The Homework Gap is Not Just a Rural Problem

It’s been interesting watching the States react to the COVID-19 pandemic. There are headlines from all over the country about how States are taking emergency steps to bring some broadband to rural students using steps like beefing up external broadband at schools, creating temporary hotspots installed in school buses, and giving out computers and hot spots to rural students. These steps are all needed at a time when students are being asked to learn at homes in communities that have no broadband.

It’s easy to forget that there are many more students in our towns and cities without home broadband than rural households. Consider the list of the ten cities with the worst household broadband penetration rates, as compiled by NDIA – the National Digital Inclusion Alliance.

1          Brownsville, TX                     47.13%

2          Pharr, Texas                            46.24%

3          Rossier, LA                             45.30%

4          Lorain, OH                             37.29%

5          Compton, CA                         37.05%

6          Lynwood, CA                         36.19%

7          Newport News, VA                35.58%

8          Shreveport, LA                       35.49%

9          Flint, MI                                  35.16%

10        East Los Angeles, CA            33.06%

Right below this list are plenty of other cities with high numbers of home with no broadband. For example, sitting at number 20 on the list is Memphis, TN at 29.38%. Add to this the staggering statistic from the National Center for Homeless Education that over 1.5 million students are homeless in 2020 and are not counted in the above statistics – a statistic that’s likely to skyrocket due to high unemployment.

Solving the urban homework gap is often a huge challenge due to the sheer number of student homes with no broadband. Getting computers and hotspots for huge numbers or urban students can be an overwhelming problem that cities have been struggling with for years.

We know that lack of home broadband directly correlates to poor performance in school. Earlier this year, the Quello Center at Michigan State University released a definitive study that was able to isolate the lack of home broadband from other factors like poverty. That study showed that:

  • Students with home Internet access had an overall grade point average of 3.18 while students with no Internet access at home had a GPA of 2.81.
  • During the study, 64% of students with no home Internet access sometimes left homework undone compared to only 17% of students with a high-speed connection at home.
  • Students without home Internet access spend an average of 30 minutes longer doing homework each evening.
  • The study showed that students with no Internet at home often had no alternative access to broadband. 35% of students with no broadband also didn’t have a computer at home. 34% of students had no access to alternate sources of broadband such as a library, church, community center, or homes of a neighbor or relative.
  • The most important finding of the study was that there is a huge gap in digital skills for students without home broadband. To quote the study, “The gap in digital skills between students with no home access or cell phone only and those with fast or slow home Internet access is equivalent to the gap in digital skills between 8th and 11th-grade students.” It’s almost too hard to grasp that the average 11th-grade student without home broadband had the equivalent digital skills an 8th grader with home broadband.

A recent article talks about steps that Detroit has been taking to try to bring broadband to more students.

  • A local ISP, 123Net has been bringing gigabit access to southwest Detroit. A pilot project has brought Internet access to a few student homes and the goal is to find funding to expand the initiative.
  • There is a petition drive underway to create a ballot initiative that would ask the public to have the city address the digital divide as a basic city service.
  • The Public Lighting Department has been installing streetlights that come equipped with Internet connectivity. The hope is that over time that low-income neighborhoods can be blanketed with outdoor WiFi.

There are no easy answers for solving the urban homework gap because the issue is generally wrapped into the larger issue of addressing poverty. But as the Quello study points out, it’s vital that we try.

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