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OEP and OIE Conference on June 10th – Register Now!

In The View from the OEP on May 20, 2015 at 11:48 am

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The 2015 OEP Conference will be on Wednesday, June 10, 2015 at Heifer International in Little Rock!

We are very excited about partnering with the Office of Innovation for Education on this year’s theme of Student Learning and Assessment.

We will have speakers and panels that focus on understanding current landscape and policies relevant to student learning and assessment. In addition, you will find perspectives regarding where learning and assessment may be headed next!  The conference will be divided into morning and afternoon sessions targeted toward specific audiences: policymakers in the morning and educators (school administrators, principals and teachers) in the afternoon. Morning sessions will start at 9am and afternoon sessions will start at 1pm.

The list of presenters includes:

  • Governor Asa Hutchinson
  • Denise Airola, Director, Office of Innovation for Education, University of Arkansas
  • Hope Allen, Director of Student Assessment, Arkansas Department of Education
  • Alan Lytle, Public School Program Advisor- English Language Learners Assessment Specialist, Arkansas Department of Education
  • Katy Seifritz, Instructional Facilitator, Fayetteville Public Schools
  • Tracy Tucker, Superintendent, Hermitage School District
  • Megan Witonski, Assistant Superintendent for Innovation, Accountability, and STEM, Springdale Public Schools

Lunch will be provided from 11:45-12:45 for those who would like to enjoy cross-audience discussion and Governor Hutchinson as speaker!

There is no cost to attend, but space is limited; DO NOT delay! Register now!

Are there good post-secondary options other than the traditional 4-yr degree?

In The View from the OEP on May 20, 2015 at 10:59 am

Is earning a 4-year degree the pathway to the highest earning potential in a given field? Researchers studying the state of Colorado have sought to answer this and have found that there are varying post-secondary options that take less time than the traditional four-year path, but can be more financially rewarding. Researchers from the American Institutes for Research (AIR) have recently published their research on this topic, entitled “Education Pays in Colorado: Earnings 1,5 and 10 years after college” . Their analysis tracks the yearly earnings of Colorado residents that earned varying degrees or certifications in the state 1, 5 and 10 years after graduation. The authors found that there are numerous options in the state of Colorado for students who are looking for alternatives to achieving a 4-year degree. Perhaps surprisingly, some of these options pay quite well!

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Figure 1 above is a snippet from the AIR study, illustrating the earnings for those at varying educational attainment levels. The figure shows that, during the first five years of their career, those with an Associate Degree in Applied Science have higher earnings than do their peers with Bachelor’s Degrees. Even ten years later, employees with Associate’s degrees ($54,146) earn nearly as much each year as do their peers with Bachelor’s degrees ($55, 287).

If we choose to look at the data on a more micro scale, occupation by occupation, we can pinpoint fields in which those with Associate’s degrees or post-secondary certificates earn particularly good annual wages. Table 1 and 2 below illustrate examples of this.

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Students that have graduated with a 1-2 year certificate in legal support services, criminal justice and corrections, allied health diagnostic, intervention and treatment professions have higher median earnings than the statewide median.

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Table 2 shows that graduates with an associate’s degree of applied science in nursing, allied health diagnostics and fire protection earned more statewide 1, 5 and 10 years after graduation. For a more in depth look at the research, you can read the article posted by American Institutes for Research which illustrates the earning potential of varying degree programs in comparison to each other.

Last year at this time (May 2014), we at the OEP hosted our annual conference on this topic. Our objective for the conference was to encourage conversations among policy makers about innovative ways to prepare all K-12 students for future success. The keynote speaker, Raphael Rosenblatt of “Year Up” spoke of the initiatives they are a part of in Massachusetts, also presenting alternatives to earning 4-year bachelor degrees. He noted that there are those that are low income, primarily people of color, that are unable attend a 4-year college due to varying factors. One of the key phrases in his presentation was: “Sending people to college is not the same thing as preparing them for success in this world.” Therefore, those at Year Up do not simply aim to push participants through college, but also to help the students grow into adults who are able to navigate the challenges of the working world effectively.

