Technology for Disadvantaged Students
Compared to their classmates who come from a higher socioeconomic group, minority grade school students in the United States have unequal opportunities due to the expensive technology needed to succeed. With the increasing importance and cost of technology, not everyone has access to what they need. Students in the U.S. need to use technology for many aspects of their education. Papers, studying, and communicating with others are all done through computers. This is problematic because many families cannot afford to get a computer for themselves, let alone their children. Some of these households have a shared computer, but since everyone needs to use it, the children’s education is negatively impacted.
HISTORY OF COMPUTERS IN EDUCATION
The first computers were developed in 1946 to help win World War II and their primary use was in industry through the l950s. In 1963, Congress passed the Vocational Education Act, which supported the use of technology in the schools, but the early computers were so expensive and mainframes took up so much room there was no thought given as to how they might be used in education. It was not until 1975, when Apple donated a simple portable computer to some schools that people began to see that computers had a place in education. By 1986, as more manufactures began to make personal computers and they became more popular, 25 percent of high schools used personal computers, but largely for college and career guidance. The introduction of the Macintosh in 1984 was the impetus for elementary schools to start using computers. Macintosh was the first object based computer, and allowed children as young as five to learn while playing games, listening to music, and having fun (Murdock).
President Bill Clinton was the first to see that the Internet had a real potential for using technology in the schools. In 1996, President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore made a pledge to have the Internet in every school in America by the year 2000 and he committed over two billion federal dollars to match state and local efforts to make this happen (Purdum). Somewhat remarkably, this government program worked, and virtually all U.S. schools had at least some degree of Internet access by the beginning of the 21st century. Schools were now, theoretically, able to add the benefits of the “information highway” to every child’s education, but like so many government programs, the dream of creating a country where all citizens could have equal opportunities fell short.
THE TECHNOLOGY REVOLUTION AND EDUCATION
Wiring all of the schools, although an important step in creating equal opportunities in education, was just the beginning of what was needed. Children who went to schools in wealthier districts had computer labs and eventually each classroom had at least one computer. As time went on, many elementary schools in wealthier districts provided laptops for every child in the school, but if you took a walk in a school in a poor district, you were not likely to see a computer except perhaps in the Principal’s Office. Most of the money needed to buy computers came from local taxes, so poor areas of the country simply could not afford the hardware that the wealthier areas saw were so important to the education of their children. In the article, “The diversity imperative: insights from colleagues: at the professional level, technology education\'s diversity demographics are disproportionate to the general population,” the people surveyed said they could not see technology education succeeding without diversity (Childress). It is extremely important that this diversity is created in order to make technology professions stronger. If technology education is not funded or even in existence, in all schools, this cannot be achieved. According to the U.S. Census, there is a wide range in how much states spend on students. In a 2013 census, states spent an average of $10,700 per pupil, but range of spending was significant. Utah spent the least, only $6,555 per student, while New York spent three times as much, $19,818 per student. Federal data suggests that this gap is even growing wider (Brown). Of course, government statistics only reflect what publicly reported. Most schools in wealthier districts benefit greatly from parent contributions. For example, the Anderson School, a highly regarded public school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, skipped the bake sales and car washes, and just asked parents to write a check to the school for $1300. And they gladly did it. In fact, the parents of the Anderson School raise over $1 million dollars for the school every year (Spencer).
Naturally one would expect that parents with a lower economic status also have less technology for their children to learn in their home. For example, in a survey, it was found that “of 2,600 children between the ages of 8 and 18, only 25 percent of teenagers in families with incomes below $35,000 have their own laptops compared to 62 percent of teenagers who live in households with incomes over $100,000” (Cohen). This gives them less opportunities to study and learn compared to their classmates with a higher socioeconomic background.
Everything changed when the smartphone became popular. As compared to laptops, where students from higher income families are more than twice as likely to own one, in a recent study of middle school students, 51 percent of teens from poorer families owned smart phones, as opposed to 69 percent of students from middle income families. This data suggests that the digital gap is narrowing in regard to mobile devices, but we must question as to whether these devices with so many capabilities are being used for educational purposes. Unless schools take the time to teach students how they can use mobile devices as educational tools, it seems unlikely that the students will use them for more than texting, talking, viewing videos, and game play (Cohen).
