The Unkindest Cut of All

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Technology budgets are often the first to be reduced. The following eight questions will help you determine where to start trimming.

IT'S BUDGET TIME. (Already?) Yep, already. Your district is like all the others: faced with rising costs and dwindling income. Something has to go. But what?

As a district leader, you understand the need for current technology, but it’s getting harder and harder to defend it. Board members want to cut it, administrators are tired of hearing about problems, and technology directors are pleading for more help. Is your existing technology funding giving your district the best return on its investment and providing it with the best solutions?

In this, the 21st century, technology should not be perceived as negotiable, expendable, or unnecessary. As a director of technology, I lament even the suggestion that technology budgets can be trimmed. Yet, more often than not, they are the first to be cut, leaving frustrated teachers using older, instructional models, and old computers to collect dust. And even though “across-the-board cuts” sound logical and fair, the process eliminates priorities and suggests that all parts of the budget are created equal when, of course, they are not.

Most of us have technology plans with a clear course of action. But it’s also useful to know what questions you can ask to help you decide what to clip from the technology budget. Here are eight to start with. With next year’s initiatives in mind, I know that the answers will address my most important funding components, and may make the difference between receiving a return on my investment and throwing dollars into the money pit. They will also help me prioritize the areas for funding that can help sell the program to the powers that be.

1) Is your network information secure? (Program and budget connection: network security.) Spend your money here. The number of bullets to dodge is growing. Hackers are multiplying, students are more talented and curious, and networks are more complicated. Regardless of how small or large your district, the need to secure student and staff information is critical. Install hardware or software, or run a network analysis to make sure your data is safe.

2) Does your district software align with curriculum needs? (Program and budget connection: curriculum and software integration.) What percentage of your curriculum requires the engagement of students and technology? If the majority of your technology use involves research on the Internet, there is a lot of room for growth. This will impact both the software and staff development budget, but the payoff will be increased student learning.

3) Are your computers and network fast enough to address the limited time of each class period? (Program and budget connection: hardware and infrastructure replacement.) Do students spend more time waiting for equipment to boot up or to access the Internet than they spend learning? The inventory may say you have a lot of computers, but that doesn’t mean they’re all being used. Students don’t like slow computers and teachers don’t have the time to use them. The older the computer, the slower it is and the more maintenance it requires. This is money being wasted. At most, a five-year replacement plan should be used. Anything longer than that may have less impact on the budget, but it will also discourage the use of technology. The same goes for Internet speed. Teachers do not have time to wait three minutes for a page to load.

4) Are your systems able to work together to provide accountability reports for your stakeholders, board, state, and NCLB? (Program and budget connection: systems integration.) How many programs do I need to produce a single report? Can I quickly and efficiently identify the PSSA scores for all girls in third grade who are on the free- and reduced-lunch programs? Accountability has become a mandate. Identify how your accounting, budget, library, calendar, grading, and other systems work together.

5) What percentage of your teachers use technology on a daily basis for professional and instructional needs? (Program and budget connection: staff development.) Are you seeing and promoting the work of a handful of teachers and students instead of a majority of them? The more access students have to technology, the more they understand it. Students need consistency and teachers need training. Create a multiyear staff development program that offers learning opportunities in different ways. After-school workshops, summer academies, one-on-one training, and prep minisessions are only a few ways to get teachers on board.

6) Who is handling support questions? (Program and budget connection: support staff.) What types of help are teachers getting on a daily basis? Do they have to wait for Mr. Smith to finish with his math class, or do they have someone else to call? Outsourcing works for some districts, but it costs you a vital ingredient for success: the interest of teachers and students. In my district, each building has a technician. This may sound extravagant. It’s not; it’s good business. Each of the techs takes care of more than 200 computers; they offer one-on-one training, troubleshoot video equipment, assist teachers with presentations, and much more. There’s enormous return on investment in the use of equipment and software, and in the confidence and willingness of staff to try new things.

7) What are your plans for the future? (Program and budget connection: vision.) Can I support a new initiative using existing resources? Having a vision and communicating that vision is important. People need to know where they are going and how they are going to get there. Don’t jump on every bandwagon that passes by. Do one thing well and then move on.

8) Does your daily class schedule support the use of technology? (Program and budget connection: accessibility.) Many issues surface when teachers use technology, but some issues are not so evident—like scheduling. Often teachers need to use the school computers, but the lab is being used by someone else. So, how do you address the equitable distribution of computers? If there is only one lab and the math teacher needs to teach Microsoft (www.microsoft.com) Visual Basic on it for two periods a day, the likelihood of providing equal access to technology is small. Recognize these issues, create solutions, and share them with staff.

Hackers are multiplying, students are more talented and curious, and networks are more complicated. The need to secure information is critical. Spend your money here. Make sure your data is safe.

Making the Case for Integration

Research demonstrates that technology can improve student learning and readiness skills for the 21st century. According to the CEO Forum’s School Technology and Readiness Report (www.ceoforum.org/reports.html), published in June 2001, “Technology can have the greatest impact when integrated into the curriculum to achieve clear, measurable educational objectives.” The report goes on to outline six recommendations that align the use of technology within the curriculum, student assessment, equity, 21st-century skills, and research. It argues that “technology provides a powerful arsenal of tools to improve student achievement and to create accountability frameworks based on continuous improvement.”

We know that research also supports technology integration, but convincing board members to go forward with it can be quite another story. We have two options. The first is to continue to buy without vision, integrate without training, highlight a few teachers, frustrate the rest, and scramble every time the budget requires accountability. The second choice is to demonstrate how technology can maximize student achievement, streamline system operations, improve communications, save money, and be the tool we will need to address data management, future needs, and a continued connection to our global society. When making determinations on our budget, it’s best to remember that sticking our students with the status quo is what we can least afford to do.

Elaine A. Studnicki is the director of Information Management Systems at New Hope-Solebury School District (PA). She has taught and managed technology systems for the past 19 years.

This article originally appeared in the 01/01/2006 issue of THE Journal.

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