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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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Comments:

Sandy Williamson

The title of the article should be Worcester Taxpayers Burdened By Costly Tech Upgrades rather than Worcester Schools Burdened By Costly Tech Upgrades. Once the "free" Federal bribes for Common Core are gone, the future costs of Common Core compliance will fall directly on the taxpayers.

Stephen Jacoby

Yes, Common Core has its (BIG!!) problems, but that doesn't mean that the schools don't need - and that the students don't deserve - an upgrade to the technology required to teach and learn in the 21st Century. Even if the city's taxpayers had to foot the entire cost, it would still have to be done. People like the commenter above don't seem to care that, if these upgrades aren't made, Worcester's children are the ones getting the shaft.

Sandy Williamson

Stephen, please don't put words in my comment. What I said was, Worcester taxpayers will have to pay for technology elements associated with unproven Common Standards and the associated PARCC testing. These Standards, and their implementation, were not requested, nor approved in anyway by Worcester taxpayers, the Worcester School Committee, or our State Reps and Senators. Some might call this "taxation without representation". Some folks in the Commonwealth had a problem with that situation about 250 years ago. I suspect many still do, if they think about it.

Stephen Jacoby

Again, you're missing the point. It doesn't matter if Common Core is the impetus for this upgrade or not, it has to happen. And, your comment is factually incorrect. The Common Core standards were implemented by the governors of each participating state (which Massachusetts isn't even one of yet). The city of Worcester's taxpayers may not have been given a choice, but the state as a whole was and the city has to follow it - if it is ever implemented here. Therefore, by the very definition of the word, this is being implemented by people who were elected to do the job. Your argument simply falls apart on that level.

Now, remember that I am not a Common Core supporter. I think the intent was good, but the real world implementation is going to be horrible unless these standardized tests are removed from the equation.

Edward Saucier

Setting educational standards for students across the board in almost all states isn't just one problem. This article only states one. How about kids coming to school hungry, not dressed properly, abused at home, too many kids in a classroom, the kids who need more attention-the list goes on and on.

I'm getting real sick of hearing all the talking heads on TV who think they are the smartest person in the room say: "The U.S. is the richest country in the world." Then say we can't afford to give certain things to certain people unless we take certain things from people who can't afford to lose them. They also say we have to educate our young people in order to compete with the rest of the world, then the tuition costs get raised and the student loan rate double.

Steven Jacoby - you are in an exercise in futility trying to talk common sense to a right-wing republican who does not have a ounce of it, for they are the ones trying to destroy this country, and their standards are set by ALEC.

Sandy Williamson

Stephen, apparently we are missing each other's points here. The point I am making is that Common Core Standards and the testing and other data gathering they bring about will drive technology and other costs even higher than Worcester and other school districts would otherwise spend to upgrade their current technology. It is these incremental dollars that taxpayers have a right to question since they amount to an unfunded liability once the Federal bribe dries up.

As for your assertion regarding implementation by the Governors, this is a common misconception. The Common Core promoters tell us that Common Core Standards were "driven by the states" through the National Governors Association[NGA]. The implication being that the NGA is some official government body. In fact, it is a trade association [http://www.nga.org/cms/about] with no official government power or sanctions other than many Governors are members. If the NGA is such an august body, you might ask yourself when you last heard of anything the NGA did prior to being touted by Common Core supporters?

Lastly, I would be interested to know what is good about the intent of Common Core Standards. Massachusetts is already at or very near the top in K - 12 educational performance. What problem would Common Standards solve for Massachusetts? Are you aware of the data collection on students and families that is intended as part of Common Core implementation? Perhaps you would like to hear from Dr. Sandra Stotsky about Common Core Standards.

Dr. Stotsky is professor emerita at the University of Arkansas, and is credited with developing one of the country’s strongest sets of academic standards for K-12 students, as well as the strongest academic standards and licensure tests for prospective teachers, while serving as Senior Associate Commissioner in the Massachusetts Department of Education from 1999-2003. As a member of the Common Core Validation Committee, Dr. Stotsky was among at least five of about twenty-seven members of the committee that refused to sign off on the standards. Moreover, they compiled a report of the findings that supported their position. Their "minority report" was omitted from the final report, as was the fact that the Validation Committee was less than unanimous in support of the Common Standards for Mathematics and Language Arts. You can learn more about this at many places. Here is a good start: http://www.breitbart.com/Big-Government/2014/01/14/Expert-Dr-Sandra-Stotsky-On-Common-Core-We-Are-A-Very-Naive-People. You can see also stream two back-to-back interviews with Dr. Stotsky from WCCA TV 13. The links are: http://www.wccatv.com/video/activate-worcester/activateworcester39 and http://www.wccatv.com/video/activate-worcester/activateworcester40.

Sandy Williamson

Stephen, One last thing. Ignore Ed.

Stephen Jacoby

My (only) three points:

1.) The up grade is a critical necessity - regardless of it being mandated or voluntary.

2.) At some level, it was elected officials that pulled the trigger on Common Core. It started with "No Child Left Behind" and moved forward from there. (Although "forward" is a debatable term.)

3.) Massachusetts is NOT implementing the Common Core standards yet, and probably won't for some time to come, so this portion of the debate is actually moot. We were one of the very few states in the nation that actually had standards set HIGHER than those in Common Core. We initially signed on to the program, but put the whole thing on hold until the program is fixed - which it never may be.

Lastly, I ignore no one. I might disagree, point out flaws in an argument, call them an idiot if they deserve it, and more, but I do read what they have to say, a courtesy I would hope others extend to me.




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