Scoping the Digital Equity Problem (or the Homework Gap)

This blog is the second in a series on digital equity from CoSN CEO Keith Krueger. Read Keith's introduction to the series here.

In my first post I framed the challenge of digital equity in education: strategies that extend learning beyond the classroom in an era of growing digital content. In this post, I will highlight data on the scope of the digital equity problem in the U.S. 

In the political world, digital equity has been framed as “closing the homework gap.” In other words, as education becomes increasingly digital, we must ask ourselves: do all students have the at-home tools they need to complete their assignments?

How big is the problem?

In 2009, the Federal Communications Commission’s broadband task force reported that about 65 percent of students used the Internet at home to complete their homework, a statistic that has likely increased given the growing trends of digital learning. Approximately 70 percent of teachers assign homework that requires access to broadband.

Some of the best information available is from the Pew Research Center


The good news: Most American homes with school-age children do have broadband access – about 82.5 percent (about 9 percentage points higher than average for all households).

The bad news: Five million households with school-age children do not have high-speed internet service at home.  Low-income households – and especially black and Hispanic ones – make up a disproportionate share of that 5 million.

Pew concludes that low-income homes with children are four times more likely to be without broadband than their middle or upper-income counterparts. 

Race & ethnicity are also significant – low-income black and Hispanic families with children are disproportionately more likely to lack broadband.

This past spring the Hispanic Heritage Foundation survey found:

  • Nearly 80 percent of Hispanic students who did not have regular access to a computer at home used their smart phones to access the internet.
  • Nearly 50 percent of all students said they were unable to complete a homework assignment because they lacked access to the internet or a computer. Hispanic students reported this more frequently.
  • Overall, 42 percent of students surveyed believed they received a lower grade on an assignment because they lacked access to the internet. Hispanics were most likely to feel they had received a lower grade.

Research by the Alliance of Excellent Education and the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education found that teachers in high-poverty schools were more than twice as likely to say that their students’ lack of access to technology was a challenge in their classrooms. Only 3 percent of teachers in high-poverty schools said that their students had the digital tools necessary to complete homework assignments, compared to 52 percent of teachers in more affluent schools.

Research from other communities

Miami-Dade school district received a $3.5 million grant under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to provide laptops and a computer connection for use at school and home. A survey found that 90 percent of parents indicated having the computer and home access enabled them to keep more informed about their child’s academic performance.

Finally, while educational leaders are focused on reducing digital inequities for learning, there are many other reasons why broadband networks are important to low income families. A really impressive site for research around Digital Inclusions Strategies for Gigabit Cities is available from Denise Linn, a former Harvard Kennedy School Policy Analysis.

What Are The Statistics In Your Community?

National statistics are great, but education leaders must also have statistics for their communities. When I ask technology leaders and superintendents about their community, they typically respond with generalities – “our students don’t have broadband at home” or “only wealthy students have devices.” 

Unfortunately, those generalities don’t provide facts to galvanize a community to act where there is a digital equity problem/homework gap. And these generalities are not persuasive in trying to change policy.   

Ironically, with free or low cost online survey tools, every school system could document the digital equity reality school-by-school, and most importantly disaggregate the data by poverty, race, and ethnicity. That is today’s digital imperative.

Please email me if you have other important statistics or research on digital inequities and impact on learning.