The state budget that Gov. Jerry Brown signed last week includes $1.25 billion to accelerate the adoption of the Common Core in California. Two weeks ago, President Obama announced the ConnectED Initiative to connect 99 percent of America’s K-12 students to 1 gigabit of bandwidth in the next five years. Together, these bold programs have created a moment of opportunity for California’s K-12 schools to transform teaching and learning by upgrading their classrooms for 21st century learning.
The 21st century classroom will leverage technology to improve student outcomes by personalizing learning, empowering our teachers and ensuring every student has equal access to compelling curricula. At the foundation of the 21st century classroom is robust Internet infrastructure. Our schools need ubiquitous wireless networks and 100 megabits of Internet connectivity (growing to 1 gigabit in the next five years) to support one-to-one digital learning. (To put this in context, it takes about 1.5 megabits to stream standard definition video in the classroom. Assuming every student is using video as a learning tool at his or her own pace, you’d need 45 megabits of connectivity for a 30-student classroom.)
Unfortunately, according to EducationSuperHighway’s National SchoolSpeedTest, only 23 percent of America’s schools have the bandwidth they need for the 21st century classroom and only 27 percent have sufficient bandwidth to implement the Smarter Balanced Assessments that are critical to the successful implementation of the Common Core. The most common problems: slow connections to schools, outdated content filters that create network bottlenecks and a lack of ubiquitous high speed wi-fi. Even in Silicon Valley, only 39 percent of schools have the Internet infrastructure they need.
So why do we have this problem? In part, it’s because computers are moving from the principal’s office and computer lab to the student’s desk – increasing the demand for bandwidth by more than 30-fold. Its also partly a lack of resources: Few schools have the capital to upgrade their wi-fi networks and even fewer can afford the specialized networking and purchasing expertise needed to design, implement, monitor and manage a mission-critical network. But it is also a lack of clear data about where our schools stand and what needs to be done to upgrade them for the 21st century. As the old adage goes, you can’t manage what you can’t measure.
The state’s new Common Core Implementation Fund and ConnectED provide a unique moment of opportunity to address this foundational issue. If the FCC modernizes the E-Rate program to provide the funding the president has called for, the ConnectED Initiative will enable California districts to deploy fiber-optic networks that connect their schools at speeds up to 10 gigabits. Similarly, the Common Core Implementation Fund provides districts with the funding to upgrade the wired and wireless networks needed to deliver high-speed Internet connectivity to every student’s device.
But funding alone is not enough. We are still in an era of scarce resources and the Common Core Implementation Fund needs to support device and content purchases and professional development in addition to network upgrades. As a result, it is critical that California’s district leaders create a data-driven plan to implement these upgrades in order to ensure that all potential bottlenecks to digital learning are addressed in a cost-effective manner. Given the lack of technical resources in California’s districts, Gov. Brown, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and the State Board of Education must find a way to help districts create their upgrade plans.
San Mateo County provides a model approach to upgrade planning that can easily be replicated across the state. Led by the County Office of Education, San Mateo utilized the free National SchoolSpeedTest to quickly identify which schools need to be upgraded. They are now working with my nonprofit, EducationSuperHighway, to identify what needs to be upgraded in each district. As a final step, districts are sharing data about the cost of Internet connectivity and equipment in order to identify opportunities for cost savings. Collectively, these efforts will enable San Mateo County to create a data-driven upgrade plan in less than three months and will position their districts to make optimal use of the funding available from ConnectED and the Common Core Implementation Fund.
California’s education leaders must take responsibility for ensuring that every district in California has the information it needs to make the most of this opportunity to upgrade classrooms for the 21st century. In an era of scarce resources, it is imperative that California’s school districts do their homework before committing the one-time funding that the governor and Legislature have had the vision to provide.
Evan Marwell is the CEO of EducationSuperHighway, a nonprofit with the mission of upgrading the Internet infrastructure in America’s K-12 schools for digital learning. Before becoming a social entrepreneur, Evan founded companies in the telecommunications, software and finance industries.