As part of his vow to take action despite partisan gridlock in Congress, President Obama recently touted a plan to bring more high-speed Internet to schools and libraries.
The Obama administration has said that around 30 percent of schools are adequately connected but that it would like to raise that figure to 99 percent by 2017 and provide teacher training on how to effectively use digital tools in the classroom.
The idea has been widely praised, private companies like Microsoft and Verizon have said they will contribute a collective $750 million to the effort, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced it would dedicate an additional $2 billion over the next two years to the expansion.
There’s just one problem: There is no map or list of which schools or even districts are adequately connected and which are not.
The approximately 30 percent figure the administration says represents the connected schools comes from a sampling of school connectivity done by Education Superhighway, a nonprofit, based on schools who chose to have their connectivity tested, not a detailed analysis of the connectivity of all the schools or districts in the nation.
The FCC has said it “will connect 20 million students in at least 15,000 schools to high-speed Internet access," with funding to come from reprioritized and leftover E-Rate funds.
Cecilia Muñoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, said during a recent interview that the project won’t “target any particular area,” and added that it would benefit both urban and rural children.
Those things might be true, but they're also vague.
Right now, there’s no good way, other than more sampling, to measure their success, or failure, given that the administration doesn’t know which schools do and do not need better broadband access. The FCC does already publish a broadband map, but it does not indicate whether schools in each region are actually using the broadband in their area.
Evan Marwell, CEO and co-founder of Education Superhighway, said the fact that the country has “no idea” which schools need to be upgraded was one of the first issues his organization, which started two years ago, decided to tackle.
They’ve developed, with input from the FCC and the Education Department, something called the National School Speed Test, which lets schools measure bandwidth.
It’s currently the country’s best indicator of which schools have and do not have adequate connectivity and the foundation from which the administration’s approximately 30 percent figure was derived. But so far, just a quarter of a million tests from a third of the nation’s schools have been conducted, Marwell said. That’s because the onus is on schools to take the test; it’s not mandatory.
In other words, it doesn’t offer a clear picture of connectivity, particularly when it comes to specifics like connectivity by geographic region or socioeconomic status.
Marwell’s organization has been approached by states to develop an automated version so that the burden doesn’t fall on schools to do the test, and he said his organization “will likely do that.”
But a much more in-depth way to test connectivity and for the administration to measure its success at reaching the 99 percent goal would be for the FCC to put together the data itself.
The agency already provides funding to more than 90 percent of schools in the country through the E-Rate program, which schools use to apply for broadband. When schools apply to the program, they have to provide data about their Internet connection. Marwell would like the agency to use that to create a database of schools that are connected. He’d also like the FCC to track both how “big” the Internet connection is and how much bandwidth schools are using.
He said the FCC has been receptive to the idea and that there’s a chance it could be implemented soon, with the agency poised to make changes to the application this spring. The nonprofit has developed a demo version of how a revamped site might look.
A spokesman for the agency wrote in an email, "I can confirm that the agency's open to starting its own database and it's something we're considering."
“The really simple answer is that the FCC should be tracking this,” Marwell said.
He also voiced a few words of caution.
Right now, according to a standard set by the State Educational Technology Directors Association, the recognized goal that schools need reach to be considered “adequate” for digital learning is 100 Mbps per 1,000 students and staff. That’s set to go up to 1 Gbps by 2017. But, Marwell said, just one percent of schools currently meet that 2017 standard.
He also cautioned against being overly optimistic about what the private companies that have signed on to help will really add.
The companies are donating things that will help schools use the broadband effectively, he pointed out, like devices and operating software, but they’re largely “not addressing the core issue” of expanding broadband access.
Another issue is funding.
The FCC “had very little idea” of what the E-Rate money was being spent on, Marwell said.
He said his organization is working with the FCC to better track how it spends the E-Rate funding. Right now, large chunks are going to thinks like cell phones and web hosting.
“From our point of view,” Marwell said, “E-Rate is all about helping advance learning through connectivity and if you look at [these other expenditures], those aren’t about advancing learning.”
Despite his reservations, Marwell is optimistic.
“I think what the FCC announced,” he said, “is going to make an incredible difference.”
The country just needs a better way to track that difference.
Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.