Using Technology to Maintain Competitiveness: How to Get Our Groove Back

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As China and India threaten the supremacy of the US economy, our best hope for keeping pace isputting ed tech funding to use to galvanize education.

WINTON HILLS ACADEMY, a campus in the Cincinnati Public Schools system, is located in a housing project. More than 90 percent of its significantly transient student population is eligible for the national free and reduced-price lunch program. Three years ago, according to Jodie Owens, lead teacher and technology coordinator, Winton Hills received $162,000 in Enhancing Education Through Technology grant funds that it used to purchase computers to replace its 1999 IBMs, along with software targeted to help students in reading, math, and technology literacy. The following year, the school received another $55,000 for more software and additional training for teachers.

How to Get Our Groove BackWith the help of these funds, Winton Hills’ math and reading test scores have kept up with the rest of the district. In some areas, such as fifth-grade math, WHA’s students have made measurably greater gains—a ninepoint increase, compared to the overall one-point loss registered by the other students in the district. Tricia Kluener, Cincinnati’s technologist in residence, says that these gains are only one manifestation of the success of EETT, Title II-D of the No Child Left Behind Act. Students are engaged and enthusiastic, and they enjoy coming to school. Teachers are using technology in ways they never have before. Through EETT funding, Winton Hills Academy is doing its part to keep this country’s economy competitive now and into the future.

Sounding the Alarm

The specter of losing our competitive edge to other nations, especially India and China, is one that has haunted US educators for the past few years. The alarm has been sounded in many corners and taken many forms, such as:

  • The World Is Flat (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), Thomas Friedman’s best-selling book, in which Friedman outlines the role technology has played in helping individuals and small groups in underdeveloped countries leap directly from the agricultural age to the information age, thus becoming “part of the global supply chain for services and products.”
  • “Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future,” a recent study conducted by a panel convened by the National Academies, a national science advisory group. The panel noted that the United States easily “could lose its privileged position” in science leadership, and that the nation’s old advantages are being rapidly overcome by other countries.
  • International assessment studies. The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) both rank US students’ math and science abilities in the middle or near the bottom globally.
  • A visit from Chinese President Hu Jintao this past spring, which generated numerous media reports examining China’s growing influence over the world economy.

The solutions proposed by these various reports and studies all center on education. For example, Thomas Friedman calls for“an all-hands-on-deck, no-holds-barred,no-budget-too-large crash program for scienceand engineering education immediately.”The National Academies panel putforward 20 implementation steps withinfour broad recommendations. One recommendationis titled, “10,000 Teachers, 10Million Minds,” with the intent to“increase America’s talent pool by vastlyimproving K-12 mathematics and scienceeducation.”

President Bush unveiled in his 2006 State of the Union address a program called the American Competitiveness Initiative. A portion of the initiative calls for $380 million to improve math and science education in elementary and secondary schools. Critics point out that the initiative presents a mixed message: The president also proposed cutting some funding for the National Institutes of Health, reducing school programs in the National Science Foundation’s budget, and completely eliminating funding for EETT. Congress has yet to act on both the American Competitiveness Initiative and the proposed cuts. Legislators in both the House and Senate have drawn up several bills addressing competitiveness, the most prominent of which is the Protecting America’s Competitive Edge (or PACE) Act sponsored by a bipartisan group of senators. There also have been letters of support for the reinstatement of EETT funding introduced into both houses of Congress.

Saving the Workforce

Two major elements contribute to keeping a competitive workforce. The first is what all the press and academic reports are focusing on: ensuring that the United States has sufficient professional scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs to keep us from being, as Friedman fears, bypassed creatively and intellectually and losing our standing as world leaders in innovation. And all the numbers say we are lagging in this area.

Nearly 40 percent of high school graduates feel inadequately preparedfor college or work, while 84 percent of employers say K-12 schoolsare not doing a good job of readying students for the workplace.

According to John Bailey, deputy director of policy for the US Department of Commerce, approximately one-fourth of the current science and engineering workforce is more than 50 years old. Science and engineering occupations are growing at about 5 percent per year, outrunning our ability to fill those jobs, since the rate at which we’re producing scientists and engineers is increasing by only 2 percent per year. Between 1993 and 2002, the number of four-year engineering majors fell by more than 20 percent, and between 1994 and 2001 there was a 10 percent decline nationwide in course enrollment in science and engineering; the same period, meanwhile, saw a 35 percent increase in foreign students on US college campuses.

Underlying the need for professionals in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics is a broader concern that is reflected in the TIMSS and PISA studies: our students’ poor understanding of math and science, which directly impacts the continuing dropout problem in US schools. To maintain a competitive workforce, we must keep our kids interested in—and in—school.

