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Opinion | It’s time for Michigan schools to double-down on accessibility

Recently, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed a $19.6B school aid budget promising to improve every student’s in-class experience. In the wake of the pandemic, technology has become an even more integral part of the classroom experience, whether learning is remote or in-person. Now that students are back in school, technology is not going away. In fact, it has become more ingrained than ever in how students acquire skills and access information. But is classroom technology accessible to every student? Not yet.

Dan Cogan-Drew

Dan Cogan-Drew is cofounder and chief academic officer ofNewsela. (Courtesy photo)

But we can get there. 

With the use of digital tools in classrooms on the rise–and the ed tech industry expected to grow–it’s critical that states take action now to ensure the investments schools are making in tech can be easily accessed and utilized by all students. Accessibility means more than just students having consistent internet access–though that is critical. Accessibility means that all students can engage with digital resources used in their classrooms regardless of their ability or use of assistive technology.

According to the Michigan High-Speed Internet Office, more than 212,000 households in the state lack access to high-speed internet connections. This lack of high-speed connectivity is reflected in student success. We know that while students with high-speed internet access at home have a grade point average of 3.18, those without home access average a GPA of 2.81.

A lack of internet access should not be a barrier for any student to engage with content, and it’s a barrier we can overcome if we’re willing to make the right investments. In Michigan and across the country, we must prioritize ensuring universal stable internet access so that students don’t miss out simply because of where they live. 

Using technology in schools enriches the classroom experience, but for many students with disabilities, materials may still be out of reach even when they’re connected online. Some states are taking proactive steps to ensure that digital tools used in K-12 schools are compliant with World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), which means students with blindness and low vision, deafness and hearing loss, limited movement and other disabilities can still engage with the same online materials as their peers. As part of a growing trend, Illinois, Maryland, and New Jersey have all recently passed legislation that requires digital tools used in schools to be compliant with WCAG 2.1. Screen readers, text-to-speech technology, and sufficient contrast ratios on web pages are just some of the accessibility measures that are needed for digital providers to comply with this regulation. Michigan can be a leader in accessibility and should consider legislation similar to what has been passed in other states.  

Gov. Whitmer’s recent education budget represents the highest per-pupil investment ever in the state of Michigan. As schools make investments in digital tools with this influx of funding, accessibility must be a critical factor in their rubric for selecting vendors. When students with disabilities are unable to engage with content being used in the classroom, they miss out on enriching educational experiences and their fellow students miss out on their peers’ valuable contributions to classroom discussions and activities. If our goal is to create the most optimal social learning environments for all students, we must invest in accessible tools now.

Ensuring true accessibility to online materials does not stop there. Many Michigan students, especially Black and Latinx students, are reading below grade-level. Content that teachers use in their classrooms must be appropriately and rigorously differentiated so that students’ reading levels aren’t barriers to their literacy development. Students have difficulty learning ideas and concepts when they are assigned texts too far above their ability level.

For example, instead of challenging them, asking students to independently read materials that present even 5 percent unfamiliar vocabulary is likely to lead to increased frustration, not fluency and confidence. On the other hand, too much time spent with texts that only match students’ reading level can result in below-level readers never catching up. 

When students with disabilities or students who have trouble reading are given texts that match their ability level, instead of texts that match grade level, their reading fluency improves. Differentiating instruction allows students to access the materials, build confidence and background knowledge, while creating opportunities to stretch their abilities and challenge them to do more.  

Learning was changed forever by the pandemic, and we must meet this moment by centering equitable access to enriching learning materials that genuinely engage all students. To truly improve the in-class experience, Michigan must commit to making learning accessible to all. 

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