My Digital Divide, My School’s Letter Grade, and My Voice

November 24, 2020
Ben Kutylo, Executive Director; and Dr. Malachi Nichols, Director of Evaluation and Data Quality 

The recent rise in COVID-19 cases in Arkansas suggests that the pandemic will continue to alter many Arkansans’ lives for the foreseeable future. This pandemic has uncovered and shed new light on many existing inequities, including the stark need for increased broadband access across our state. Reliable and affordable broadband will continue to be integral to our healthcare system, the economy, and functioning in our post-COVID-19 world. We at ForwARd Arkansas want to help our state gain a better understanding of our reality, and in part two of our three-part series, we shift our focus towards our schools.

In the first installment, the data presented some commonly known patterns found within our nation; areas with a higher concentration of households that struggle to afford and obtain the basic necessities and areas with a larger African American population experience a more extensive digital divide. Many local leaders are embracing their circumstances and implementing creative solutions to address the digital divide for families and students in their communities now. To propel them and the state as a whole forward, we must continue to spotlight and address these community realities and the approaches they are pursuing to address them.

Amid COVID-19, schools were forced to re-examine and change most aspects of how they operate and deliver instruction. We’ve transitioned from a system mostly operated in brick-and-mortar settings through traditional in-person instruction to one that heavily includes digital instruction either through fully remote or hybrid approaches. These methods require the technology infrastructure to effectively educate and fulfill the needs of every student.

But are some schools starting behind the curve? Are there anecdotal claims and patterns which need the power of data to shed light and activate change? What is the “truth” of broadband in our schools?

 

Using the Digital Divide Index (DDI), created by the Center for Regional Development at Purdue University, we produced the interactive Arkansas map below, which presents the DDI and the 2018-19 school letter grades. DDI is expressed as a value between 0 and 100. A higher score on the index indicates a higher digital divide. Through it we examine potential patterns between school letter grades and community broadband access.

In our initial examination of the data outlined in the below graph, we find that the higher the digital divide in the area, the lower the school letter grade. For example, the average digital divide index score for schools that received a school letter grade of D is around 57, compared to the average of 36, for the schools which received an A.

This finding is troubling, especially knowing that the schools with lower academic achievement are also the schools with higher community vulnerability to COVID-19.

We analyzed patterns between school letter grades and the digital divide at a regional level, which are shown below. Ultimately, the regional school broadband experience is not the same. Schools in the Southwest and the Southeast regions experience the most extensive digital divides compared to their counterparts in other areas. This digital divide is even more profound for lower performing schools in these regions.

So yes, some schools appear to be starting a few lengths behind the starting line. But how do the experiences of educators in these communities align with these findings?

Principal Bill Hoglund of Hope High School in Southwestern Arkansas has first-hand knowledge of the disruptive force of the digital divide in his school. In the 2018-19 academic year, Hope High School won two Outstanding Educational Performance Awards for Beating the Odds. Hope ranked in the top five in “high poverty” high schools with the highest student growth in both Math and English Language Arts (ELA) ACT Aspire tests, which means that despite having over 70% of test-takers qualifying for Free and Reduced lunch, these students showed some of the largest academic achievement growth from the previous year.

The sudden transition to online learning in March of 2020 interrupted Principal Hoglund’s efforts to build on their previous year’s progress. Principal Hoglund spoke of several situations where insufficient internet access hindered students in their academics, such as an inability to check email or download class content. His primary concern is ensuring that every student has access to high quality instruction. Hope High School currently offers onsite and virtual-only options and many of their students live in areas where even cell phones don’t work, and without cell phone service, mobile hotspots are ineffective.

We have to be able to get the instruction to every child now – we have to service those kids, it’s the now priority.” – Principal Hoglund

 

You can see how the pandemic and the lack of a sufficient broadband infrastructure impedes previous momentum at Hope High School, and likely other schools working to improve opportunities for the highest need students.

It is not a coincidence that our lower-performing schools, defined by school letter grades, reside in areas with a high digital divide. These relationships suggest that factors outside of school have a significant connection to academic growth and achievement, which we must better understand. The research firm Augenblick, Palaich and Associates (APA), as part of the state’s process of reviewing educational adequacy, recently presented their recommendations, which include the development of a state task force to investigate and address the out-of-school factors that inhibit performance for high-need students.

We, as Arkansans, must continue to aggressively pursue solutions to the broadband issue and other challenges that prevent every student from receiving a high quality learning experience during the pandemic and beyond. The pandemic has placed a spotlight on lack of affordable access to reliable broadband as one such factor that can inhibit performance, though many other factors, some evident and some lurking beneath the surface, influence our communities, schools, and kids’ trajectories. It is up to us to stay informed, and engaged to actively address these challenges to keep students on the right track.

We are eager to learn more about how schools and communities are working to address the digital divide for the benefit of students, teachers and families. Share your stories with us via email at mnichols@forwardarkansas.org.