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Worcester Schools Burdened By Costly Tech Upgrades

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

 

Education reforms and an increasing reliance on technology are placing a heavier budgetary burden on public schools including Worcester.

Spurred by the adoption of Common Core State Standards and the core-aligned, computer-based test Massachusetts is set to adopt, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), public school districts in the Commonwealth are being required to add growing technology purchases to their spending plans.

What's driving education's technological shift?

“There are a number of drivers, including the move to Common Core education standards, which emphasize computer literacy,” according to Lisa Guisbond, executive director of Citizens for Public Schools, a statewide nonprofit based in Boston.

“Rapid obsolescence is a big and perhaps under-acknowledged issue in all this,” responded Guisbond when queried. She said it was certainly worth questioning the logic behind further technological adoption while teaching staff were laid off around the state and nation.

Replacing decade-old computers a requirement

For the current fiscal year 2014, the Worcester Public Schools committee agreed last fall to a five-year lease plan that replaces all 7,400 computers in the district at an annual cost of $1.2 million.

The next immediate technology hurdle is getting wireless connectivity into every school building.

“Because of the budget challenges we've faced over the past several years, we haven't invested as much in technology as we could have, and probably should have,” said committee member Jack Foley, chair of the finance and operations standing committee.

Through recent budgetary shortfalls, Foley said preserving teaching staff and course offerings had come at the expense of technology and physical facility improvements. That's being corrected now, he said.

“We had no choice but to upgrade and spend that money,” Foley said of the computer upgrade lease plan, which puts the school on a flexible five-year replacement cycle.

Information Technology Officer Bob Walton said the school district made do through years of decreased funding by purchasing refurbished computers.

But given Microsoft's end of support for Windows XP this April, Walton said the district needed to act. More than three quarters of the school's desktop computers were running XP. “In addition, the computers in the district were 10-plus years old in some cases,” Walton added.

Next considerations at WPS include wifi and bandwidth upgrades

Adding wireless connectivity and bandwidth are the next items on the agenda in terms of technology improvements for Worcester. The district is midway through its current three-year technology plan.

“The PARCC test is coming down the pipe and districts need to be prepared for it,” Walton said.

The computer-based PARCC test, billed as a more comprehensive assessment of students' learning, is slated for implementation in 19 states and will replace current paper tests like the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System.

But computers and their infrastructure are more costly than outgoing No. 2 pencils.

Walton said the online test would require more Internet and network bandwidth than schools currently have available. Annual costs to upgrade each throughout the district total $22,000 and $67,000, respectively, after reimbursement through a federal subsidy program known as E-Rate.

While some federal revenue sources like E-Rate exist, state technology entitlement grants ceased several years ago.

Furthermore, 14 school buildings currently do not have building-wide wireless coverage. “There are several problems with the wireless in the district's schools, even in the buildings that have building-wide wireless coverage,” according to Walton, who said most of the technology was approaching the 10-year mark.

Agreement on tech's value in 21st century

Administrators are recommending an additional $565,000 annual allocation to complete “high density” building-wide coverage in all schools. Walton said the impact would “transform the way students and staff can interact with technology.”

Foley said committee members were consciously trying to enhance learning in the classroom. “We have tried to target money for technology that can be used in the classroom appropriately,” Foley said.

“Technology can be something of a black hole” if not purchased wisely, he added.

“Twenty-first century schools need both up-to-date technology and quality professional development for teachers,” responded Paul Toner, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the statewide union and affiliate of the National Education Association and local Educational Association of Worcester. “In the digital era, how teachers teach and how and what students learn is greatly affected by technology. Students who aren't computer-literate when they graduate from high school will be left behind when they go to college or get a job.”

Guisbond said there was widespread recognition of an economic “digital divide” putting low-income students at a disadvantage at school and at home.

“So there is a lot of attention being paid to ensuring that K-12 students have access to various forms of technology in school,” she said. “The move to online Common Core (e.g., PARCC) testing, however, is a particularly big, immediate and controversial driver.”

PARCC transition slowed but moving forward

After debate last November over the assessment changeover at the state board of education, Massachusetts has adopted a two-year transition plan to the PARCC exams.

Guisbond said her organization believes there needs to be a focus on providing equitable access to a well-rounded education meeting the needs of the whole child.

“I think that there is already too much time, money and attention spent on standardized testing in our schools, with little to show for it in terms of moving toward greater equity of access and outcomes,” she said. In other words, affluent students continue to do well while poor students, those with disabilities, and English language learners continue to struggle.

“I am far from convinced that new PARCC, computer-based tests will be worth the added investment and I am concerned that they will actually add to the time spent on testing and test preparation when what we need is a shift away from our current nationwide obsession with standardized testing.“

Bridging the digital divide or heightening it?

“There is a strong case to be made that investment in school technology is a way to address the digital divide and give low-income students access to technology,” Guisbond says. “On the other hand, technology is no substitute for trained staff, including teachers, social workers, school psychologists and librarians, who are increasingly facing the axe in many hard-hit districts.”

With school resources stretched thin, “I think you need to question whether spending millions of dollars on computer access and upgrades should be the priority.”

 

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Average Salary: $69,366

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#18 Sturbridge

Average Salary: $69,580

Salary Totals: $4,703,624

FTE Count: 68

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#17 Nashoba

Average Salary: $70,316

Salary Totals: $17,171,217

FTE Count: 244

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#16 Leicester

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FTE Count: 27

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#12 Blackstone Valley

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Average Salary: $86,826

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#1 Worcester

Average Salary: $89,065

Salary Totals: $141,069,458

FTE Count: 1,584

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