Year Up is an organization that seeks to provide every urban young adult with the opportunity to access education, experiences, and the guidance required in order to reach their full potential in the real world. Year Up partners with future employers who highlight the skills needed in a future employee and crafts a program that allows each participant to be embedded with the skill needed to fill those future roles. It has been noted that those that graduate from a 4-year college do not necessarily possess the skills needed to fill those roles.

Year Up is crafted around these parameters to ensure that its participants embody these characteristics needed to be successful at their jobs. Not only do the participants gain college credits through the program, but they are counseled and prepared to effectively interface with the real world and potential employers in the future. Visit the Office for Education Policy website where you will be able to view the presentation by Raphael Rosenblatt in its entirety.

We at the OEP have no idea about the best way to prepare ALL students for college or career, but we are pretty certain that most Arkansas schools have a great deal of room to improve in this area!

Rankings, and status, and grades! Oh my!

In The View from the OEP on May 13, 2015 at 1:01 pm

ltbThe last month has been chock-full of information about how Arkansas schools are performing, and we have gotten a lot of questions about how to interpret the flood of sometimes confusing (and sometimes conflicting) information. Yesterday, U.S. News & World Report released their annual “Best High Schools” rankings, and some folks are wondering what does the ranking mean and how it compares to the A-F letter grades and ESEA school status information released last month?

Our answer: You can only judge the information if you understand what is being measured. This blog post is going to summarize how U.S. News & Wold Report rankings are calculated and compare them to the letter grades and ESEA status information. Arkansas had 102 high schools ranked by U.S News: 1 gold medal, 23 silver medals, and 78 bronze medals. Among the “top 10″ Arkansas high schools, state letter grades ranged from A to C, and nine of the ten were identified as Needs Improvement.  Compared to last year, even our “Best” high schools fell in the national rankings behind other high schools across the country.

First, congratulations to those Arkansas high schools that made the Best High School list!  Below are the Top 10 in Arkansas:

#1: Haas Hall Academy

#2: Bentonville High School

#3: Rogers High School

#4: Lakeside High School

#5: Rogers Heritage High School

#6: Benton County School of the Arts

#7: Parkers Chapel High School

#8: Centerpoint High School

#9: Prairie Grove High School

#10: KIPP: Delta Collegiate High School

What do the U.S. News rankings mean?

Before we answer, keep in mind that the U.S. News rankings are based on state assessment data from the 2012-13 school year, so the ranking is reflecting student performance from nearly 2 years ago. There are three aspects to the ranking: 1) the performance of students on state assessments in literacy and mathematics; 2) the performance of disadvantaged student subgroups; 3) the degree to which high school prepare students for college by offering a college-level curriculum.

Schools must pass the first step by performing better than expected based on their student population in order to continue in the ranking process.

STEP 1: Identify High Schools Performing Better than Expected

To determine if schools are performing better than expected, U.S. News created a Performance Index for each high school by examining student performance on state assessments, and compared it to the percentage of students participating in Free/Reduced Lunch Programs (which are an indicator of low socioeconomic status). This model reflects the understanding that students who face economic challenges outside of school are typically less likely to achieve at the same levels at their peers who do not face economic hardships.  We are going to skip the details, but you can read more about it here.

The figure below represents Arkansas high schools’ school-level Performance Index scores plotted against the school percentage of students participating in Free/Reduced Lunch Programs. usnews2Blue dots on the graph represent schools performing higher than expected, red dots are schools performing as expected, and green dots represent high schools performing lower than expected given the percentage of students participating in FRLP (FYI- we would have made the color-coding more representative of performance!)

The blue dot on the far left side is easily identified as Haas Hall because they are the only high school in the state that reports 0% of students participating in FRLP. The Performance Index for Haas Hall is 140, which is 20 points above the expected performance. As you move to the right side of the graph, the percentage of students participating in FRLP increases. At the far right hand side of the graph are dots representing schools with 100% of students participating in FRLP. The highest blue dot on the right hand side shows a school whose enrollment is entirely low-income, but whose Performance Index is nearly 40 points higher than expected!

