Credit: Stephanie Rudig

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Each spring, D.C. students ages 8 to 14 log in to computers to complete a standardized test called PARCC, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. The test will go on to define student capability and teacher performance, and influence staffing decisions and how parents choose schools for their kids. 

But at some public schools, technology access is so limited that students barely get to use computers to practice for the computer-based test. And some schools report having equipment so old that staff are afraid to let children use it before the test, in case the precious computers break. 

This is just one example of what it’s like to teach and learn in a tech shortage. An analysis of a DC Public Schools’ technology inventory across schools, received through a Freedom of Information Act request, reveals broad disparities in the equipment as of February 2018. (Charter schools do not have the same reporting requirements and are exempt from FOIA.  The District’s  public charter board is subject to FOIA, but its individual charter schools are not.) 

Computers

Garrison Elementary School in Ward 2 had more laptops than students and staff, while Randle Highlands Elementary in Ward 7 had less than one laptop per every 13 students and staff. The data revealed a more extreme gap District-wide in desktops, where the poorest-resourced schools reported having less than one desktop for every 20 students and staff. (DCPS says it gave students at three middle schools laptops through a grant last school year.)

Computers are crucial for preparing students to succeed in the modern world. They are also essential to participating in standardized testing and blended learning, an approach that provides students both face-to-face instruction and online, personalized learning. 

DCPS recommends one device per every three students that participate in online standardized testing. This is below the State Educational Technology Directors Association recommendation of one per student. The results of City Paper’s FOIA did not reveal whether all DCPS schools met the one-to-three ratio because it’s unclear which devices are allocated to students and which are allocated to staff. The data do show, however, a wide disparity in technology access across schools.

Laptop Access in DC Public Schools

Desktop Access in DC Public Schools

Tablets

Tablets, such as iPads, allow students to access online programs and resources, and many schools pay subscription fees for these programs. Seven D.C. schools didn’t have tablets at all. On the other end of the spectrum, seven schools had at least one tablet for every four students and staff. 

Tablet Access in DC Public Schools

Whiteboards and Projectors

Interactive whiteboards, which display online or projected resources and respond to human touch, allow teachers to display lessons and student work. DCPS budget guidelines recommend one interactive whiteboard per classroom. Over a third of schools didn’t meet that requirement given the number of students at each school divided by the maximum number of students allowed per classroom. Six schools didn’t have any interactive whiteboards at all. 

Interactive Whiteboard Access in DC Public Schools

Projector Access in DC Public Schools

As bad as the inventory may look for some schools, teachers and parents balk at the numbers shown. “If my school has that many laptops, I have no idea where they are,” said an elementary school teacher who spoke on the condition of anonymity. 

A report by the Office of the DC Auditor last fall found that in seven of the eight audited schools, “existing technology was frequently unavailable because it was outdated or of poor quality.”

When technology breaks, it’s likely to stay that way for a while. The DC Auditor’s report found, through interviews, that “technology support was limited because there were long delays before an item would be repaired, that support was not available, that technology support staff members were not competent, or that relatively inexpensive repair inputs were unavailable, such as replacement light bulbs for projectors.” 

DCPS recommends that schools replace computers every four years at a minimum. At least 30 percent of laptops and half of all desktops were four years old or older as of February 2018, according to City Paper’s FOIA. One teacher told the DC Auditor “that technology support personnel had informed her that computers were too old to be fixed.”  Old equipment is not evenly spread out across schools. At Benjamin Banneker High School, City Paper’s FOIA found, half of all laptops and desktops were from 2010 or earlier. 

On DonorsChoose.org, a site where teachers and students can fundraise for classroom equipment, teachers lament the quality of technology provided to them. A teacher identifying as Ms. Glickman at Brightwood Education Campus in Ward 4 wrote on her fundraising page: “We need computers desperately! Four out of our classroom’s five allotted computers do not work.” 

From Garfield Elementary in Ward 8, a teacher named as Mrs. Tomlinson requested a reliable iPad so that “[w]e will no longer need to worry about the device shutting down in the middle of an assignment or have to wait until the following week to have a technician see about the problem.” 

