendor is approximately $500-$600 and the cost of a teacher laptop is more than $900.
—IT support: A technician from the Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO) provides IT support and visits DCPS schools in my ward (Ward 6) about twice a week. DCPS gives schools the option of budgeting for IT positions–$55,006 for a technology coordinator and $104,633 for a technology instructional coach. For middle schools, the budget guide lists technology staff as an “additional staffing requirement.”
While DCPS’s budget and purchase guides set out reasonable minimal standards for IT in its schools, reality is often far removed from those guidelines.
—Computer hardware: Individual schools are responsible for funding computer replacements. This has meant that every year, with tight budgets, many schools have been unable to carve out funds to maintain a supply of updated, functioning computers. This has led DCPS teachers across the city to solicit donations for classroom computers through DonorsChoose.org, citing “broken computers, dead batteries, or slow loading programs.” Some recent titles of teachers’ DonorsChoose proposals include
• Basic Technology Needed for Class
• We Need Technology for Our Specialized Learners
• Blended Learning Success
• Instructional Technology to Promote Reading Fluency
• Computer Literacy Increases Engagement
• Laptops for Learners
• Technology in 1st Grade!
• Teach, Tech, Boom!
• Keyboards for Typing Toads
• Owning Their Digital Learning
• Technology Increases Access
Not surprisingly, a 2017 report from the DC auditor found the following:
• “[E]xisting technology was frequently unavailable because it was outdated and of poor quality (seven of eight schools).”
• “Regarding technology that was unused or unusable due to condition or age, the problems reported at each school varied but included desktop and laptop computers that were non-operational, sometimes due to keyboards that were broken or missing pieces, as well as SMART boards that did not work.”
• “At one school, interviewees reported that their five-year-old computers were outdated and subject to frequent breakdowns. At another school, a teacher stated that technology support personnel had informed her that computers were too old to be fixed.”
—IT support: OCTO technicians have no spare parts inventory or funding to help schools repair IT. If a laptop needs its keyboard, screen, or other part replaced, the school is on the hook for purchasing the needed parts and providing them to the OCTO technician. Moreover, OCTO technicians are not allowed to fix or put software on computers or tablets that are not DCPS-approved devices.
Not surprisingly, at many elementary schools, an existing staff member (e.g., librarian, teacher) often takes on the additional duty of managing IT. Trying to find $55K or $105K for an extra staff person to manage IT is a luxury many schools cannot afford–even though the need is ever-present.
Pile of broken laptops at Amidon-Bowen Elementary. Since the school lacks replacement parts and older laptops are not under warranty, these laptops likely will be thrown away.
In my interviews, I kept asking which schools do a good job of managing IT. The answer was always that a few affluent schools have PTAs that annually raise thousands of dollars to purchase technology or pay for IT support. Some schools with less wealthy PTAs have parents who are able to secure one-time grant funding for computers. But many schools lack active PTAs, much less PTAs that are able to provide any kind of IT support.
The implications of all this are far-reaching. Most of DC’s teacher and school evaluations depend on scores of high-stakes standardized tests that students take on computers. If our city’s standardized tests depend on children typing or having a basic understanding of navigating a screen using a touchpad or mouse, children without regular access to computers are at a disadvantage relative to other students. Taking a test online isn’t just a measure of what students know of the subject matter–it’s also a measure of how well they navigate on a computer and, literally, how many working computers are available to them on a daily basis.
This is Not Rocket Science
Last year, the DC auditor and her staff evaluated budgeting and staffing at eight DCPS elementary schools. While they had not planned to look at IT at each school, what they saw was disturbing enough to lead to the following recommendation:
DCPS should create and make public a multi-year technology needs plan to define and provide adequate technology to each school. The plan should include expected costs and planned funding sources.
This plan has not been released, and the FY 2019 DCPS budget does not appear to provide any additional funding to support a district-wide technology plan. Parents have testified about technology challenges before the DC council’s education committee and have spoken to individual councilmembers, but have yet to see any action to address this issue.
Through the FOIA process, parents got a copy of DCPS’s IT inventory at every school. For three out of four Ward 6 elementary schools, the DCPS inventory overstates the number of working computers. If this DCPS inventory is incorrect for many schools, it is possible DCPS is not even aware of the magnitude of its computer shortages.
There are many complex, intractable problems facing our education system. Figuring out an overarching strategy and plan for IT is not one of them. There are readily available guides that provide advice on technology planning and decision-making (see this for example). Even the basic guidelines that DCPS itself provides would be a good start if followed to the letter. What we lack is a plan–and money.
Absent DCPS solving these issues, we must pressure our city and school officials to figure out an IT plan for DCPS and then to fund it. To join the advocacy effort led by Ward 6 parents, please e-mail me at ghgracehu at gmail dot com.