Schools Post Internet Access Gains, But Disparities Remain

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Minority and poor students still lag behind other students when it comes to access at school to the Internet and computers, even though nearly every U.S. public school has Internet access and the ratio of students to instructional computers has reached an all-time low, a federal study has found.

"Internet Access in U.S. Public Schools and Classrooms: 1994-2000," a survey from the National Center for Education Statistics released this month, shows that 98 percent of public schools were connected to the Internet by last fall. Six years ago, only 35 percent of schools could access the Internet.

The study credits the federal government's E-rate program, which provides discounts on Internet and other telecommunications services used by public schools and libraries, for improving Internet access.

For More Information

"Internet Access in U.S. Public Schools and Classrooms: 1994- 2000" is available from the National Center for Educational Statistics.

The ratio of students to instructional computers dropped to 5-to-1 by the fall of 2000, from 6-to-1 in 1999, the study shows. In 1997, the President's Committee of Advisers on Science and Technology, under President Clinton, set a ratio of 5-to-1 as a desirable goal.

"We have continued to make great strides," said Norris Dickard, a senior associate with the Washington-based Benton Foundation, which works on issues relating to schools' access to technology. "But we're not there yet."

Mr. Dickard pointed to NCES data that show that schools with high numbers of low-income students—those where at least 75 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches—and with high numbers of minority children are less likely to have access to computers and the Internet than schools whose students are mostly better-off and white.

In schools with high numbers of poor students, 60 percent of classrooms were connected to the Internet, compared with a range of 77 percent to 82 percent for schools with lower concentrations of poverty.

For schools where minority children make up at least 50 percent of the student rolls, 64 percent of classrooms had Internet access. At schools with lower percentages of minority children, 79 percent to 85 percent of classes were linked to the Internet.

"It underscores the importance of continuing the investments we've made until we reach the goal of equal [computer] access for all," Mr. Dickard said of the federal report. "We still have a digital divide in our schools."

Still, in one year, from 1999 to 2000, the proportion of schools with higher percentages of poor students that could access the Internet from their classrooms jumped from 38 percent to 60 percent. For schools with predominantly minority enrollments, that percentage increased from 43 percent to 64 percent during the same period.

After Hours

The NCES surveys about 1,000 public schools each fall about Internet access. For this year's report, the center also queried schools about students' access to computers and the Internet before and after school.

The center, an arm of the U.S. Department of Education, found that 54 percent of schools with Internet access made computers available after or before school. Secondary schools and those schools with more than 1,000 students were more likely than other schools to allow computer use outside regular classroom hours.

Sixty-one percent of schools with a high concentration of minority students made the Internet available after school, compared with 46 percent of schools with a lower percentage of minority students.

Colleen Cordes of the Alliance for Childhood, a College Park, Md.-based partnership that examines the growing pressures in children's lives, contended the quest to pump millions of dollars into computers for young children is a misguided goal.

"Spending money on young children," said Ms. Cordes, a co-coordinator of the alliance's task force on technology and childhood, "is money wasted and is cheating older students."

Vol. 20, Issue 36, Page 5

Published in Print: May 16, 2001, as Schools Post Internet Access Gains, But Disparities Remain
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