Report incites a debate over internet speeds in city schools

No matter who you talk to — politicians, Dennis Walcott, principals or teachers — it’s clear that the Department of Education has work to do before teachers and students can handle extensive online activity in their schools. Where they disagree is how close the school system is to actually being up to speed.

The disagreement spilled into public today when department officials vehemently objected to the veracity of a report by Borough President Scott Stringer’s office. Stringer’s report, which was based on data his office received from the city last month, showed that three in four school buildings had slow internet connections.

The report criticized the city for moving too slowly to upgrade technology in schools in the age of information. Schools will also need a minimum internet bandwidth  — measured in how many megabytes of online information can be uploaded and downloaded per second — in order to administer online tests by 2015 as part of New York’s participation in a national assessment consortium (New York has signaled it may not begin the online testing on time).

But city officials said today that the department is actually much further along than what Stringer’s report claimed. They said the data they sent to Stringer’s office weren’t accurate, a point that they said was communicated last week after seeing a draft of the report.

The reality, Walcott said in a statement, is that just 250 of the city’s roughly 1,250 school buildings have slow internet speeds, a number that is consistent with what education officials told reporters at a technology summit last month. The majority of the schools, they said, have the capacity to download up to 80 megabytes of information per second.

A school with an internet bandwidth of 80 mbps would be able to administer more than 800 online tests at once, according to early bandwidth recommendations released in February by the the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.

Walcott said all schools with slow connections will be upgraded by January.

“I will not allow people to use our schools for their own self-serving purposes or as a platform for parochial politics,” Walcott said, a nod to Stringer, who is running a heated race for New York City Comptroller.

But teachers and principals said today that internet connections remains a big technological issue in their schools. Some said the internet crashes frequently, while others say it’s simply too slow to use in any practical way. One principal said her school’s slow internet limited what teachers could do in their classrooms, which are outfitted with Smart Boards with online access.

“You can’t necessarily count on the fact that when you go on the Smart Board that you’ll get what you need,” said the principal, who asked to remain anonymous because her school was scheduled to receive an upgrade this year and did not want to disrupt the process.

Responding to the city’s gripes with Stringer’s report, a borough president spokeswoman said education officials were focused on the wrong thing.

“Instead of playing a shell game with data, it is time for DOE to take responsibility, and get down to the business of ensuring that our students are fully prepared to compete in a 21st century economy,” said the spokeswoman, Megan Dougherty.

Still, Stringer’s report shows that the city has made some progress in two years. In 2011, nearly 500 schools had slow internet speeds; this year, there are 242 schools.

In 2010, the education department dedicated $783 million of its $957 million four-year capital spending plan to technology upgrades, city documents provided in Stringer’s report show.

The reason? They were “necessary in order to prepare all of our building to administer new tests online — aligned with the Common Core standards — in the 2014-15 school year.”