LEVELING THE PLAYING FIELD
Since President Bill Clinton first set the goal of giving all schools access to the Internet by the year 2000, there have been ongoing government attempts to bring more technology into the schools; however, most observers believe that the government has had mixed success. The National Educational Technology Plan, introduced by the White House in 2010, set wide ranging goals to give students more digital resources, to prepare teachers to use technology in their classrooms, and to encourage students to collaborate both with peers and experts using technology. The U.S. Department of Education continues to release guidelines for support of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education for all students (“U.S. Department of Education Issues Guidance for Schools on Leveraging Federal Funding to Support STEM Education”). However, with the complex educational system in the United States, it is not clear how well these guidelines are followed. The education of students is ultimately determined at the district level and supported largely by local property taxes. Although the Federal Government and state governments both provide guidelines and funding, most decisions about how money is spent are made on the local level. Most people feel that the education of children is a decision of parents and the local community, but the inequality of communities across the country makes it hard to envision how there will ever be a level playing field for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. “The education gap between children from low-income and non-poor families is one full year” and an increase in per student spending “is large enough to eliminate the education gap between children from low-income and non-poor families” (Jackson, Johnson, and Persico).
Some people argue that the Federal government should take a more active role in the education of disadvantaged children, particularly in the funding of technology programs. They point to the success of legislation regarding the education of children with disabilities as a model for delivering individualized services based on need. Beginning in 1976, the Federal Government saw the need to take control of the education of children with special needs, such as learning disabilities, emotional problems, and physical problems. They developed orders for schools to identify and provide individualized plans for these children so that their “differences” would not be a hindrance to their education. As a result, schools must obtain the resources and funding that meet each child’s needs regardless of budget limitations. This includes providing children with any kind of technology that will assist them in their learning, from digital communication boards for speech impaired to robots designed to help children with autism. In an interview with Hugh Kingsley, president of the Brainary, a company that sells $20,000 robots to schools primarily to help children with disabilities, it became clear that the same resources available for special needs children could also be used for disadvantaged students. He explained:
The robots we sell to schools have a dual purpose. On the one hand, they can be preprogrammed to teach children basic learning skills, like learning the alphabet, or simply following directions. The robots engage children unlike any teacher could. They sing, they dance, they have a dialogue with children, and of course they never get tired or bored! And on the other hand, our robots can actually be programmed by the students themselves. We have programs that teach children as young as seven or eight how to write code that immediately makes the robots respond with speech and movement. This is a great way to introduce coding to all children. (Kingsley)
Corporations are also stepping up to narrow the technology gap in education that continues to discriminate against students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Companies like Verizon and Microsoft have committed to increasing high speed Internet in the classroom, as well as providing technology devices like laptops and tablets. They are also setting aside funds for teacher training. In 2014, President Obama had a meeting with business leaders and was able to obtain pledges of more than $750 million towards his stated goal of strengthening access to 99 percent of students by 2020 (Huetteman). Other companies, like Comcast Cable Services, are making it easier for students in disadvantaged homes to get low cost broadband services. It has set up a program to provide high-speed Internet access in poor neighbors for just $9.95 per month, a fraction of what it charges for normal service. The company has also donated more than one million dollars for programs that support digital literacy for disadvantaged families (Wyatt). IBM has taken a different approach to narrowing the digital divide by setting up a new model public high school called P-TECH, short for Pathways in Technology Early College High School. The model school opened in 2011 in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. The intention was to give disadvantaged and minority students training that was equivalent to what IBM would expect from its employees. The model, which also funnels high school graduates into paid summer internships and associate degree programs, has quickly spread across the country with schools being sponsored by tech companies like Microsoft and energy companies like ConEdison (Lapowsky).