Only schools whose Performance Index is ABOVE the light blue performance zone are represented by blue dots and passed on to the next step. This is the critical step for Arkansas high schools. The majority of Arkansas schools do no pass this step, and are unranked. This year, 110 (39%) of Arkansas high school were performing above expectations and move on to Step 2 of the ranking.

STEP 2: Identify High Schools Performing Better than State Average for Their Least Advantaged Students

For this step, the performance of African American, Hispanic and economically disadvantaged students on the state assessments are compared to state averages.  Schools where these disadvantaged students are performing as well or better than state averages are automatically considered bronze-medal high schools and move on to Step 3 of the ranking to determine silver or gold medal.

STEP 3: Identify High Schools That Performed Best in Providing Students with Access to Challenging College-Level Coursework

For this final step, the participation of 12th grade students in AP or IB examinations is examined.

How do the rankings compare to  ESEA status and letter grades? 

Rankings, status and letter grades are based on different years and different models, so they aren’t directly comparable but may add to the understanding of a school’s performance over two years and multiple measures of performance.

The Big Difference is that the letter grades and status are based on the most recent data (from 2013-14), while the the U.S. News rankings are based on state assessment data from the 2012-13 school year.

Another difference is that letter grades (A-F) for high schools incorporate graduation rate for high schools!  The number of performance targets being met by the school and the gap between at-risk students and their peers who are not at risk are also considered in the letter grade model. If you want to know more details about the letter grades, read our policy brief.

ESEA status measures if schools are meeting individualized performance targets, and assigns Achieving only to schools that are meeting all performance targets.

Even though the data are from different years and use different criteria, we know that you are still interested in the letter grades and status for those top 10 high schools in the state, so they are presented below:

Arkansas Ranking (US News): School Name: A-F Letter Grade: ESEA Status

#1: Haas Hall: A: Achieving

#2: Bentonville High School: B: Needs Improvement

#3: Rogers High School: B: Needs Improvement

#4: Lakeside High School: A: Needs Improvement

#5: Rogers Heritage High School: C: Needs Improvement

#6: Benton County School of the Arts: A: Needs Improvement

#7: Parkers Chapel High School: B: Needs Improvement

#8: Centerpoint High School: C: Needs Improvement

#9: Prairie Grove High School: C: Needs Improvement

#10: KIPP: Delta Collegiate High School: B: Needs Improvement

So…what does it all mean?

It is challenging to measure school performance. There are lots of different models, and to determine if it is important to you and your community you need to understand what is being measured.

It is not surprising that there is variation between the U.S. News rankings, the letter grades, and status given that they use different data and represent different criteria. It is interesting that there are no ‘D’ or ‘F’ schools in the top 10. It is also informative that only 1 of the “top 10″ schools were identified as Needs Improvement under ESEA status, reflective of how few schools across the state were identified as Achieving in 2014. This is one of the reasons why here at the OEP, we appreciate the Letter Grades – it includes more varied criteria and provides more information about student performance than “Needs Improvement.”

In the same thought, we like the U.S. News rankings because it provides information that can be helpful! We want to know which high schools are performing better than expected, serving their most disadvantaged students and preparing kids for college. We also like being able to compare to other high schools across the country.  It is a somewhat clumsy comparison, howvever, since each state currently uses a different test to measure performance, and we look forward to the day when cross- state comparisons are facilitated by common assessments. We DON’T like that the data used by U.S. News are nearly two years old and hope that stakeholders will keep that in mind as they search for their school on the “Best” list.

2015 OEP Conference Registration Is Open!

In The View from the OEP on May 13, 2015 at 12:45 pm

The 2015 OEP Conference will be on Wednesday, June 10, 2015 at Heifer International in Little Rock!

We are very excited about partnering with the Office of Innovation for Education on this year’s theme of Student Learning and Assessment. We will have speakers and panels that focus on understanding current landscape and policies relevant to student learning and assessment. In addition, you will find perspectives regarding where learning and assessment may be headed next!