Aging and broken equipment leaves many schools with far less accessible technology. While some schools this year have a laptop for every student, a teacher posting on DonorsChoose.org from King Elementary in Ward 8 said she had no computers at all in her classroom, and over 400 students shared a single computer lab. At Dunbar High School, a teacher identifying as Mr. King reported on the site that his classroom had access to technology, but had to request it days in advance.  

Technology and the DCPS Budget

D.C. public schools are given broad latitude in budget allocation decisions. They receive funds from the DCPS central office in two buckets: personnel salaries and non-personnel services. The second category supports everything but salaries—bandaids for the nurse’s office, paper, professional development contracts, cleaning supplies, and much more. “Technology is in competition with paper and pencils and workbooks and desks” explains Mary Levy, a DCPS budget expert. “There are constant complaints that non-personnel services funding is inadequate. Teachers are buying basic paper out of their own pockets.” In this environment, Levy says, it’s no surprise technology goes underfunded.  

The only time schools receive technology-specific DCPS funding is during a full school modernization or through the annual at-risk technology investment. An at-risk student is defined as a student that is homeless, in foster care, qualifies for temporary financial or supplemental nutrition assistance, or is one or more years older than their grade level. Schools with an at-risk student population of over 25 percent receive $20 annually per pupil attending the school. Where the at-risk student population is over 75 percent,  schools receive an additional $20 per pupil. 

DCPS budget guidance, last updated in February 2018, notes: “To successfully compete in a global workforce, all students must be able to be comfortable with and capable of using basic technology. Technology in schools must also support instructional goals and support online assessments.” The guidance positions the at-risk technology investment as a way “to ensure all DCPS students have an equitable distribution of, and access to technology.”

“This is a really inspiring statement that comes nowhere near reality,” remarked Miner Elementary School parent Katy Thomas at this year’s DCPS budget hearing.

DCPS budget guidance recommends that a school with 300 students and a staff of 80 should spend between $52,000 and $65,000 annually to replace computers on a rolling basis. At-risk technology investments for a school of 300 at-risk students wouldn’t even cover a quarter of that. The recommended spending does not cover ongoing maintenance or non-computer equipment like tablets and whiteboards. 

“Budgets are woefully inadequate for one-quarter replacement or ongoing maintenance,” says Joe Weedon, the Ward 6 Representative on the State Board of Education. “It’s parents that are buying new machines.” 

Parents Fundraising for Equipment

Last year the parent-teacher association at J.O. Wilson Elementary School in Ward 6 raised $13,000 at a fundraiser to purchase 20 laptops. 

A PTA auction at Oyster-Adams Bilingual School in Ward 3 last year raised nearly $44,000, all of which went to new desktops, laptops, and iPads. The PTA at Brent Elementary School, located near Eastern Market in Ward 6, raises funds throughout the year. It has a 2018-19 budget of $30,000 for interactive whiteboards, $11,000 for laptop carts, and $16,000 for new teacher laptops.

Grace Hu, an Amidon-Bowen Elementary School parent and a member of the school’s Local School Advisory Team, an advisory group to the principal, noticed on a recent tour of her child’s school a stack of broken laptops in the corner.  She says that as she began to research technology across DCPS schools she found that “schools that are doing it well have PTAs that can raise tens of thousands of dollars.” 

Teachers Fundraising for Equipment

But many D.C. schools lack PTAs. Parents can’t afford the dues, much less the donations, or make the time. Administrators look for grants. Teachers are encouraged to rely on the kindness of strangers. 

In Ward 6, a teacher who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal, stands in the middle of her brightly colored classroom after school is out. Looking past the miniature chairs and desks to the few computers in one corner and onward to the interactive whiteboard in front of a colorful alphabet rug, she remarks matter-of-factly, speaking of her technology resources, “Everything here is from DonorsChoose.org. Most of the classrooms in this school only have [technology] from Donors Choose.” Before even her first day in the classroom, administrators encouraged her to start putting requests on Donors Choose. 

