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Internet Access in Public Schools and Classrooms: 1994-98
NCES: 1999017
February 1999

What sort of progress is being made in connecting every public school and classroom to the Information Superhighway?

Since 1994, the federal government has been committed to assisting every school and classroom to connect to the Internet by the year 2000, and the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) has been tracking the rate at which public schools and classrooms are meeting that goal. In 1994, NCES began surveying approximately 1,000 public schools each year about their access to the Internet, access in classrooms, and, since 1996, their type of Internet connections. NCES measured Internet access in private schools in 1995 and is currently gathering data for 1998-99 (publication forthcoming). How much progress have schools made?

Public schools in the United States have continued to make progress toward meeting the goal of connecting every school to the Internet by the year 2000. Indeed, schools have shown increases every year since 1994, when 35 percent of public schools were connected to the Internet (table 1). In the fall of 1998, 89 percent of public schools were connected to the Internet. This is an increase of 11 percentage points from the 78 percent reported in 1997.

In 1997, schools with different characteristics had different rates of Internet access; for example, high poverty schools, schools with high minority enrollment, and smaller schools were less likely to have Internet access than other schools. By 1998, most of these differences no longer existed. High poverty and small schools were as likely to have access to the Internet as low poverty and larger schools. However, schools with 11 to 30 percent and 31 to 70 percent of students in poverty were slightly more likely to have Internet access than the high poverty schools. What proportion of classrooms are connected?

While having Internet access in 89 percent of public schools is an achievement, this number does not tell us about the degree to which students have access to the Internet. Thus, in addition to having every school connected to the Internet by the year 2000, a second goal is to have every instructional room (e.g., every classroom, computer lab, and library/media center) connected to the Internet. Schools have made strides toward this goal, with 51 percent of instructional rooms in public schools connected to the Internet in 1998. This number has nearly doubled since 1997, when 27 percent of instructional rooms were connected (Table 1). The rate at which classrooms are connected may continue to grow because of the funds available starting in 1998 through the E-rate (Education rate) program.

This program was established by the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to help make telecommunications services and technologies available to schools and libraries at discounted rates.

There continue to be differences in instructional room access to the Internet related to school characteristics. In 1998, public schools with 50 percent or more minority enrollment had Internet access in 37 percent of instructional rooms, compared to 52, 59, and 57 percent in schools with 21 to 49 (Table 1) percent, 6 to 20 percent, and less than 6 percent minority enrollment, respectively. Similarly, public schools with 71 percent or more students eligible for free or reduced-price school lunch had 39 percent of their instructional rooms connected to the Internet compared to 53 percent of rooms in schools with 11 to 30 percent of students eligible, and 62 percent of rooms in schools with less than 11 percent of students eligible. Additionally, schools in the Northeast had a lower proportion of rooms connected to the Internet than schools in the Southeast, Central, and West regions (39 percent compared to 51, 61, and 51 percent, respectively).

Another measure of the pervasiveness of computers in public schools is the ratio of students to computers. According to the President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology (1997), a ratio of 4 to 5 students per computer represents a reasonable level for the effective use of computers within schools. Data from 1998 show approximately 6 students per instructional computer in public schools (Figure 1). Medium sized schools, i.e., those with 300-999 students, and large schools, those with 1,000 or more students, had less access to instructional computers than small schools, those with less than 300 students (6 and 7 students per instructional computer compared to 4). Schools located in cities had more students per instructional computer (7) than schools in the urban fringe and towns (6 students per instructional computer for both), and rural areas (5 students per instructional computer).

The ratios of students per instructional computer with Internet access also varied in similar ways (Figure 1). Medium-sized and large schools had more students per computer with Internet access than small schools, that is, 12 and 13 students per Internet-connected computer compared to 9. Schools located in cities and urban fringe areas had more students per computer with Internet access (14 and 12, respectively), than schools in rural areas (9). Public schools with 71 percent or more students eligible for free or reduced-price school lunch had less access to computers with Internet access on a per-student basis than schools with less than 11 percent, and those with 11 to 30 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price school lunch. Schools with 50 percent or more minority enrollment also had less access than schools with less than 6 percent, 6 to 20 percent, and 21 to 49 percent minority enrollments.

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