The conference will be divided into morning and afternoon sessions targeted toward specific audiences: policymakers in the morning and educators (school administrators, principals and teachers) in the afternoon. Morning sessions will start at 9am and afternoon sessions will start at 1pm.

Lunch will be provided from 11:45-12:45 for those who would like to enjoy cross-audience discussion and Governor Hutchinson as speaker!

There is no cost to attend but space is limited, so do not delay! Register now!

Broadband in Arkansas Schools Picking Up Speed

In The View from the OEP on May 13, 2015 at 10:02 am

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Arkansas public schools will be getting faster, more secure and cost-effective Internet access through a seemingly unlikely source… APSCN.  More than 20 telecommunication contractors will begin work this summer to connect the state’s school districts to the aggregate network using fiber optic cable, an effort that gained momentum from an influx of federal funds to improve all students’ access to technology-based learning. Most districts will be connected by the end of the 2015-16 school year, and the overall project will be completed by July 2017, according to a joint news release from the state’s information systems and education agencies.

No one disputed that Arkansas schools needed better broadband to prepare students to prosper in a high-tech world, but studies sponsored by various interests differed on the best way to structure and pay for a system that can grow along with the demand. DIS Director Mark Myers and ADE Commissioner Johnny Key wrote in a recent editorial that Governor Asa Hutchinson instructed their departments to pursue the statewide aggregated network approach.

The Arkansas Public Schools Computer Network began in 1992 as an administrative tool for school districts and ADE, an era when the need for Internet service to every child in every classroom seemed extravagant. APSCN eventually added Internet access to its service offerings, but districts turned to private providers for additional bandwidth when demand outgrew the capacity of the APSCN system.

Though DIS and ADE routinely sought bids for Internet service, the invitation this spring was more attractive to vendors of all sizes who could bid to provide service to any number of districts and for multi-year contracts that would allow cost increases as demand grows.  The state’s effort is aimed at connecting school districts to central hubs around the state, and districts are responsible for connecting their schools to the district hub. Most of the cost is expected to be reimbursed through federal funding, including e-rate dollars.

Work is set to begin July 1, and Arkansas schools may soon lead the nation in offering computer science education and the infrastructure to make it happen.

Save the Date for the OEP Conference: June 10

In The View from the OEP on April 29, 2015 at 12:22 pm

save the date

Mark your calendars for the 2015 OEP Conference on Wednesday, June 10, 2015 at Heifer International in Little Rock! We are very excited about partnering with the Office of Innovation for Education on this year’s theme of Student Learning and  Assessment. The final agenda is still under wraps, but we will have speakers and panels that focus on understanding current landscape and policies relevant to student learning and assessment.  In addition, you will find perspectives regarding where learning and assessment may be headed next!

The conference will be divided into morning and afternoon sessions targeted toward specific audiences: policymakers in the morning and educators (school administrators, principals and teachers) in the afternoon. Lunch will be provided for those who would like to enjoy cross-audience discussion and education speaker!

Help us spread the word! Also, please let us know if you have topics that you are interested in learning more about. Hope to see you there!

Arkansas Teachers on Common Core: Should It Stay or Should It Go?

In The View from the OEP on April 29, 2015 at 12:10 pm

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Listen to your Teacher!

Arkansas teachers share their knowledge and expertise daily with students throughout the state – and this week we at the OEP are pleased to share their opinions about Common Core State Standards with you!

OEP fielded a survey over the past two months asking Arkansas teachers to share their opinions about the impact of Common Core State Standards (CCSS) on student learning and on their attitudes toward their work. In addition, teachers were asked questions regarding the implementation of CCSS and the associated assessment. Over 975 teachers from 60 randomly selected Arkansas districts have shared their thoughts. 

The Governor’s Council on Common Core Review has begun considering recommendations it will make regarding the future of CCSS in Arkansas, and we feel it is critical that teacher voices are included in the conversation. Last week we had the opportunity to share preliminary results of this survey with the Council and are excited to share the results with you.