While there is an ongoing debate about how exactly to count dropouts, dropout statistics are alarming to anyone concerned about the future of the US workforce. According to a report from the Educational Testing Service, about one-third of students do not graduate after four years of high school. Of those who do graduate and enter college, one in four freshmen attending a four-year institution does not return for a second year, nor does one in two freshmen attending a two-year institution. A report from the Government Accountability Office showed the disproportionate dropout rates among different races: 27.8 percent for Hispanic students, 13.1 percent for black students, and 6.9 percent for white students.

The economic impact of this is huge, with high school graduates earning an average of $6,415 more per year than high school dropouts. Economics professors Lance Lochner and Enrico Moretti found in their 2001 study, “The Effect of Educationon Crime,” that a 1 percent increase in thenational high school graduation rate wouldsave a projected $1.4 billion in costs associatedwith incarceration.

A report from the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, “Results that Matter,” provides a compelling list of statistics from a variety of sources displaying US students’ lack of readiness for college and work. Starkly put, high school graduates are not prepared to be successful in the workforce; both the graduates and their employers tell us that. The American Diploma Project found that nearly 40 percent of high school graduates feel underprepared for college or work, while in a 2005 survey from the National Associationof Manufacturers 84percent of employers said that K-12 schools are doing a poor job of readyingstudents for the workplace.

Clearly, we need to make school more engaging for students, in order to keep them enrolled and to turn out more professional scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and technologists. Virtually all the recommended solutions have advocated constructing a national approach to education that secures the United States from losing its competitive advantage.

It may be that an effort of this size requires federal support. However, states, which ultimately have the responsibility for educating all students, are searching for ways to motivate students and help them remain and thrive in school. For this millennial generation that uses multiple technologies, often concurrently, in their personal lives, using technology as an integral component of teaching and learning is the surest way to success.

EETT At Work

With the help of EETT funds, states are making major efforts to use technology to make teachers more effective in their teaching and to get students more engaged in school. Approximately 40 percent of states require school districts that receive EETT competitive grant funds to focus on reading or math. One example is in California.

The Cajon Valley Union School District in San Diego County is a Title I district serving approximately 16,500 K-8 students. The student population breaks down to about 55 percent white and 30 percent Hispanic, with roughly 20 percent English Language Learners. The district is using EETT funds and a partnership with Qualcomm to enhance math and science instructionin middle school classrooms.

During the year, the district’s middle school math and science teachers attend Qualcomm University, where they work collaboratively with Qualcomm professionals to create standards-based lessons involving technology and focusing on practical situations, such as how cell phones communicate through building walls. Lesson plans are highly innovative, starting with a real-world issue and working backward to the state academic-content standards. The program enables teachers to develop activities that require students to research problems, apply math concepts such as fractions, percentages and graphing, and build scientific hypotheses to answer the questions.

According to Marsha Mooradian, Cajon Valley Union’s former director of technology and assessment, the positive changes in student engagement since the launch of the program in 2003 are evident. Today, she says, “students demonstrate an increase in motivation for learning math and science, and their grades show increased knowledge in math and science standards.” Mathematics scores on the California Standards Tests have increased five percentage points, and student technology use has soared. When the program began, 5 percent of students said they used technology in the large majority of their school work (81 to 100 percent of the time). A year later, the number of students who reported frequent use of technology with their assignments rose to 58 percent.

The impact on the teachers in the program has been just as significant. Three years ago, only 15 percent said they used technology on a weekly basis to improve student achievement. Today, 83 percent are using technology daily to improve achievement. And through the use of technology, teachers report a 38 percent increase in the communication and collaboration between home and school.

What’s happening in the state of Ohio is as impressive as the progress being achieved in California. Maple Leaf Intermediate School’s participation in the EETT grant program has enabled the school to expand its use of technology in daily classroom instruction. Students and teachers have increased their technology literacy and are using their new tech savvy to improve student achievement. The results are impressive:

  • Of two classes taught by the same teacher, the class that used the Compass Learning online tool had a 14 percent higher passage rate on the Ohio Math Proficiency Test than the class that did not use the tool.
  • While the overall school average for the fourth-grade math proficiency was 85 percent, the three fourthgrade classes using Compass Learning rated higher, with scores of 87, 89, and 90 percent.

In California, Ohio, and states and districts across the country, EETT is propelling kids into the the 21st century.“Teachers are comfortable and proficientnow, and are regularly using technologyin multiple formats,” says ChristinaRusso, principal of Winton Hills Academy.“Our students are learning and usingtechnology on a regular basis.”

This may be merely a small step toward keeping the US economy competitive over the next few decades. But multiplied by hundreds of similar steps taken across the country, the results become a major and hopefully enduring leap.

Geoffrey H. Fletcher is editor-at-large of T.H.E. Journal and executive director of T.H.E. Institute.

This article originally appeared in the 07/01/2006 issue of THE Journal.

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