Address to Project Tell Celebration
The Graduate School and University Center of The City University of New York
New York, NY
June 17, 1997
Thank you, Helen (Birnbaum), for that kind introduction. I must say that it is really I who am honored to be with you today and to share in the celebration of the great accomplishments of the students and educators here. The achievements of Project TELL are truly an eloquent testimony to the powerful impact technology can have when students, educators, corporations and communities work together to improve education. You have shown in the most dramatic and inspiring way that technology used wisely can be a vehicle for building communities and for bridging the gap between haves and have nots.
As you may know, two weeks ago I asked the President to start looking for my replacement as Chairman of the FCC. I am delighted to be able to come here and see Project TELL in person before I step down. I have heard so much your work over the years from Bob Pepper, the Director of the Office of Policy and Planning at the FCC and a member of your Board here at the Stanton/Heiskell Center; there was no way Bob would have let me leave without visiting and speaking with this group. Who knows: there may be a future Chairman in the audience tonight.
As some of you may know, before I was the FCC Chairman, I was a Washington lawyer, but before that I had a respectable job: I was a teacher. As a former teacher, and also the son of a teacher, the brother of a librarian, and the father of three schoolchildren, I consider it a tremendous privilege to serve as Chairman of the FCC at a time when, thanks to the work of Senators Snowe and Rockefeller and the leadership of the President and the Vice President, improving education through the use of technology and telecommunications has moved to the top of the national education agenda. In his second inaugural address, President Clinton said that we must guarantee that in the next century "the knowledge and power of the Information Age will be within reach, not just of the few, but of every classroom, every library, every child." This captures perfectly the mission of the FCC during my three and a half years here.
It is the Vice President's commitment that I personally am most familiar with. I was with him more than a decade ago when he first said he wanted to make available to a little girl in Carthage, Tennessee, all of the wonders of something called the Information Superhighway. Just weeks ago, I was the guest on a television program broadcast from several sites, one of which was Carthage, and I was able to tell the students of Carthage how close to realization the Vice President's vision for them is.
At the FCC we were charged by Congress with devising a system that would make that vision a reality -- bringing education technology truly within the reach of every child in every community across the country -- no matter how poor or how remote. And on May 7, my fellow Commissioners and I voted unanimously to create a $2.25 billion annual fund to provide discounts of 20% to 90% to every school and library in the country when they purchase telecommunication services. Overall, with state and local matching funds, as much as $4 billion will be available every year to help schools afford these services. That signifies that we as a country are about to embark on what is the largest investment that we have made in the infrastructure of our public school system in this century.
This huge investment, if made wisely and well, can truly be a transformational force that can put a world of resources at the disposal of even the poorest of schools, opening up new worlds of learning for every single child in the country -- regardless of income or location.
Now for most schools and libraries, the hard work begins of devising a technology plan, redesigning their curriculum to make technology an integral part of the learning experience and bringing together parents, corporate leaders, and educators to work together to help school children take full advantage of the new tools.
The partners present here today -- NYNEX, City University, the New York City Board of Education, and the Stanton/Heiskell Center -- are a model of how communities should work together to improve educational opportunity. Project Tell has vastly improved reading and writing skills, and improved academic performance on a range of fronts. At the same time, it has helped train a generation of computer and technology literate citizens who will be tomorrow s telecommunications engineers.
One of the real benefits of my job is the opportunity it gives me to travel around the country and see the myriad ways in which local governments and communities are adapting themselves to the new world that technology has created. It often seems like there are as many ways to attack the problem of school technology as there are schools.
In Silicon Valley, the Smart Valley program has brought together businesses and other community resources in a concerted effort to wire every classroom. The result: they have gone from 18% of all classrooms to 82% in about two years. That is amazing. Of course, they have access to the world's most advanced technology companies right in their backyard, so they have a little bit of an advantage, and they have been able to blend together a mix of products.
Then there are schools that have had to turn to just one "angel," a sponsoring company that can outfit them completely. This is what the Evans Middle School did, in Washington, DC.
Here in New York City, Elspeth Taylor and Chancellor Crew are trying to tackle this problem by bringing together some of the best minds in the City to develop a city-wide technology plan called Project Smart. I have met and worked with the Chancellor and with Elspeth and I can tell you that the future of New York's students is in good hands.
In spite of the success of Project Tell and Smart Valley and so many other programs, we are really just at the beginning of a long process. For every school with five computers in each classroom and a full complement of internal network components there are many more like Asa Mercer Middle School in Seattle. A teacher named Anne Fitzgerald sent me an email that said "Our middle school of 850 students is 95% minority with 62% on free or reduced lunch. Our school district is currently in a budgetary crisis. We have limited supplies and limited resources. But we are determined to give our students as many opportunities as possible. Teachers parents and members of the community recently spent afterhours and Saturdays crawling through 4 by 4 tunnels to help hook up every classroom to the Internet. a recent survey of students found that about 10 to 15% have computers at home. We feel that giving them access to the technology that is becoming commonplace in the workplace is essential. If it becomes too expensive to get access to the internet, schools such as ours will be shut out of the system."
