Education Department must do more to understand — and close — the homework gap

Commentary: The agency has taken steps to address the digital divide in schools, but there's more work to be done, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel writes.

Jessica Rosenworcel
Jessica Rosenworcel Commissioner

Jessica Rosenworcel is a member of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) serving her second term. Prior to joining the agency, she served as ...

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School’s out for the summer. But that doesn’t mean that Washington can take a break from the work required to ensure that every student has the internet access they need for digital-age education.

According to the Senate Joint Economic Committee, there are 12 million kids nationwide who are unable to get online at home. These students fall into a “homework gap” — and it’s an especially cruel part of the digital divide. It means that when their teachers assign homework that requires internet access, they struggle to complete basic assignments and keep up in class.

If you look for it, you can find existence of the homework gap across the country. You can see it where students sit in the school parking lot with laptops long after the final bell has rung in order to access a free wireless signal. You also can see it when students slide into booths at fast food restaurants and linger for hours to take advantage of the free Wi-Fi they need for regular homework.

While we can celebrate the grit of students who cobble together connectivity, it should not be this hard. Moreover, there is evidence that the lack of student access to the internet at home is holding our educational system back. According to the Pew Research Center, more than half of teachers in low-income communities say that their students’ inability to access online resources at home presents a major challenge to integrating technology into their teaching.

The good news is that the homework gap is finally getting attention in Washington. Thanks to the work of Sens. Angus King, I-Maine, and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., along with Reps. Peter Welch, D-Vt., and David McKinley, R-W.Va., during the last Congress, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) required the U.S. Department of Education to issue a report on the homework gap.

That report was released in April. It offered a summary of prior research. It also highlighted how the homework gap hits especially hard in rural areas and disproportionally affects minority students. In short, the report was a worthwhile start.

But now it’s time to go for extra credit. To this end, the Department of Education should drill down further to understand the forces behind the homework gap and the efforts to bridge it nationwide.

Anecdotally, we know there is work going on in our communities. This includes everything from mapping connected places in town where students can do schoolwork, to loaning out wireless hot spots at libraries so that kids can have access at home, to working with providers to advertise the existence of low-cost broadband service. But if we truly want to tailor our solutions for the problem, we need granular data. We need facts that will inform both local and national policy, from information that describes the root causes to details about the most successful efforts to close this gap and overcome this divide.

There is a growing chorus of interest in a more detailed analysis. In fact, the bipartisan group of legislators responsible for the initial reporting obligation in ESSA recently asked the Department of Education to take up this task immediately. It should. By using the summer break to build on its prior study, the Department of Education can help ensure that no child is left offline.

Jessica Rosenworcel is a member of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) serving her second term. She in an outspoken advocate for students, schools and programs that support both, including E-rate and net neutrality.

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Education IT News, Department of Education, Digital Equity, Policy, Jessica Rosenworcel, FCC, ESSA, homework gap

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