The problems of bringing technology to disadvantaged children seems like a simple one to solve. All students across the country have basic courses in reading and math, so why not require courses in basic technology, such as keyboard skills or learning to code? The complexity of the problem becomes apparent in an interview with Dr. Lawrence Shapiro, a psychologist specializing in providing digital solutions for mental health problems. After Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and 300,000 children were left homeless, Dr. Shapiro became interested in how technology could be used to help homeless children. He reasoned that laptops could help children stay in touch with friends and family and also continue their education even when they could not attend classes. He visited a shelter for homeless families in Stamford, Connecticut, and found that there were only three computers available for 35 families, and these were used, almost exclusively, by the adults who were trying to find work. He decided to see if he could get individual laptops for the 20 elementary school aged children in the shelter, but when he approached a foundation that makes $100 laptops designed especially for children, they told him he would have to look elsewhere. Their foundation only provided laptops for children in third world countries, not for American children, no matter what their circumstances.
The gaps in providing equal opportunities in technology go way beyond the money spent on technology. The real difference is in teacher training: “If public schools are to remain viable, thriving institutions, they need leaders with excellent skills and first-rate capabilities to move complex institutions forward” (Donlevy). Many schools, particularly schools with many disadvantaged students do not have access to these leaders because wealthier school districts naturally pay higher salaries. This attracts more qualified teachers who are prepared to integrate technology into their classrooms at every level. Schools in disadvantaged areas have trouble filling teacher positions and tend to attract more inexperienced teachers who, although they may be idealistic, are often overwhelmed by the numerous problems of students who are living at or below the poverty level.
LONG-TERM OPPORTUNITIES FOR DISADVANTAGED MINORITIES
The need to give disadvantaged children an education in technology cannot be overestimated. Every year there is a greater need for employees who have technology skills, from simple coding, to data management, to cyber-security. Every year, articles are put out on what the “best jobs” are at the time. It is based on salary, job security, and opportunity. Over the past couple of years, many of the jobs on the list are in technology. Unfortunately, there are not enough students who want to study technology fields (Burns, Gao, Sherman, and Vengerov). If we increase the number of students who seek higher education, by giving disadvantaged children more opportunities, then it is likely that there will be an increase in people who have the skills needed for technical jobs.
Computer skills will also be needed for non-technical jobs as well. Every industry is being changed by computers, from fast food and retail to factory jobs and clerical workers. People who are comfortable with computers and other digital devices will also be more prepared to take advantage of the “sharing” economy. Drivers of car services, like Uber, will need to know how to use the apps that they provide. If someone has a spare bedroom in their home, or wants to travel inexpensively, they will have to know how to navigate a website, like Airbnb.com. There is simply no area of life that will not be affected by technology, and the educational system must prepare all students for this future. Those who are not prepared will be left behind.
CREATING A TECHNOLOGY VISION
In many ways, our country has never been so divided. Many people see the need to have the government take a more active role in dealing with the social problems that divide us, but they also want the government to step back and let people solve their own problems. The eight years of the Obama administration pushed the country towards addressing the gap between the rich and the poor, and yet things seem to have gotten worse. A 2016 economic report called the “Distressed Community Index” found that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, noting: “This analysis finds that for those living in distressed zip codes, the years of U.S. economic recovery have continued to look more like an ongoing downturn, while the country’s most prosperous zip codes are booming” (“The 2016 Distressed Communities Index”).
What will make the difference? Education in technology can help. It will help students in becoming more desirable to employers and will help in their everyday life as technology is taking over. “Meeting the International Society for Technology in Education standards makes it possible for students to become global collaborators” (Mader and Smith), which will give them more opportunities for their futures. It is unlikely that this help will come in the next few years, but providing education in technology to disadvantaged students could create tremendous opportunities in the next ten or even 20 years. Perhaps we will see a disadvantaged student become the next Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. Maybe we will see more young people finding opportunities that will bring them out of poverty. There is a clear shift in our culture towards the use of technology that is hard to argue with. The only question is whether or not the 45 million people still living in poverty (Gongloff) and the millions more living with limited opportunities will benefit from it.
Education in technology has the power to change the lives of disadvantaged students. There are some challenges come with every goal. With the right tools, like classroom computers, individual laptops, proper teacher training and education on how to use mobile devices, there would be more students who are able to rise above their hardships.
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