Urban school districts are having a tough time when it comes to integrating technology into their classrooms and training teachers how to use it, according to a new report published by the Education Writers Association (EWA) of Washington.

The report, “Barriers and Breakthroughs: Technology in Urban Schools,” examines school systems in four large midwestern cities–Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and Milwaukee–and finds potholes on the road to technology integration in these cities.

“The same factors that make any urban school reform difficult–limited resources, low expectations, overwhelming poverty, entrenched bureaucracies, political infighting, sheer size–can slow the technology revolution to a crawl,” the report states.

Size alone can lead directly to a district’s overall technology deficiencies, according to the report.

Chicago Public Schools have 589 schools and 430,208 students; Detroit Public Schools have 264 schools and 177,057 students; Milwaukee Public Schools have 154 schools and 99,495 students; and Cleveland Public Schools have 118 schools and 77,000 students.

The enormity of these districts often makes a centralized effort difficult, whether it’s in securing funds, training teachers, or providing support for repairing and maintaining computers and equipment.

Yet the lack of centralization can result in a lack of equity–even within a single district. According to the report, some facilities have hundreds of computers, while others say they have few or none.

For example, the report cites a 1997 Detroit study that found some schools in the district had a computer in every classroom, while others didn’t have a fax machine or TV set, much less a computer.

In Cleveland, elementary schools have a student-to-computer ratio of 8 to 1, thanks in large part to a statewide initiative to put computers in every classroom in grades K-4. But in Cleveland middle and high schools, the ratios are miserable: one per 1,140 students at the middle school level and one for every 209 students at the high school level.

Chicago, by choice, has moved toward less centralization and more neighborhood control. The resulting autonomy, however, has proven to have both advantages and drawbacks.

“While this arrangement has led to tremendous innovation in some schools,” the report says, “its effect on a school’s ability to incorporate technology into instruction has been mixed.”

In Chicago, schools are left largely to fend for themselves when it comes to securing resources for technology, and EWA reporters noted that if schools don’t have an especially tech-savvy principal or skilled grant writer on staff, they are less likely to have successful technology initiatives.

On the flip side is Milwaukee, which is credited in the EWA report for its district-wide technology vision–though some say its plan might be overambitious and some funding issues have yet to be resolved.

In Milwaukee, gains have been made in teacher training since a $2.25-million training center was completed last fall. Milwaukee also is working toward putting a student-records management system in place to track attendance records, grades, and other data across the district.

Internet access

According to the report, urban districts have another large obstacle to contend with when it comes to technology integration: aging buildings.

Take Chicago, where nearly half of all schools in the district are more than 50 years old–and 9 percent top the century mark. Wiring Chicago schools for the future could be a multimillion-dollar project, just for building infrastructure improvements, the district has estimated.

All four of the districts cited in the report are hoping eRate funds will help. Cleveland, which received $28 million in the first year of the eRate, plans to use the money to install T1 lines for every school in the district, a major step for a district with virtually no access to the internet.

As of last fall, just two of the district’s 118 schools had access to the web and less than one percent of its classrooms were online.

Chicago and Detroit have similar plans to install T1 lines at most, if not all, of their schools. What remains unknown is whether the districts will be able to afford to wire all their classrooms to a network.

Other notable findings

All four districts have student poverty levels of 75 percent to 85 percent, as measured by the number of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. And while federal and state programs aimed at high-poverty schools have helped, they haven’t completely solved the inequities between rich and cash-strapped districts.

The districts not only have poor student-to-computer ratios–all four are below the national average–but they are also plagued by the fact that as many as half the computers in the districts are outdated and incapable of supporting sophisticated software or internet access.

High teacher turnover rates in urban districts make technology training and, subsequently, classroom integration difficult. For these districts, it’s a Catch-22. They spend the time and money to train teachers in technology, only to see teachers leave for higher-paying jobs in the suburbs.

Though large urban districts are sometimes more likely than others to have resources such as teacher trainers on the payroll, such staffing often is stretched too thin to be effective. Cleveland Public Schools, for example, has committed to providing 60 hours of technology training to every elementary school teacher in the next three years, but the district has just eight full-time trainers dedicated to the initiative. Chicago has 28,000 teachers, but only 26 teacher trainers.

Bright spots

For all the problems urban districts face, the report does cite examples of specific schools in all four districts that are using technology to make a difference.

The Dewey Learning Center for Urban Education in Detroit, for example, is considered a shining star in a neighborhood better known for its drugs and prostitution than for school reform, according to EWA.

Less than a decade ago, the only technology to speak of at Dewey was a decades-old Title 1 reading lab. But in just a few years, the pre-K-8 school has managed an impressive turnaround.

Now, technology is part of the everyday learning environment for students and teachers, EWA reports.

In sum, the EWA study finds reason to hope the technology revolution will lift up urban education, but there is not much hard evidence that it has done so yet.

Chicago Public Schools


Cleveland Municipal School District


Detroit Public Schools


Milwaukee Public Schools


Education Writers Association