Findings from the Teacher Survey on Common Core State Standards

Today’s policy brief examines the results more thoroughly, but we present the highlights here:

Student Learning:  The majority of teachers responded positively regarding the Common Core Standards. Teachers reported that:

  • CCSS are more rigorous than the previous standards (92%)
  • CCSS are more helpful than previous standards in preparing students academically (62%)
  • Given the choice, teachers would keep the CCSS in their school curriculum (61%)

Teachers reported that they feel CCSS will lead to improved student learning for the majority of their students, although they are concerned that students who are working below grade level, are special education and/or English language learners will not benefit from CCSS.

Teacher Attitudes:  Teachers indicated that the work they had done to implement CCSS had made them better teachers (63%), but they report that teaching is more stressful than in prior years (74%).

Implementation: Teachers reported that they have read the Common Core standards for their grade level/ content area (99%), have attended professional development about CCSS (95%), and felt that CCSS was implemented well at their school (72%).

Assessment: Teachers reported disliking the assessment associated with CCS implementation (87%) but were not unified in their perceptions regarding what type of assessment, if any, they would recommend.

Some teachers were less supportive of CCSS than others. Do you think more experienced teachers were more or less supportive of Common Core? Were teachers from larger districts more or less supportive than teachers from smaller districts? Read the brief to find out!

Although the preliminary results indicate the majority of teachers support CCSS, this is a controversial topic. It is critically important that policy makers listen to the opinions of teachers in the classrooms throughout our state. We hope this Teacher Survey on Common Core has allowed their voices to be heard and that they will continue to be involved in this important conversation.

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About the Survey

Beginning on February 26, 2015, the Office for Education Policy sent an electronic survey invitation to Arkansas teachers to gather information on their perceptions about the Common Core Standards. The survey consisted of 40 questions addressing the impact of CCSS on student learning and teacher attitudes toward their work, as well as CCSS implementation and the associated testing.

The sample of 2,795 teachers selected to receive the survey invitation teach English language arts and/or mathematics in grade three through high school in one of 60 selected public school districts in Arkansas. Districts were identified through a stratified, random sampling procedure. Stratification was based on 2013-14 assessment results and district size. Each region of the state was represented in the sample roughly in proportion to its student enrollment. Details about the respondents can be found in the policy brief.

Teachers were contacted directly through an email that included a link to the survey. Teachers could enter to win one of three $100 gift cards upon completion of the survey. As of April 28, 2015, 975 teachers had responded to the survey resulting in a response rate of 34.9%.

While we would prefer a higher response rate from teachers so we could ensure that the opinions are representative of Arkansas teachers, 35% is higher than other published teacher surveys on Common Core.

 

Legislative Summary: Education Policy in the 2015 General Session

In AR Legislature, The View from the OEP on April 17, 2015 at 2:43 pm

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The 2015 legislative session will formally adjourn next week, but most of the hard work wrapped up on April 9. The policy brief that OEP published today highlights the major pieces of K-12 legislation that passed through the House and Senate education committees in the past few weeks. In reflecting on the conversations from these meetings and the issues described in the brief, we thought about at least three dynamics working beneath the surface of education policy: its personal nature, its connection between our past and future, and its role in the larger scheme.

Personal nature. The formalities of policymaking can seem cold and impersonal. Bills are written according to strict standards to pass legal muster. Floor debates and committee discussions follow formal, orderly procedures. Sitting (or standing) in the audience, though, brings to mind that education policy is intensely personal.

Education policy is about us and the people we love. We remember learning to write our names in cursive, memorizing important dates in history, and penciling in the bubble sheet of a standardized test. Our lives revolve around our children’s daily achievements and struggles, sometimes taking place in the same classrooms where we sat back in the day. Education policy is personal to the legislator who recalls her mother teaching 3rd grade and taking tickets at ballgames, her father coaching and driving the bus. It’s personal to the parent who goes to the school each day to personally give medication to his child.