A teacher down the hall says administrators who were sitting in her class told her that she should get a projector to display student work. It was understood that she would be responsible for getting the projector. 

Teachers do occasionally receive donations through DCPS’ central office, but they are often secondhand. “In an attempt to give students an opportunity to access and use these [blended learning] websites, my school has a set of old laptops that were donated a few years ago. Most of these computers have many technical issues, including missing keys, glitching screens, and limited ability to connect to the internet,” wrote a teacher identifying as Mr. Brofft from Barnard Elementary School in Ward 4 on DonorsChoose. 

Learning and Testing in a Tech Shortage

In 2013, DCPS began to introduce blended learning—the combination of face-to-face instruction with personalized online education. DCPS has credited blended learning with increasing test scores and attendance, and has described it as a “key level to reach the goals in A Capital Commitment,” the agency’s 2017-2022 strategic plan.

Each year, schools spend thousands in licensing fees to make blended resources available. But in many classrooms, investments in blended learning go unspent or underutilized because there is no available technology to make use of them. 

At Beers Elementary School in Ward 7, the electronic learning budget for 2017-18 school year was nearly $15,000. On DonorsChoose, a Beers teacher identifying as Ms. Hamilton posted, “Imagine having accounts for online learning to practice math concepts but unable [sic] to access them!!” At Brightwood Education Campus in Ward 4, which spent over $30,000 on electronic learning this year, a teacher identifying as Ms. Swick wrote: “We have so many great programs and videos to enhance the education of our students, but need the devices to actual [sic] show them.”

Faced with limited equipment, at least one school is cutting back its blended learning licenses for the next school year. 

But schools can’t cut back on testing. Standardized tests like PARCC and i-Ready, an assessment that measures baseline math skills for students in grades 2 through 5, have a major impact on students, teachers, schools, and parents. Kids take these tests on computers, which can spread schools’ technology resources thin. Schools may bring in loaner laptops from the Office of the Chief Technology Office (OCTO) or have students take tests in shifts.

For some students, a standardized test is the rare opportunity to use a computer. “These students are required to take the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) at the end of the year on computers without access to the very technology they are required to test on,” wrote a Mr. Brofft in a post on fundraising platform GoFundMe.

Schools sometimes withhold access to computers throughout the year to ensure the old equipment makes it through required testing. Heather Schoell, an Eliot-Hine middle school parent, says “students can’t even use laptops at any other time [than testing] because they might break.” One administrator indicated to the DC Auditor that “his school limits computer use to conserve computers for administering exams.”

Teachers are concerned that the lack of access means students are less prepared for tests. A teacher identifying as Ms. Clemons at Nalle Elementary School in Ward 7 wrote on DonorsChoose, “Today’s assessments involve typing responses to writing prompts. I would like to expose my students to answering prompts online as often as possible. This will help them gain the confidence needed to knock the ball out the PARCC.” An elementary school teacher, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, was more blunt: “How are we supposed to teach to the test if we don’t have computers? With paper?”

In high-poverty neighborhoods many students do not have access to computers at home, making access at school all the more important. In 2016, more than one in five D.C. households had neither a laptop nor a desktop. Weedon says, “PARCC makes basic computer literacy necessary.” A lack of computer access in schools “creates another hurdle for poor students to overcome.” 

Last fall, DCPS, in response to the Office of the DC Auditor’s report, indicated that it was building a technology road map that would detail “mass enhancements” to devices, infrastructure services, shared technology platforms, technology proficiency, and data reporting. The road map recommendations and funding requests would be included in the budget process for the upcoming school year. Since the technology roadmap was first announced, “there has been radio silence from DCPS” says Weedon. In a statement to City Paper, DCPS spokesperson Shayne Wells indicated that such a plan is still in the works, writing that the agency is “working toward developing a four-year school technology plan to ensure equity in technology access and to centralize the purchasing and refreshing of staff and student devices.” 

Without a comprehensive technology plan, a road map, and a funding plan in hand, parents and teachers are concerned that nothing will change. “I just want my children to have the same access,” says Amidon-Bowen parent Grace Hu, “the same opportunities to learn that they would at the richest public schools.”