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Eliminating the 'homework gap' means more than ramping up digital access

Eliminating the 'homework gap' means more than ramping up digital access
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In less than a year of remote schooling, our students fell six months behind where they should be. For students of color and those in low-income households, the deficit is even greater. Much of the problem is caused by the “homework gap” — our failure to help tens of millions of students effectively learn and do homework online. 

Congress has responded to the homework gap by focusing on broadband access, which is commendable but insufficient. 

To learn, students also need ready access to a laptop during class and homework hours. They must understand how to use the computer and the online resources available, have caregivers ready to mentor and engage, attend a school offering a curriculum that effectively leverages online resources and have teachers who know how to use it well. If students lack access to just one of these resources, they will fall behind. 

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COVID-19 didn’t create the homework gap and the problem won’t go away simply by reopening schools. Students without a laptop, broadband and digital skills will continue to struggle at school next year. 

To close the homework gap, we must address the underlying conditions that create it simultaneously. This comprehensive approach will require significant investment and coordination, but doing nothing costs more. America’s learning loss isn’t just a problem for the students and schools — it is a looming problem for U.S. businesses that could cost the U.S. economy $14 billion to $28 billion.

We’re more likely to succeed if we partner local schools and community service organizations with business leaders, each well-positioned to provide the expertise we need now. Comcast’s Internet Essentials program, as one example, has delivered low-cost broadband to eight million Americans. But when you talk to Comcast executives, they focus on how much the program depends on partnerships with local school districts (which identify families who need broadband and help them sign up), local Boys & Girls Clubs (which operate “Lift Zones” that train students and their families to access classes and homework apps), and groups like Coded by Kids and Inner-City Arts (which help make online learning relevant and fun).  

With the right mix of hardware, broadband, curriculum and training, students from low-income families can get access to homework support and resources that affluent students already take for granted. And building this new digital learning infrastructure will also make it easier for us to modernize our curriculum to better prepare graduates for the future of work. By 2030, workplace demand for technological skills will increase by 60 percent — and 85 percent of the jobs that today’s learners will be doing in 2030 don’t exist yet. As we help students catch up, we can help them get ahead.  

Going big on the homework gap could be one of the most compelling “build back better” opportunities the White House faces. We need to do more than simply stabilize our education system — we need to make long-term investments to ensure it produces the diverse inventors, entrepreneurs and employees who will power our economy over the next generation.  

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The American Rescue Plan’s $350 billion for state and local governments and $130 billion for schools offer an unprecedented opportunity to get started.  Building on the progress of the Emergency Broadband Benefit program passed in December — a new initiative that gives low-income families a subsidy of up to $50 per month for broadband — the American Rescue Plan will help cities and schools fund broadband connections and devices for students in need, modernize and scale digital literacy education and bring curricula into the 21st century in a way that stimulates students’ curiosity and sense of wonder at the possibilities that can be explored online. 

Now, states and cities need to make sure American Rescue Plan funds help the communities with the greatest need. After the 2009 stimulus program, far too many broadband dollars intended for unserved communities were diverted into wasteful projects in areas where high-speed service was already accessible. We need to learn from those mistakes and insist on better safeguards and oversight this time around.

As a nation, our failure on distance education was big. Our thinking on how to make up this lost ground must be even bigger — and it starts with closing the homework gap for good. We owe our kids nothing less.

Jim Doyle is president of Business Forward, a nationwide network of more than 100,000 civic-minded entrepreneurs, investors, small business owners and executives.