Connecting past and future. Education policy ties together where we’ve been and where we’re going. Students today need to be able to read the original Declaration of Independence penned in cursive and have proficient keyboarding skills to take tests electronically. School nurses still put Band-Aids® on scraped knees, but they also administer life-saving medications, suction feeding tubes, and monitor students with eating disorders. Students who learn to weld in shop class may well put the skill to use in a high-paying job that’s part of the global economy. These examples and more came up in recent education committee meetings.

The larger scheme. Like many parts of our lives, policy content is divided into categories and examined in isolation. We couldn’t help but notice in the policy brief, though, how many education bills pertain to health, community prosperity, and job creation and preparation. Education, economic development, and public health are interwoven systems that we tend to address separately and expect to work in synchrony.

As you read the 2015 Legislative Summary, consider education policy for its personal nature, its connection of past to future, and its place in the larger scheme, along with your own observations.

School Grades Are In!

In The View from the OEP on April 15, 2015 at 2:06 pm

Report Card

Today the School Performance Reports for 2014 were released by the Arkansas Department of Education.  For the first time schools received A-F letter grades just like their students.  How did our schools do?

As it turns out, most Arkansas schools are doing pretty well! The chart below shows the number of schools receiving each letter grade.

grades

Fifteen percent of Arkansas schools received an “A”, but the majority of Arkansas schools (66%) received a grade of  “B”  or  “C”.  Only fifteen percent of schools received a “D” and four percent received an “F.”

Similarly to the letter grades that a student receives from their teacher, school letter grades are an overview of several different performance measures.  Letter grades for schools represent four main indicators of school performance, and each component is explained in today’s policy brief.

Unlike ESEA accountability measures, letter grades represent a broader spectrum of information and are more equitable to schools. The information is also a lot more helpful to parents.  Compare the two pie charts: on the left is letter grades and on the right is ESEA labels.  When 94% of Arkansas schools are identified as Needs Improvement, the label becomes relatively meaningless.

LGESEA

Although more meaningful than Needs Improvement, interpreting the letter grades can still be challenging to stakeholders. What kind of grade should parents expect?  We all know that an “A” is better than an “F”, but what about all the grades in between?

We at the OEP find it helpful to think about school grades just like we think about student grades.  We (try to) always interpret our own kids’ grades by asking three questions:

  • Is the grade better or worse than we expected given what we know about our kid and the context of the grade? Maybe science just isn’t his strength- but he is doing great in reading.
  • If it is worse- what exactly is the problem area? Not turning in homework is different than not understanding the material on a test.
  • What can we do to help?

Got an “A”: The High Achievers!

The highest performing schools in the state received an “A” grade, even though they may have missed some points for achivement gap or not meeting all performance tagets. This can be likened to a high performing student who may get “A”s even without completing all homework or being awarded extra credit. “A” schools are doing very well but should stay motivated, so their students continue to improve.

“B”s and “C”s: On Track but could improve…

Schools receiving “B”s or “C”s should carefully examine their data to identify specific areas for improvement. Each component of the letter grade system can significantly raise or lower the overall score for schools where students are performing well but are not in the “A” range.  Just like “B” and “C” students, every score is important to maintain passing grades for these schools.  Meeting performance targets is very important and the achievement gap/ graduation gap adjustments can have a substantial impact on the overall grade. Schools receiving “B”s or “C”s should carefully examine their data to identify specific areas for improvement.  Communicating successes and growth areas will help the community support the continued improvement for the school.

“D”s and “F”s: Time for A Parent/Teacher Conference

Schools receiving “D”s or “F”s are facing many challenges in terms of student performance.  These schools are in the bottom 20% of schools in the state.  Schools should take immediate measures to ensure improvement. Collaboration with supporters based on identified areas of need and continuous evaluation of progress are critical interventions.

Policy Recommendations

While we applaud the intent of Act 696 to make school performance easier for parents to understand, the OEP has several recommendations to improve its use.

Make it easier to access letter grades and the data. The letter grades are buried deep in the Arkansas School Performance Report Cards, which are anything but user-friendly. We appreciate the parent handout and video, but without easy access to letter grades and the detailed values used in their determination, parents will continue to be left wondering what the label means about their school’s performance.

