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Educational Equity Issues in an Information Age

by Dennis Sayers - 1995

Equity in access to educational resources faces new challenges in the age of technology, with great disparity in access to educational technology. The article proposes an alternative direction for equity of access to global learning networks as a catalyst for genuine educational reform that upholds civil rights law. (Source: ERIC)

Equity in access to educational resources faces new challenges in our age of rapid technological change, threatening to produce a society of information “haves” and “have-nots” through schools where disparity in access to educational technology is already glaring. These challenges occur at a time when efforts toward the privatization of the “information superhighway” and of public schools themselves have dominated the discourses on public policy. An alternative direction is proposed for equity of access to global learning networks as a catalyst for genuine educational reform that preserves the legacies of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, and Lau v. Nichols.

Forty years ago, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, affirmed the principle of equity of access to educational resources. Twenty years later the Lau v. Nichols decision laid the groundwork for equity of access to educational resources and instruction appropriate to language-minority students’ learning needs.1 I will argue that threats to these decisions are arising on a new and, for many, unfamiliar terrain, an arena where important decisions likely to affect all educators, parents, students, and concerned citizenry—and especially those concerned with minority and language-minority education—are now being made daily. Worse, these irreversible decisions are largely going unquestioned. They involve access to computer networking and telecommunications.

For readers of the print mass media in every industrialized country, the rumblings surrounding the construction of the “information superhighway” have been fairly constant over the last few years. Generally, the popular press either (a) heralds the advent of the Internet or (b) discusses maneuvers by the communications industry to control access to—and take tolls on—activity conducted over international computer networks. Key examples include the special number of the Nation ominously entitled “The ‘Information Highway’—Who will control it?” and the Wall Street Journal special section, “Wired,” a twenty-eight page insert, with ordering information for accompanying disks, and including articles with such headings as “Chasing the Gold.”2

It is clear that we are witnessing the same scramble for gatekeeping rights over a powerful communications technology that is similar in scope and import to the introduction of telegraphy, the telephone, radio, motion pictures, or television; indeed, since this technology promises to dwarf and subsume all these previous communications technologies, the stakes are quite high and the bidders numerous. Most disturbing of all, the present administration in Washington is auctioning off segments of the information bandwidth to the highest corporate bidders, selling for a “quick fix” of billions of dollars what is essentially an irreplaceable commodity that will garner trillions of dollars in profits for corporations in perpetuity.2 Meanwhile, discussion of safeguarding the free access of educators to what amounts to a national natural resource is notably absent, and hastens the day when schools, like society at large, will be delineated as “information haves” and “have-nots.”

In her review of recent research on computer equity issues, Delia Neuman discusses not only computers but also “teleconferencing, interactive television, electronic mail, and expanded telecommunications networks,” and warns that

despite the promise of emerging technology, it is important to remember that technology and equity are not inevitable partners. . . . The literature on computer equity reveals that many students—not only minority, disadvantaged, and inner-city but also female, handicapped, and rural—have been hampered by inequitable access to computers and by widespread patterns of inequitable distribution and use of computers within and across schools.3

How technology is used and who gets to use it are realities that tend to conform to the broader pedagogical orientations that prevail within schools. Put another way, schools as they are presently constituted show a remarkable ability to conduct business as usual—with or without computers, and whether networked or not.

The gaps between the technological haves and have-nots are glaring. While an increasing number of computers are being placed in schools, early surveys reported wealthy districts with a 54:1 student-computer ratio while poor ones had a ratio of 73:1, and more recent surveys show this pattern persisting.4 Female students and those from low-income and ethnic and linguistic minorities tend not to have the same access to computers as do their male, middle-income, nonminority counterparts.5 Generally, the more exciting programs are reserved for students in the upper tracks; when lower-track and minority students do get access, they are much more likely to be assigned to drill-and-practice rather than to problem-solving activities.6 In recent years, high-level administrators of school districts with many “at-risk” students—that is, with large numbers of culturally diverse students from immigrant and racial and ethnic minority backgrounds—have been targeted for the marketing of “computer-managed instructional systems” that dispense programmed lessons throughout each specially wired school. Here “learning” consists of pressing the keys “a,” “b,” “c,” or “d” in response to cartoon graphics and robotlike voices.7

I want to make clear that my position advocating equity of access to computers and networking resources is not one that champions the curative powers of technology as the remedy for all that ails today’s schools. The unalloyed boosterism of many uncritical advocates of educational technology is all too commonplace. Virtually all popular writing on the place of computers and telecommuncations in education, including magazines and journals that target educators as their principal readership, are full of untested assumptions, void of research backing or any theoretical discussion based on modern learning theories, touting the unquestioned virtues of classroom computers as machines that can be programmed to teach students, thus “freeing up” educators to do more important work than mere teaching.

