John Richard Schrock: Digital textbooks unfair to low-income kids

10/11/2012 12:00 AM

10/10/2012 5:39 PM

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s proclamation last week that American schools should convert to 100 percent digital textbooks revealed again how he is isolated from the American public classroom and economically poor students.

One presidential candidate apologized for his “47 percent” problem. This is Duncan’s “40 percent” problem.

Four in 10 American households are not connected to broadband Internet. Access is not spread evenly. Households and schools in the affluent suburbs of Johnson County may be close to 100 percent connected. Many western Kansas rural school districts may have less than half of households connected. And 6 percent of the most remote households, rich or not, are beyond the reach of any broadband Internet.

The cost of buying a computer to keep up with new software and demands for Internet speed and memory requires an affluent income in a recession economy.

Since 2008, a flood of data has shown the growing number of schoolchildren who live in poverty. A substantial number do not have enough to eat. It should be evident to school administrators who work outside of the rich suburbs that large numbers of households lack computers and Internet connections.

Yet after I wrote a commentary a couple of months ago about how only 60 percent of students have Internet access, I received responses from teachers and parents across the state saying that some Kansas school administrators already had moved teaching materials online, in some cases to cover their shortfall in textbooks. When I asked how they were providing for the students who lack Internet at home, the response was that these students would have to work online during a study period or after school in the school computer lab.

Consider just how unfair it would be if richer students got to take their books and study materials home after school but a poor student could not. Yet this switch to electronics does exactly that. The rich kid gets the advantages of homework and help from parents, while the poor kid is restricted to gaps in school time.

What really bites is that Kansas parents pay book-rental fees, but now their children are not getting what they paid for.

Duncan wants electronic textbooks because South Korea and Finland have decided to move that direction. But neither country has the poverty found in the United States, and both are committed to put the electronics into every student’s hands and at home. And they have zero proof that this will benefit students.

But some Kansas administrators adopted their electronic textbook policy well before Duncan’s proclamation last week. They live in a world that substitutes the images of progress for the substance. Many have been spending big bucks for electronic “whiteboards” for every classroom, whether or not the teachers asked for them.

Unfortunately, Internet access is not equal to printed texts and does not improve test scores. In a 2010 study of 150,000 fifth- through eighth-graders by researchers at Duke University, home computer use was linked with lower student test scores, and the problem was worse for low-income students.

In many Kansas communities, citizens have organized to provide “backpack food” to send home with poor students who do not get enough to eat.

They should not have to raise more funds to send students home with a real textbook. That is the school’s responsibility.

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