Public schools lack computer resources
Internet access Arizonans take for granted at home isn’t available to students in many of the state’s public schools, leaving them lagging in skills they will need to compete in universities or thrive in the workforce.
Schools lack equipment, Internet connections and money to train teachers to create tech-savvy students. The state trails the national average for the amount of Internet access available to students. The fixes are not simple.
• Money: For years, the state has discussed and planned to advance computer learning. But it lacks the cash – or the resolve to spend it – to help all districts improve.
• Infrastructure: Internet access depends on connections to the cables and networks that carry information. In many parts of the state, those connections are inadequate for newer computers and Web technology. So even if districts have the computers, they don’t have the high-speed connections to make good use of them.
• Inequity: Affluent districts come up with funds from their voters to buy computers for teachers and students and to improve classroom training. Poorer districts and their students are left behind, widening the gap between those with computer skills and those without.
The stakes for computer learning are high.
Research shows students learn more quickly at lower cost if they shed textbooks in favor of Web-based courses.
But without solid, early training in computer use, experts say, Arizona’s students will fall further behind.
While Internet learning is important for students, on a larger scale, it’s just as critical for the entire economy, educators and business professionals say.
“You can’t compete without it,” said Rosalyn Boxer, an Arizona Department of Commerce projects manager. “A business can’t compete. A student can’t compete. Our workforce can’t compete.”
Haves and have-nots
Nearly a decade ago, the Paradise Valley Unified District in Phoenix established a technology teacher-training program, paid for with a special property tax. Today, every teacher has a laptop with high-speed Internet. The district has one computer, connected to high-speed Internet, for every two students.
Across town, in south Phoenix’s Murphy Elementary District, where property values are much lower, the school also has a special property tax. But it has to use all the revenue to maintain its buildings and buy furniture and school buses.
The district relies on federal grants to provide technology. Last school year, it reached a goal of one Internet-connected computer for every three students. Teachers were able to replace their Windows 98 machines with newer machines. Most student machines are still recycled or refurbished.
“They’re not the latest and greatest, and they have their difficulties,” Murphy’s information systems director, Jason Jordan, said of the district’s computer systems. “We worked hard. We tried.”
Now, the district is looking for money for the software and training to make use of those Internet connections.
Across Arizona, the disparities in digital education persist because of differences in funding.
For districts without extra tax revenue, options are limited. In 2006, Arizona’s schools requested $147.4 million from a federal grant program that reimburses schools for the cost of technology. The schools received $32 million. Grant requests since 2000 have yielded similar results.
The growing disparity is becoming a national debate, says Paul Koehler of WestEd, a research and policy organization. He expects the government or the courts to step in.
“It’s going to be a matter of equity,” Koehler said.
The state money
Arizona has considered, even established, a variety of technology-education plans, but nothing has survived.
The Arizona Department of Education created a plan in 2002 to fully integrate technology into K-12 curriculum by 2006. While the plan exists, the cash does not.
In 2005, state lawmakers considered spending $1.1 billion over four years to help schools shed textbooks in favor of high-speed online learning. It was considered too costly, and the bill didn’t pass.
The Legislature in recent years tried twice to fund a pilot project to turn some classrooms into models for electronic learning. The projects passed, but before programs began, lawmakers in later sessions yanked the money to plug other gaps in the budget.
The state agency charged with building new schools for growing districts funds one computer for every eight students, a 9-year-old standard.
Outside of that, the state has no dedicated money to bring technology into classrooms.
The conundrum of the funding crunch is that online learning can actually save schools money, partly by shedding textbooks. Much of the same information in a textbook is online.
But getting everyone online requires an upfront expense. Research shows it would take $50 million to $67 million to make sure every student and teacher in the state is connected to high-speed Internet, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne said.
Ted Kraver is a systems engineer and entrepreneur who has spent the past decade advocating for more technology in Arizona schools. He is a member of the Arizona eLearning Task Force, a group of government, education and business leaders looking for ways to make it happen.
“Why didn’t we do something 10 years ago, five years ago, three years ago, one year ago beats the heck out of me,” Kraver said. “It’s the most obvious thing that we would invest a small amount of money to get our kids not just the hardware but all the software, all the visual curriculum and all the teacher development.”
The rural divide
Two years ago, schools in Superior Unified District were getting by with a weak Internet connection.
As in many rural districts, a teacher using an online video or a student downloading music brought the system to a standstill.
Everything changed when a global mining corporation proposed a controversial plan to dig for copper under the high desert town 50 miles southeast of Mesa.
A copper mine reopening in Superior would give this shrinking former mining town new jobs, new residents, new homes and new businesses. But today’s copper mining, with robots and computer-driven equipment, needs high-speed Internet connections and employees who can run electronic equipment.
The state’s Department of Commerce went about getting those needs met. It negotiated with utilities and telecommunications companies to build the connections.
Last year, the Internet connection to Superior was upgraded and with it the schools’ Internet service. Most rural districts aren’t so lucky.
In northeast Arizona’s Cedar Unified School District, the Internet connections are weak, spotty and prone to dropping.
The Hyder Elementary District in Dateland relied on federal grants to get an Internet link fast enough to run its office and have a few students in the library do research.