There are so many things wrong with this, it is hard to know where to begin. It should not be the case that hard-working teachers and parents must spend what should be a day for rest and family performing what is basically school maintenance. Surely, if there are any tasks that should be the responsibility of the government, making sure that our children are educated in schools that work is one.
Something else is wrong with this picture. There is a reasonably good chance that in six months, when the Mercer School gets ready to take advantage of the Universal Service Fund and engages an expert to plan for the next five years, they will find that Step One will be to rip out all of the wiring they put in over the course of those long Saturday afternoons. You see, Net Day is a wonderful exercise in community voluntarism, but it often proceeds in an unplanned and short-sighted way, leaving schools with technology that cannot accommodate growing and changing needs. I said that there are as many ways of attacking this problem as there are schools, but that does not mean that some plans are not better than others.
In fact, while the technologies will differ depending on factors like school architecture, I believe that careful planning will lead most schools to the same endpoint. The universal service fund will make it possible for every school in the state to purchase a high-capacity network from a reputable networking company like 3Com in California. For a school in a poor area, the servers, hubs, routers, and internal wiring as well as the ongoing charges will be 10 percent of what the bill would be if they made the same purchases today.
Within two or three years, every school will have a star-shaped network on every floor, with a hub on each floor stretching to five computers in each classroom. A router next to that hub will make it possible for many students to use the Internet all at once. Each hub will be connected to those on other floors, so that students in two or three classrooms can work on projects together, check on each other's progress in off-hours, and so on. Teachers will review and send students comments at 10 p.m. with a free email system provided by a company like Juno.
Each school's LAN will be connected to a community-based server (perhaps in a library), creating a WAN that will massively increase the capacity of a school's technology. Every community in New York will have a broadband network with a central CD-Rom pool that can supply virtually any database a student could want, as well as a full complement of specially- designed curricula.
I have been told that the expense of this grand vision will be prohibitive even with the discounts that I talked about earlier. I vigorously reject this claim. Take for example what technology can do for special needs students. Right now, a district either has to hire staff who have the background and training to teach such students or find some alternate place to send them. Either way, the cumulative expense for all districts is tremendous, both in terms of money and in the toll on these students. For some of them, getting an education will mean taking a long bus ride by themselves every day to a school far from their home and friends, where they are made to feel like outsiders. From a purely humane perspective, this seems like at most a second-best solution.
Just last week I was telling some people in Maryland to imagine a program where students from all over the state will turn on computer, log in, and take classes with their teachers over the network. I talked about a program where students might carry on running dialogs with their teachers. Best of all, I said, students could join a variety throughout the state, while sitting at their desks in their local school with their friends and neighbors. Then I told them, that Project TELL have been doing this for almost three years. Welcome to the 21st Century, right here in New York City!
Project TELL has demonstrated its success by showing that given the same access to computers as students in the wealthiest communities, you can achieve the same high academic standards. Better yet, you have double the proportion of students taking high-level college preparatory skills as the rest of the city and a full two thirds of you are headed to college, including top flight universities like Georgetown, Howard University, St. Johns, Syracuse, and Wesleyan. Wherever you go, whether or not you are going to college, you will be better prepared, and more ready to climb the career ladder you choose. If it wasn t clear before, it is abundantly clear now: every state, every city, every county should have a Project TELL.
Project TELL also shows critics that wiring the schools isn t enough. Wiring doesn t include the network hubs for each classroom, the routers for each school, the terminals in the library - - let alone the home. The Universal Service Fund, established last May, will not only run the wires, but will support the continuing expenses of operating basic educational network resources. New ships need a suit of sails to take them over the horizon, and networks need software, terminals, and content to take students to the 21st Century.
Some say it s a mistake to pay for networked computers when roofs are leaking and there s no chalk for the blackboard. I understand this: I used to teach in a school where the blackboard was cracked, the overhead projector was AWOL, the chairs were broken, and the roller maps showed Hawaii and Alaska as territories, and Encyclopedia said that someday, man might walk on the moon. Fifty percent of my seventh graders were not expected to graduate from the 9th grade. That wasn t only because the tools of the teaching trade were broken or missing. But the message sent by the lack of resources was not missed by my students. By giving so little to that school, we gave little help or hope to the kids in it.
A few years ago, the Federal Communications Commission might have said, Education isn t our responsibility but now we see that our schools are the heart of our community, and our community is our responsibility. We are thrilled that we can join with your teachers, your principal, and your local board and most importantly you yourselves to search for solutions. By making each classroom in each school a shining example of brilliant opportunity to explore the new worlds of knowledge that technology gives us, we will be at least telling the Americans of the 21st Century the children of today that we truly care about their futures.
Project Tell will be a great equalizer when every community has a program like it and all the schools are taking full advantage of this powerful new resource. It s exceptionally difficult to put every student at the same point on the starting line; you can t adjust for the devastating effect of a difficult family life, a meager meal, or an unsafe neighborhood, and these are all things that affect a child s ability to learn. What we can do is make sure that the inequalities stop at the schoolhouse steps.
Your pioneering spirit is helping us to prove that everyone, even the Federal Communication Commission, has something to contribute to the heart of the community the local schools. And that every little bit of innovation can have a profound effect on the success of the classroom.
Congratulations and good luck.