USA Today: Opinion Column by Mignon Clyburn – June 28, 2013
Loris, S.C., which is just over 100 miles from where I grew up, is about as out-of-the-way as it gets. But this Eastern seaboard town of about 2,400 is at the cutting edge of the movement to modernize U.S. education and make sure young Americans have the skills they need to succeed in the digital age.
Almost half of the children in Loris live in poverty, and the leaders of the local elementary school have made a bet that technology can be their ticket out. Every student in grades 3 through 5 has been assigned a laptop loaded with learning software.
Teachers are using digital tools to assess each student's progress in real time and offer differentiated instruction to meet each student's individual needs. One year into this program, its yielding results. Test scores are up, and in state rankings of similar schools, Loris Elementary rose from 41st into the top 20. We see similar stories of how technology can revolutionize education in select schools across the country.
Unfortunately, these stories are the exception, not the rule. As the bipartisan Leading Education by Advancing Digital Commission warned earlier this month, "While technology fundamentally improves nearly every aspect of our lives, it plays a minor role in education." American schools were designed for a different era.
Meanwhile, other countries such as Korea are going all-in on digital learning. We should do the same. We need to make sure every child in America has access to the tools they need to compete.
America is still the land of opportunity, and no child should miss out on the best educational opportunities because of her zip code or socioeconomic status. We need to ensure this because the U.S. will fall behind in the 21st century if our classrooms don't evolve beyond a 19th century model.
But here's the rub. Even if every school in America had the latest digital learning technologies tomorrow, most U.S. schools wouldn't have the bandwidth necessary to fully utilize them. In a Federal Communications Commission survey of schools and districts, nearly half of respondents reported lower speed Internet connectivity than the average American home, despite having 200 times as many users. You don't need a digital textbook to know that the math just doesn't add up.
Not surprisingly, 80% of schools and districts surveyed also reported that their broadband speeds don't meet their teaching needs.
Earlier this month, President Obama visited Mooresville (N.C.) Middle School, where he called for bold action to close our education system's bandwidth deficit. His ConnectED initiative calls on the FCC to bring high-speed Internet to 99% of U.S. students within five years.
We can meet the president's goal by modernizing our successful E-Rate program.
Thanks to the leadership of Senator Jay Rockefeller and others, E-Rate was established in 1996 as a public-private partnership that represents the federal government's largest education technology program.It has successfully connected 97% of U.S. classrooms to the Internet -- Loris Elementary itself has benefited from this program -- and in 2010 we took several initial steps to cut red tape in the program and help schools get faster speeds for less money. But now is the time for a more significant revamp.
Friday, I am submitting a proposal to my fellow FCC commissioners to modernize our E-rate program to ensure all of our children and their teachers, access to the best learning technology.
But first, we need clear goals to modernize the program and I propose three, leading with providing our schools and libraries with affordable access to high capacity broadband. We must maximize the cost effectiveness of purchases made using E-Rate support to ensure that we are meeting our broadband goals at the lowest possible cost. And we need to ensure the administrative efficiency of the program.
Second, we have to revitalize the program to ensure it is efficiently targeted to those goals. We must be data-driven, and willing to follow the data wherever it leads, including taking a hard look at where we're spending money today. And, we have to consider how best to distribute funding fairly, consider eliminating support for outdated services, and reallocate any savings toward investments in more bandwidth.
Third, we need to use this opportunity to bring to the table state and local officials, foundations, network operators and innovators building the next generation of learning tools and content. We must leverage the ongoing massive private investments in networks and ensure that investments in connectivity are the foundation for real positive change in classrooms. To do that, all stakeholders need to be working hand-in-hand.
My colleagues and I will be calling on all interested parties to share their success stories, challenges and best ideas for ensuring that our E-rate program fulfills its promise.
It is the beginning of a journey, but the FCC must get underway. It's time to step up our commitment to today's and tomorrow's students to ensure continued U.S. leadership in our 21st century knowledge economy.
Mignon L. Clyburn is acting chairwoman of the Federal Communications Commission