Millions of students do not have access to adequate connectivity, but Black, Latinx, and Native children are disproportionately impacted by the “homework gap” — a term that describes the divide between students with access to home broadband and Internet-enabled devices and those without, as well as the challenges that unconnected students face. One study found that children in one out of every three Black, Latinx, and Native American households did not have broadband access at home.
These disparities are even more pressing during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, which has turned the homework gap into a chasm. Schools across the country cancelled in-person instruction at the end of the last school year, and many continue to make plans for remote learning in the fall. As the nonprofit Common Sense pointed out in a recent report, “The ‘homework gap’ is no longer just about homework; it’s about access to education.”
School districts, cities, and states across the country are distributing hotspots, deploying wireless LTE networks, and paying for students’ Internet plans, among other efforts to quickly address the homework gap. However, many of these solutions are stopgap answers to a systemic problem.
UnidosUS President and CEO Janet Marguía said in a press release:
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the impact of the digital divide on the academic progress of our students, particularly from low-income, Black, Latino, and American Indian households. Roadblocks, including internet connectivity and access to a computer or tablet, have denied students of color the opportunity to meaningfully engage in online learning, resulting in learning loss and widening achievement gaps . . . We cannot continue to overlook the disproportionate impact of this divide.
Mind the Gap
Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel is frequently credited with coining the term “homework gap” to describe the divide between connected and unconnected students. During her time in the FCC, she has called it the “cruelest part of the new digital divide” and has advocated for federal measures to help close the homework gap.
Nearly 17 million children in the U.S. don’t have wired broadband access at home, and more than 7 million children don’t have access to an appropriate device, according to a recent report sponsored by the Alliance for Excellent Education (All4Ed) in partnership with the National Urban League, UnidosUS, and the National Indian Education Association. A similar analysis from Common Sense found that 15-16 million public K-12 students, or about 30%, lack adequate home Internet access and/or devices, with approximately 9 million students lacking both.
Those two reports used data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2018 American Community Survey (ACS) to support their findings, but other sources also suggest that the digital divide affects a significant portion of students. A Pew Research Center survey from 2018 found that 17% of teens often or sometimes cannot finish homework because of inadequate connectivity or unreliable access to devices. These figures may underestimate the current extent of the homework gap because they do not capture the effects of the pandemic, which has created economic hardship for many families.
Though rural states, like Mississippi and Arkansas, have the highest proportions of unconnected students, states with greater urban populations, such as California and Texas, have larger amounts of students without home Internet access. The Common Sense report found that half of Mississippi public school students, about 234,000 students, lack adequate home Internet, while 34% of Texas public school students, or about 1.8 million students, lack home Internet. For more state-specific statistics, view All4Ed’s interactive map.
It’s referred to as the homework gap, but not having reliable broadband access at home affects students in many ways beyond homework completion. According to a study conducted by the Quello Center at Michigan State University and Merit Network, which looked at the homework gap in 15 rural school districts in Michigan, students without home Internet access also had lower grades and test scores, demonstrated less digital skills competency, and were less likely to plan to attend post-secondary schooling, even after accounting for socioeconomic differences. “Lack of fast Internet access or cell phone only access is associated with disadvantages that likely have lifelong consequences,” the study authors explained.
Black, Latinx, Native Students More Unconnected
The homework gap is greater in low-income communities but also in communities of color. Students from Black, Latinx, and Native American households are more likely to lack access to home connectivity and Internet-enabled access than their white and Asian peers.
All4Ed’s analysis of the 2018 ACS data found that children in 31% of Black and Latinx families and in 34% of Native American families did not have high-speed Internet access at home, compared to children in only 12% of Asian families and 21% of white families. The report also identified gaps in student access to devices among households of different races. Using the same data source, Common Sense likewise found that public school students who are Black, Latinx, or Native American are more likely to lack adequate broadband access than those who are white, reporting that 30-40% of the most unconnected students — those without home Internet access and without an appropriate device — were Black, Latinx, or Native American.
Similarly, the Pew Research Center 2018 survey on student broadband access found that Black and Latinx teens were more likely than white teens to report that they are often or sometimes unable to finish homework assignments because of a lack of a computer or Internet connection. It also found that more Latinx respondents relied on a cell phones to complete homework and that more Black respondents said they frequently used public Wi-Fi connections.
In its study, the Quello Center did not find a statistically significant difference between white students and students of color, reporting that 8.5% of minority students surveyed lacked home broadband compared to 6.9% of white students. But other national data sources in addition to the ACS, including the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s Internet Use Survey and Pew Research Center’s broadband surveys, have found that Black, Latinx, and Native households/adults are less likely to have broadband at home than white and Asian households/adults at statistically significant levels, suggesting that race does impact connectivity.
Unaffordably high costs are one of the main reasons why people do not subscribe to home Internet access, and lower average incomes among Black, Latinx, and Native households could account for some of the broadband disparities. Many providers have low-cost programs available for eligible families, but people may not be aware of their options or may receive inconclusive information from customer service representatives.
However, a 2016 Free Press report found gaps in home broadband availability and adoption among households of different races even after accounting for other household features, such as income. Similarly, analysis from think tank Third Way showed that broadband availability is lower in counties with majority Black and Native populations compared to majority white counties. Various factors, including housing segregation, credit check requirements, and other systems that perpetuate racial inequality, could possibly explain the remaining disparities.
These ingrained injustices means that policymakers must make big changes if they want to close the homework gap, the All4Ed report explains:
America’s racial inequities stem from 400 years of systemic racism and federally sanctioned discriminatory policies . . . Public policy must not be subtle nor incremental in addressing the issues that American school-age children face. We need bold and highly focused solutions that dismantle the systems that keep our children from succeeding.
Closing the Divide
Many advocates believe that closing the homework gap, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, is a role that governments must take on. “It is unlikely that market forces alone will close the gap,” wrote the Quello Center in their report, which suggested that a cost-benefit analysis of public investment in student connectivity would justify the expense. All4Ed and Common Sense also argued for federal investment in response to the pandemic, pegging the national cost of temporarily providing home broadband access and Internet-enabled devices to unconnected students at $6-$11 million.
At the local level, states and cities are working to connect students who are impacted by the homework gap in the short term. Some governments and school districts, such as the State of Connecticut and Portland Public Schools, are covering the costs of home Internet connections and wireless hotspots for households with children, often using federal CARES Act funds. Others, like the State of Maryland and San Antonio, Texas, have plans to deploy wireless LTE networks to provide connectivity to students. Unfortunately, many of these programs are temporary and do little to address the underlying reasons why tens of millions of Americans — especially Black, Latinx, and Native Americans — are stuck with high costs and no choice of Internet provider.
On the other hand, cities with municipal broadband networks have been able to make longer term commitments to connecting their students. Even before the pandemic, Cedar Falls, Iowa, and Longmont, Colorado, had developed low-cost broadband plans for families with students. And Chattanooga’s municipal network, EPB Fiber, recently announced a partnership with the local school district that would provide free home Internet access to all students that qualify for free and reduced lunch.
The pandemic has made it clear that Internet access is no longer a luxury for today’s students. Now it’s up to federal, state, and local governments to figure out how to close the homework gap and connect our students of color.
Photo by adamkaz via iStock.