Amid Layoffs, City to Spend More on School Technology
By SHARON OTTERMAN
Despite sharp drops in state aid, New York City’s Department of Education plans to increase its technology spending, including $542 million next year alone that will primarily pay for wiring and other behind-the-wall upgrades to city schools.
The surge is part of an effort to move toward more online learning and computer-based standardized tests. But it comes just two years after the city declared a victory on the technology front, saying that every classroom in every school had had plug-in Internet connections and wireless access set up, an undertaking that cost roughly half a billion dollars over several years.
Some local officials are questioning the timing, since the city is also planning to cut $1.3 billion from its budget for new school construction over the next three years, and to eliminate 6,100 teaching positions, including 4,600 by layoffs.
While state law prevents capital funding, the source of much of the technology spending, from being used for salaries, both moves are likely to make class sizes rise.
“It is particularly large in the context of a fiscal crisis which the mayor reports is so dire that he may eliminate some 6,000 teaching positions,” Scott M. Stringer, the Manhattan borough president, wrote in a letter to the schools chancellor, Cathleen P. Black, last week.
Other critics have cited concerns about how the city has managed other high-price technology projects — notably CityTime, the automated payroll system that swelled to $700 million from $63 million, including what prosecutors called $80 million in false billing and kickbacks. The city comptroller, John C. Liu, announced audits last week of spending on online learning and of the Achievement Reporting and Innovation System, or ARIS, an $80 million school information database that cost more than projected and has been criticized for not living up to its promise of helping schools track student progress effectively.
“We’ve seen before how the city’s I.T. projects can run up exorbitant fees when they’re not properly monitored,” said H. Tina Kim, the city’s deputy comptroller for audits.
City education officials are not shy about their goal to more fully integrate computers into everyday instruction. Instead of a lonely desktop or two at the back of a room, officials picture entire classrooms of students going online simultaneously, taking Internet-based classes or assessments to measure both their and their teachers’ performance. This school year alone, the city has issued $50 million in contracts to build an online course-management system, called iLearn NYC, as well as to provide training and to pay companies like Rosetta Stone and Pearson Education to provide content.
The front line is called the Innovation Zone, or iZone, a group of 80 schools (out of the roughly 1,700 in the city) that are testing more intensive ways to use computers, like by having them design individualized lessons based on each student’s progress and weaknesses. Teachers would still be needed as guides, but the goal would be to try to solve the age-old problem of how to teach a group of students with a wide range of abilities. The plan is to expand the zone to 125 schools next year, and 400 schools by the end of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s third term.
“If we want our kids to be prepared for life after high school in the 21st century, we need to consider technology a basic element of public education,” said John White, a deputy chancellor at the Department of Education.
Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars already spent on wiring, city officials now say those connections are insufficient, given the need to stream high-definition video and interactive programs that they were not designed to handle. It is proposing to spend $465 million to upgrade those connections at 363 schools next year, and $315 million for additional schools by 2014, with schools chosen based on the state of their current technology infrastructure and the poverty level of their students.
Keeping pace is a problem around the country, as the need for bandwidth has increased exponentially, often amid a lack of planning and investment by governments because the field is so new, said Doug Levin, executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association.
“We have seen circumstances where schools have overbought for bandwidth they didn’t touch,” he said, “but increasingly we are seeing cases where districts thought that this was a problem that was solved, and they are now running into significant issues, and significant costs.”
The city says that even if it wanted to, it could not shift the money to help retain teachers, because it is part of the capital budget, which cannot be used for operating costs like salaries. The money can, however, be used for new school construction, which is being trimmed to $642 million from $2 billion over the next three years.
The capital budget will also include some money for classroom computers for the first time, though officials could not say how much. The cost of computers has traditionally come out of each school’s own budget or from outside grants, leading to wide discrepancies in the number of computers in different schools.
Yet it is sometimes unclear, from the city’s own financial reports, exactly how much it is spending on technology. The Gregorio Luperon High School for Science and Mathematics, in Washington Heights, for example, opened in 2008 in a new $41 million state-of-the-art building.
Two years later, it got its first connectivity upgrade, which the school construction capital plan said cost $405,000. Jou Zoquier, the school’s technology specialist, said the school received an upgrade from a T-1 connection, a fast broadband fiber-optic link, to a partial T-3 connection, which is even faster. But that change did not require any additional wiring, just a new signal sent from the Internet provider, Verizon. The only other change appeared to be the installation of high-speed wall connections in five rooms, including a conference room, a library and a computer lab.
When questioned, the city said that the $405,000 figure was from a budget projection that had incorrectly been made public, and that it had carried out only $37,000 in work there.
“We can always use more bandwidth,” Mr. Zoquier said, because the school has 300 computers for its 500 students. But as for the fiber-optic wall connections, he said, “usually we don’t use that unless setting up a lab, but it’s something we may be able to use in the future.”
At P.S. 97, a popular 800-student elementary school in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, the Internet has been running slowly because the school went from just three interactive white boards — popularly known as Smart boards — to 16 this year. It also has a computer lab and one computer per classroom. The slowness is despite the $247,000 connectivity upgrade that the city said the school received last year, which consisted mostly of improved wireless access points to broadcast signals through the building.
The principal, Kristine Mustillo, said she has applied for another upgrade, concerned that her connections will crawl next year when she adds 15 more Smart boards and 150 laptops, paid for by local grants. The city’s capital plan initially proposed $481,000 be spent in the school in 2010, then the city revised that number to $419,000 in pending work, and then it said the work had already been done at $247,000.
“I’ve been told we are pretty much at capacity,” Ms. Mustillo said. “How is it going to go when all our teachers are accessing the Internet along with 150 students at the same time?”
City officials said the most crucial reason for the new spending was to prepare for computerized standardized English and math tests being developed by a national consortium that may replace the existing state assessments in the 2014-15 school year. But the state Department of Education said last week that those exams, at least at first, would also be available in pencil-and-paper format to give districts time to make the transition. In response, the city said it wanted to be ahead of the curve, because the scoring of online tests would be faster and more accurate.
Already, some of the city’s larger ambitions for online instruction are taking longer than expected. Last week, officials said they would delay the expansion of a much-promoted experiment in educational technology, School of One, which uses iPod-like computer playlists to manage math lessons for each student at three middle schools. There were unanswered questions about the program’s effectiveness, the city said. In another setback, School of One’s founder, Joel Rose, quit the Department of Education last week to start a nonprofit organization that would seek to bring the program to other cities.
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