Rather, I wish to signal the danger to the legacy of Brown and Lau posed by a second group of educational technology advocates who collectively advance what I view as disturbing proposals that attack the very basis of public-funded education. These proposals fall into two categories: (a) those that link high-tech classrooms with the conservative campaign to promote “school choice” through student vouchers, that is, vouchers with a cash value that can be “spent” by parents in the public or private school of their choice, thus eroding public funding for many already desperately underfunded schools; and (b) privatization schemes in which profit-taking corporations are invited to take over the running of schools or, more recently, entire school districts.

Chris Whittle, chairman of Whittle Communications, illustrates both of these tendencies. As Jonathan Kozol details in a Nation article entitled “Whittle and the Privateers,” Whittle has racked up an impressive string of achievements that all point in the direction of privatizing and commercializing education.8 Described by the New York Times as “the impresario of captive-audience marketing,” Whittle has found a huge public-school audience for his commercial television programming effort, Channel One. More than 8 million students—fully a third of all junior and senior high students in the United States, in 12,000 schools located in 47 states—are required to watch twelve minutes of commercial television while attending compulsory public-funded education, a captive audience, indeed!9 While educators everywhere are debating the benefits of a longer school day and increasing the days in the school calendar, schools that sign up with Channel One are dedicating what amounts to an entire school day each year to requiring students to watch commercials.

Whittle has created this massive captive audience by making schools an offer—with important strings attached—that many cannot resist. In return for the installation of a satellite dish on the school’s roof wired to a “free” television monitor installed together with two VCRs in each classroom, a school must agree to require 90 percent of its students to watch the shows first thing in the morning 90 percent of the time. Whittle can afford to make such a generous offer, considering that Channel One brings in $630,000 a day in advertising fees. In fact, his is not such a generous offer as it may appear at first blush: All equipment is leased, and can be confiscated if used for any but Channel One programming.10 But many schools, strapped for human and material resources, have a hard time just saying no.

What kind of schools sign up with Whittle Communications? A study conducted by Michael Morgan of the University of Massachusetts–Amherst has found that urban schools with middle-to-high concentrations of minority and culturally diverse students were more likely to require their students to watch the Whittle Educational Network programming.

Channel One is most often found in schools with the largest proportions of low income, underprivileged students, and in schools that have the least amount of money to spend on conventional educational resources. Ironically, these schools have more high-tech equipment, in no small part due to Whittle Communications’ own contributions, but they invest substantially less in teachers, texts, or other instructional materials. The relationship between spending on texts or other instructional resources and accepting Channel One is especially striking: Channel One is apparently used instead of traditional materials when resources are scarcest. Schools that can afford to spend more on their students are much less likely to utilize Channel One.11

These often are the same school systems, as noted previously, whose superintendents are targeted for direct sales of expensive computer-managed instructional systems, another technological quick fix.

Just as troubling as Channel One is the Edison Project, Whittle’s next venture into technology-mediated education. The Edison Project first proposed a chain of 1,000 technology-intensive private schools, but financing woes at Whittle Communication have forced a shift in focus to securing contracts to run public schools instead. Each private school, Kozol wrote, was to have

charge[d] tuition of $5,500—roughly the same as the national average spent per pupil in the public schools. In order to cut costs, Whittle proposes saving on teacher salaries by using volunteers, classroom aides and computerized instruction, and he proposes using the students themselves to do some of the work of school custodians.12

Even though Whittle abandoned his plans in 1993 to build a chain of private schools as too-rapid expansion led to loss of confidence from his financial backers, it is important to understand how his original proposal contained the seeds of a “taxpayers’ revolt” against public education. Kozol warned in 1992:

Once a handful of Whittle’s schools exist—and, with the corporate funds he has available, the first schools he opens are likely to be dazzling creations—they may well be exploited as a further selling point for vouchers. Parents, he says, who already “pay tax dollars” for the public schools, “are going to have to make a decision about whether they want to pay twice.” Whittle undoubtedly hopes that the parents of the children he enrolls—and the favorable press he orchestrates—will generate a national demand for the diversion of tax money into private education.13