Move toward national comparisons. Letter grades are relevant only within the state and are not comparable across the county. Arkansas needs to think more broadly about measuring student achievement, and Common Core State Standards and PARCC assessments are a step in the right direction.

Address the achievement gap. The magnitude of the average achievement gap between at-risk and not at-risk students is staggering at nearly 20 percentage points. We hope these previously unreported data serve as a wake up call to school leaders and stakeholders. Arkansas needs to focus on the success of all Arkansas students.

Most importantly, let’s not get too caught up in the grades.  Just like we do as parents we need to instead focus on the individual student in the classrooms.  Our goal is not for everyone to get an “A”, but for every student to experience the most effective learning environment every day.

 

 

Broadband Access in Arkansas

In The View from the OEP on April 8, 2015 at 11:49 am

broadband

Today’s blog and policy brief is about Internet connections for K-12 schools in Arkansas. Here at the OEP we use the Internet a lot for communication, research, and to keep up with events throughout the country. Our Internet connection is fast and reliable, invisibly supporting our work.

For many K-12 schools throughout Arkansas, however, Internet connections are slow, unreliable and expensive.  Arkansas’ schools need access to improved broadband connectivity. The Digital Learning Act, upcoming computer science curriculum expansion and computer-based assessments depend on quality internet connections for student success. While more Arkansas districts meet the standard for internet connections recommended by the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) than the national average (58% of Arkansas districts vs. 37% nationally), this still leaves 230,000 students without adequate access.

Six weeks ago, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reclassified the Internet as a public utility, setting the stage for greater competition and access throughout the country.  Last month, Arkansas’ Department of Information Services opened bidding for High Bandwidth Transport and Internet, opening the door to the competition for providing broadband access to K-12 schools thoughout the state.  Work is scheduled to begin in July, with all K-12 schools having sufficient internet access by June, 2017.

While most of us use the Internet regularly, we don’t necessarily understand the details of how it works, what costs are associated with providing it to schools, and all the implications of specific policies. According to a letter sent to district superintendents, under the new RFP, the state will cover the cost of providing Internet access to district hubs, and school districts would be responsible for the costs associated with connecting individual buildings from those hubs.

The research studies conducted so far (QDLS, ESH and CT&T) provide lots of details about current internet connections in Arkansas districts and costs associated with student access. While it is a complicated issue, it seems to us that Arkansas needs to invest some money in ensuring fast, reliable internet access to its students. Due to the research of broadband, testimonials, and recommendations form the studies conducted, fiber optic Internet seems to be the best way to provide the needed connection to schools and students. Arkansas has a fiber optic network already connecting the state’s colleges, health centers, and emergency centers.  This network, called Arkansas Research and Education Optical Network (ARE-ON), is currently off-limits to K-12 schools, but could serve as a backbone for broadband access across the state if the current exclusion in Act 1050 was lifted.

To us here at the OEP, there still seems to be many moving pieces in this process. A thoughtful step forward might be trial implementations in sample districts of varying sizes and locations.  The information gained from these trial districts could provide valuable tips to successful statewide implementation of broadband.

Even when broadband access is expanded, challenges lie ahead. First, internet is useless if schools do not have the infrastucture within the schools to connect to the state provided district hubs.  Second, students and staff need devices to connect to the Internet. Third, teachers, administrators, and support staff need to be able to make use of fast broadband access and up-to-date devices. In addition, districts will need to revamp their acceptable use policies and ensure that schools have effective firewalls that prevent students from accessing inappropriate content or illegally downloaded media.

Arkansas educators are working hard every day to prepare students for success in college and careers, and schools need fast, consistent Internet connections to support student learning. The Digital Learning Act and computer-based assessments require improved broadband for students to participate. While there will be some significant investment required by the state and local districts as well, connecting all K-12 schools through fiber optic Internet would set Arkansas up to be a leader in available technology and connectivity for K-12 students. Providing fast, consistent Internet connections to all Arkansas students is an investment that can’t wait.

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