In Holbrook, “People ask: Why don’t you have this?,” says Ronald Neff, computer services director for Holbrook Unified. “Well, we don’t live in Maricopa County.”
Faster Internet connections are becoming more important. The size and content of Web pages have doubled in the past five years. Instructional videos and interactive Web sites require more bandwidth, the amount of data the connection can carry at any one time.
Most of Arizona’s high-bandwidth infrastructure runs along a corridor that serves Tucson, Phoenix and Flagstaff, and many city schools connect to it for a reasonable cost.
The infrastructure is owned and operated by an array of private companies.
Many schools are in communities too far away and too small to make it worthwhile for companies to create a connection. There just aren’t enough customers.
So, Internet is too expensive, too slow or not available at all.
It’s frustrating because people assume schools can simply put up an antenna and pick up high-speed Internet from the sky, said Chris Cummiskey, who heads Arizona’s Government Information Technology Agency.
“People think we’re much more connected in terms of the Internet highway than we are,” he said.
In Mary Jane Torok’s classroom, the chalkboard is just extra space to hang posters and display student work. Chalk rarely touches the board.
Torok teaches eighth-grade social studies in Kyrene Elementary District, where she has worked for 22 years. Right now, Torok is teaching the Revolutionary War. Instead of using a chalkboard, Torok finds original documents online, such as soldiers’ letters, political cartoons, newspaper articles or photographs and projects them on a screen for her students to discuss.
If students want to add their thoughts to the presentation, Torok hands them her wireless keyboard.
When someone asks a relevant question, the student is sent to one of 10 computers in her room to find the answer on the Internet.
“The teachable moment is right there,” said Torok, who spends her summers taking district technology classes. “My resources are there for lesson planning, for sharing ideas and getting amazing curriculum.”
Her students still use a hardcopy textbook as a resource. The textbook is also available to them in an online version, which includes interactive maps of strategic battles and crossword puzzles with key vocabulary.
Torok customizes her student assignments, finding online reading material that challenges her quickest students and that makes the subject understandable for her slower ones.
At the end of the lesson plan, students will sum up what they have learned by presenting projects. They will create their own Web sites, videos, graphics or photo essays.
“For the kids, it’s their language,” Torok said. “They’re not dazzled by doing this. It’s just natural to them. They do amazing things.”
The National School Boards Association honored the district in 2006 for successfully integrating technology into the classroom.
The scene, of course, is not played out in many other Arizona classrooms.
This year, state education officials tested 40,000 fourth- and eighth-grade students on whether they met standards for understanding and using technology. Only half the eight-graders passed. In Grade 4, only 40 percent passed.
Unlike a growing number of states, Arizona can’t even administer the multiple-choice and writing sections of its standardized assessment test online. Too few schools have enough computers or computing power to administer the AIMS test to more than one or two classrooms at a time.
Arizona, with one high-speed connection per 4.3 students, also trails the national average of one connection per 3.7 students.
Right now, many Arizona students are not learning what they need to survive, thrive and create in the future economy.
“It’s never the technology that’s the impediment,” Cummiskey said. “It’s the resources, the policy issues and decisions that have to be made.”
In some schools, teachers and students lead the state in the best use of classroom technology.
Vail Unified, Tucson In 2005, Vail’s Empire High School opened as an all-laptop, no-textbook campus. The school has a waiting list of 100 students looking to enroll to take advantage of the digital-learning environment. Paradise Valley Unified, Phoenix
Nearly a decade ago, this northeast Phoenix district established a technology teacher-training program and one high-speed Internet-connected laptop for every teacher. This year, every teacher gets an updated laptop. The district also has provided one computer for every two students. The district is phasing out DVDs, televisions and even its phone system to be replaced by online alternatives. Tempe Elementary District This year the district opened one of the first K-5 technology academies. Scales Technology Academy in Tempe boasts a 1-1 ratio of students to laptop computers. Kyrene Elementary School District, Tempe In 2006, the National School Boards Association honored Kyrene for its efforts to integrate computers and other high-tech equipment into the classroom. Their teachers use interactive chalkboards, and students track their own work in digital portfolios. Murphy Elementary District, Phoenix Murphy reached its goal last year of one Internet-connected computer for every three students. Teachers were able to replace their Windows 98 machines with newer machines. Most student machines are still recycled, rebuilt computers from 2000 and 2001. Now, the district is looking for money to buy learning software and train teachers to make good use of the Internet connections in the classroom. Holbrook Unified District Last year, the district’s spotty and slow connection cost $5,000 for the entire year. An upgrade this year will provide faster Internet connections. The new upgrade is $2,700 a month, a tough go even with the help of some federal grant money. The community has few companies that can provide Internet service, limiting competition. Cedar Unified District, Keams Canyon Northeast Arizona’s Cedar Unified School District’s computer technician Jerry Jim said the district’s Internet connections are weak, spotty and prone to crashing. It has tried several different companies, but the connection hasn’t improved much. Tech support is 300 miles away. Hyder Elementary District, Dateland Federal grants helped this district pick up Internet fast enough to run its office or have a few students working in the library doing research. A classroom of students can use video, but it’s a little slow. The district struggles to afford people to maintain its technology.