Release of overdue federal report on ‘homework gap’ validates stakeholder concerns


The wait is over. Nine months past deadline, the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) — the research, development and evaluation arm of the U.S. Department of Education — has released its report on digital learning discrepancies nationwide.

The report, titled “Student Access to Digital Learning Resources Outside of the Classroom” and mandated in December 2015 by President Barack Obama as part of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), is a 211-page dive into the severity of the nation’s inequities in digital learning, or more specifically the “homework gap,” which happens when students have access to high-speed broadband in the classroom, but not at home.

The report shows that 18 percent of students living in remote rural areas have either no internet access or just a dial-up connection, compared to 7 percent of students living in large suburban areas who lack access. For black students living in remote rural areas, 41 percent either lack access or a connection better than dial-up; that’s more than three times the number of white students (13 percent) who are in the same situation.

The numbers underscore a problem that education stakeholders have observed anecdotally and been trying to address for several years. The report also helps illustrate who is hit hardest by the homework gap, edtech leaders say.

For students in such circumstances, keeping pace with their peers in an increasingly connected education environment can be incredibly difficult.

“The main reason we wanted this report out quickly was that we wanted more analysis demonstrating that what we were seeing in the field — and what many other surveys have done — could be validated,” Chip Slaven, senior advocacy adviser for the Alliance for Excellent Education, told EdScoop. “There are gaps in broadband access among children making it harder for them to learn at the same level as other students. It’s crucial going forward that we address those gaps.”

Slaven and his colleagues in the education field say that fully digesting the extensive report — which was published April 4 — could take weeks, but at a glance, it confirms their long-held concerns. The gap in broadband access among children in this country, Slaven said, is most apparent when you sort by the race, ethnicity, economic level and geographic location of broadband customers.

“That is something that the Alliance has been saying for a long time and the one thing that is in this report is that those gaps are very evident,” Slaven said.

The data about underserved groups helps pinpoint some important problems, said Reg Leichty, an education policy consultant and founder and partner of Foresight Law + Policy.

“It’s saying you’re not only worse off if you’re rural, you are even more worse off if you’re rural and poor and a minority. The system has to do a better job of connecting these folks,” Leichty told EdScoop.

The report comes at a time when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is considering rollbacks to Lifeline, one of the most widely used broadband access programs in the country. The program began in 1985 as a way to subsidize low-income houses so they could access telephone services. In 2016, the program began offering its monthly $9.25 subsidy for households to use toward broadband access. Currently, 12.5 million people across the country rely on it, and millions more rely on other universal connectivity services that are more critical now than ever, Leichty said.

“I think what it shows is just how important the universal service programs are,” Leichty said. “This is really the wrong time for the FCC to think about scaling back the LifeLine program. You look at the data, and if a student lives in a rural area, is poor or a person of color, they’re a lot less likely to have access to broadband and all the resources and opportunities associated with it.”

The five-member FCC, led by Chairman Ajit Pai, is currently in the process of drastically cutting back Lifeline. The commission voted along party lines, 3-2, to roll back the program in November 2017, with some proposals going into effect immediately and others delayed for consideration later this year.

“Programs like Lifeline are more important than ever,” Slaven said. “At a time that we’re seeing large gaps between students of color, other students that may be traditionally underserved, students in rural areas and students of lower economic backgrounds, not expanding a program like Lifeline to allow access for families at home in terms of broadband would be a terrible, tragic mistake in our nation.”