Moving The Needle Together On DCPS’s Computer Challenges

[Ed. Note: This blog post is an update of one written by Grace Hu in July 2018 on technology challenges in DCPS. A Ward 6 parent who serves on the Amidon-Bowen Local School Advisory Team, Hu is also the founder of Digital Equity in DC Education, a volunteer coalition of DCPS parents dedicated to closing the school system’s digital divide.]

By Grace Hu

A year ago, I began a call to action to address DCPS’s deep technology challenges. School districts throughout the country, including those in Virginia and Maryland, had already figured out how to get functional technology into classrooms–but not DCPS.

Now, a year later, there has been some progress, largely a result of the work of Digital Equity in DC Education, a city-wide coalition of parents and other education advocates with strong ties to ward education councils.

For instance, the coalition called on DCPS to develop and make public a comprehensive, multi-year technology plan (with expected costs and funding sources) to provide adequate technology to every school–as recommended by the DC auditor in 2017. This has not happened yet, but this past March eight DC city council members introduced the District of Columbia Public Schools Student Technology Equity Act of 2019, which would require the mayor to periodically convene a steering committee to assess technology needs of schools and develop a comprehensive technology equity plan for DCPS.

On November 6, the council will hold a joint hearing on the legislation (for more information and to sign up to testify, see here).

Last year the coalition also called on both the mayor and council to provide dedicated funding in the DCPS budget to meet school technology needs. As I noted last year, schools are largely on their own when it comes to funding computer replacements and other school technology. With tight budgets, many schools have been unable to carve out funds to maintain a supply of updated, functioning computers. This has led not only to large inequities (i.e., between schools that can raise money for technology versus those that cannot), but also to teachers soliciting donations just to have basic technology needs met.

In February, DCPS announced $4.6 million in the mayor’s 2020 budget for student computers, as part of its new Empowered Learners Initiative. Specifically, the money would fund a computer device for all students in grades 3, 6, and 9 and allow other grades to reach a 3:1 student-device ratio. In June, DCPS issued a solicitation for the devices and is now finalizing the contract. As good as that news is, continued funding and attention to DCPS’s technology initiative is needed to ensure this isn’t a one-year effort.

Five Priorities for Moving Forward With Digital Equity

Our advocacy effort was motivated by the desire to bring digital equity to students, some of whom (especially in wards 5, 7 and 8) lack access to technology at home. However, simply providing computer hardware won’t result in digital equity. While many kids use smartphones and social media, they lack knowledge on the range of technology applications (e.g., word processing, Powerpoint, e-mail) that they will need to use in high school, college, and their future jobs.

Additionally, DC’s teacher and school evaluations depend on scores of high-stakes standardized tests that students take on computers (including PARCC). Those tests require skills—of navigating a screen using a touchpad or mouse, of typing an essay under time pressure—that children without regular access to computers struggle with.

Teachers are a critical part of any technology initiative’s success. Research has shown that technology can contribute to gains in learning when teachers use technology as a tool for explaining concepts, customizing material based on student learning needs, and stimulating high-level thinking–as opposed to using technology for drills and passive learning exercises. While there are innovative teachers who have re-envisioned the student learning experience with technology (for example, Kareem Farah, founder of The Modern Classrooms Project), many DCPS teachers are still learning how to effectively incorporate technology into the classroom and likely would benefit from additional professional development and support.

Moving forward, the coalition has prioritized five areas for DCPS to focus on as it implements its Empowered Learners Initiative.

1. Adequate support for technology at the school level: This includes adequate staffing and resources at the school level for taking inventory of the school’s existing computers, handling device rollout, and maintaining and fixing technology. If adequate support is not provided, the schools with the least staffing capacity and resources will be the most affected, resulting in inequities.

2. Devices provided in a timely manner to schools: A number of approvals are needed to finalize the new DCPS contract for computers. Every month that goes by without having the computers at schools is a lost opportunity for our students, especially those in testing grades who are expected to take the online PARCC test in the spring.

3. Equitable and transparent allocation of devices to schools: Each school community should be informed of the number of new computers and other technology assets that will be allocated to their school and how this number was determined.

4. Transparent and timely communication to schools (including school leadership, staff/teachers, parents): DCPS has developed planning guides and other resources to support schools, but it’s not clear that most school communities have seen and are using these resources. In some schools, staff continue to ask PTAs to help raise money for technology. Everyone–school leaders, teachers, and parents–needs to be on the same page regarding what assets and support will be provided to schools by DCPS’s central office and when they will be provided.

5. Training for teachers and students: School staff and students should be properly trained to use and maintain their equipment, including best practices for incorporating digital learning into classrooms and preventing misuse of technology. This issue is about scaling up: while some optional professional development opportunities are being offered by DCPS’s central office, it will take more work and resources to ensure all teachers and students are prepared to use technology effectively.

Digital Inequity In Your School? Tell Us!

A year after my blog post, we have made some progress–but there is much more work to be done. We must push for more funding in the 2021 budget to continue to move DCPS to a 1:1 student-device ratio for grades 3-12. In addition, funding is needed to strengthen professional development and school-level supports for managing technology so that the burden for both is not on school staff and parents.

The coalition’s goal is to have a parent contact at every school who will send feedback on how DCPS’s technology initiative is being implemented at their school as well as continuing technology challenges that are not being addressed. This information will help inform our advocacy strategy. The parent contact would also receive updates on our advocacy work and help distribute information about upcoming advocacy opportunities. If you think you can help us, please contact

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