However, after $60 million invested in research and development, the Edison Project has yet to open the first of its initially projected one thousand private schools. Trying to make do with less, Whittle turned to the public-school sector in an effort to lower the costs of educating each pupil in the Edison Project from $5,500 by using taxpayer-financed schools as its “plant,” while still requiring public schools to ante up $3,000 per pupil for the Edison Project’s technology-intensive curriculum. Yet not a single contract has been negotiated with a public school system.14 However, Whittle’s competitor in the public-school privatization market, John Golle of Educational Alternatives, Inc. (EAI), has succeeded where Whittle has faltered. Since 1991, Golle’s company, again relying heavily on educational technology to keep payroll costs down, has managed single public schools for a profit in a dozen communities around the country, and in 1992 landed a contract with the Baltimore Public Schools to run nine schools. Golle hit the privatization jackpot in another eastern city, convincing the school board of Hartford, Connecticut, to turn over all of its thirty-two schools to EAI’s control, beginning with the 1994–1995 school year.15

Whittle, Golle, and others have many conservative allies in this technology-intensive effort to undermine public-funded education. The board of directors of the Edison Project is headed by Benno Schmidt, former president of Yale University, and includes Chester Finn, former Bush and Reagan appointee to numerous posts, and John Chubb, a principal proponent of school vouchers. Diane Ravitch, former assistant secretary of education in the Bush administration, has written an article in the Economist devoted entirely to the implications of the “information superhighway” for the future of education. In the high technology of the future, with 500 cable channels available and vast networked computer resources, she asks:

Will it matter if state systems [of public-funded schools] are replaced by something else? . . . In future, the state “system” is likely to be different. Instead of a programme of publicly funded schools administered uniformly by a bureaucracy, it is likely to become a mechanism for allocating public money to improve and promote education, which will take place in variety of institutions and settings. . . . Some schools will be adjacent to the workplace, so that parents and children can go to work and go home together. Others may be administered by religious organizations or universities. Some will have private boards of trustees, much as colleges and other quasi-public agencies. All may be part of the reconfigured state system, in which the state establishes performance standards (on such matters as health, safety and quality) and provides basic financial support.16

Ravitch’s vision of privatized yet publicly subsidized schools is based on the economies of scale achieved by reducing the numbers and constricting the role of teachers in face-to-face interaction with students through extensive use of educational technology, viewed as machines for delivering programmed—that is, prepackaged—instruction.


Jim Cummins and I have attempted to outline an alternative direction for genuine educational reform that, we assert, responds to the global realities of an interdependent world in the twenty-first century.17 In Brave New Schools, we are proposing, as a fundamental catalyst for widespread educational renewal, the adoption on the broadest possible scale of global learning networks, that is, long-distance intercultural team-teaching partnerships that seek to take advantage of accessible and culturally appropriate educational and communications technology. We argue that such partnerships can promote academic development across a broad spectrum of content and skill areas including literacy skills development, critical thinking, and creative problem solving in domains such as science and social studies, citizenship and global education, and second-language learning.18

When we talk of long-distance intercultural teaching partnerships or global learning networks, we are acutely aware that differences in language and cultural experience can themselves create enormous “distances,” and not only across continents and oceans or between regions and countries; there are also enormous cultural distances to be bridged within a particular country (and often within a single community) between racial, ethnic, and other immigrant or national minority groups. The diverse cultural enclaves that comprise a single urban center like Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, Montreal, New York, or Toronto may live under the same sky but look out on very different horizons. In contrast to neoconservative academics who view the increase in cultural diversity as a threat to social cohesion and an occasion for hand-wringing over the loss of a “golden age,” we propose to embrace the conjunction of diversity and technological innovation as an opportunity for unprecedented educational development that can benefit all students.

International trends towards greater population mobility and increased global interdependence, both economically and politically, highlight the need to develop more effective ways of promoting intercultural cooperation and understanding in our education systems. In order to foster interdependence and cooperation we need global education programs that will prepare students to function in multilingual/multicultural contexts both nationally and internationally. The best preparation for effective international cooperation in the future is clearly direct experience of cooperative learning activities—ideally involving students from other cultures—in the present.

If educators at every level—elementary, secondary, and tertiary—do not seek common cause in the effort to demand equal access to communications and computing resources, we will in fact have squandered whatever potential computer networking may hold for creating, nourishing, and sustaining the genuine learning communities so desperately needed if we are to confront the social, cultural, economic, and ecological challenges of the coming years—that is, the sort of learning communities that have deep local roots in the community as well as an extensive global reach. Instead, the information “haves” will retain or strengthen their ability to shape technological innovations to their own advantage, and the “have-nots,” when not completely excluded from access to technology, will be more often manipulated by computers and computer networking than in control of these powerful technologies. The legacy of Brown v. Board of Education and Lau v. Nichols will have been irreparably vitiated.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 96 Number 4, 1995, p. 767-774
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11, Date Accessed: 10/22/2021 4:31:12 PM

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  • Dennis Sayers
    New York University

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