'A Test of Leadership'
Arne Duncan says the stimulus money earmarked for education technology provides local school districts with the resources for reform. It's on them to carry it through.
- By Geoffrey H. Fletcher
WE BELIEVE TECHNOLOGY is at the core of
education reform, so we are giving you money and flexibility,
but it is up to you to make it happen and then tell us
That was the clear message I took from recent forays
to Washington, DC, where I intended to find out what the
Obama administration has in mind for advancing the use
of technology in public education. During my visits, I interviewed
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Jim Shelton,
the assistant secretary for innovation and improvement;
attended a forum on emerging technologies held by the
State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA), where Shelton and Aneesh Chopra, White
House chief technology officer, held forth in a lively questionand-
answer session; and participated in a private gathering
for SETDA members with Department of Education (ED)
staff responsible for the operation of Title II-D, the federal
Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) program.
"Technology is essential to the strategies we are using
to reform education," Shelton said at one point during the
Q&A at the emerging technologies forum. Speaking directly
to SETDA members, he said, "People are about to figure out
how important you are to accomplishing education reform
in this country."
He cited the four assurances that are at the core of the
education funding created by the American Recovery and
Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009: college- and career-ready
standards, preK-to-college career and data systems, improvements
in teacher effectiveness, and intensive support for
low-performing schools. And he said that it is impossible to
make good on any of the four without technology, particularly
the providing of help to students in low-performing schools.
"The question is," Shelton asked, "what do we do to actually
excel, not just meet basic standards?"
Duncan and Chopra believe that technology can play
its most important role in education by tracking student
progress to help teachers realize when instruction
is working and when it is not. Chopra explained how
large retail stores can adjust sale items in response
to all sorts of varied data points, such as weather,
the score of an NFL game, and the day of the week,
while teachers wishing to adjust instruction to make
decisions that are right for students are struggling with
disconnected analog inputs from curriculum, textbooks,
and test scores.
"Data and analytics are the key," Chopra said emphatically.
Duncan agreed, saying there was no longer any
reason for teachers to have to rely on "just a guess or
an assumption or a hunch-- and all that is driven by
According to Duncan, the administration is putting
an unprecedented amount of money into education and
technology, and wants the recipients of the funding
to try innovative ways of applying it. He has concerns
about ARRA funds being flowed through established
programs. "What we really want to do is have folks
rethink existing resources," Duncan said, rather than
put their attention only on the stimulus dollars. His department is making an effort to cite best practices and
provide the funds with as few strings as possible, but it is
up to the local school districts to implement.
"When I was in Chicago," he joked, "I used to think that
all the good ideas could not come out of Washington, and
now that I am here, I know all the good ideas don't come
"This is a test of leadership. We want to empower local
Readying a New Tech Plan
As for EETT funding, Duncan said that the cut in the program
for the proposed 2010-2011 budget-- from the current
$267 million down to $100 million-- should not be taken as
a signal about how the Obama administration regards technology.
"Not at all," he said with a firm shake of his head,
and then looked to Shelton.
"Through the stimulus, we have an unprecedented $650
million [for EETT]," Shelton said, picking up from his boss. "In
addition, we are publishing a new National Educational Technology
Plan early in 2010 that will paint a vision for where we
are going to go, and then have new dollars flow behind that,
as opposed to people spending on things that, frankly, are
disconnected from that central vision." The notion that a
national plan will actually drive the allocation of dollars will
be a new and welcome possibility for education technology.
Mike Smith, who helps administer EETT and is a senior
adviser to Duncan, adheres to the broad vision set forth by
the secretary and Shelton. In a meeting with state technology
leaders that was as much a pep talk as it was a discussion
of the nuts and bolts of distributing both the stimulus-born
EETT funding and the program's federally budgeted funding,
Smith and Jenelle Leonard, the ED's director of school support
and technology programs, encouraged their audience to
be innovative and think big. Smith couldn't help but insert
some wishful thinking.
"When the Obama administration looks back on this time
in education eight years from now," he said, "it will see that
technology had the biggest impact on education."
States have the option to make all of their EETT funding
run through a competitive grant program or to split it,
whereby 50 percent is competitive and 50 percent flows to
schools through the Title I formula. Inevitably, school districts
with small numbers of Title I students will receive very
small amounts of money, with little potential for that money
to have an impact. Smith encouraged states to use all their
EETT funds in competitive programs and to make the awards
large. Doing so will take political will and require more work,
he said, but can result in a much greater payoff.
Smith added that tech directors should attempt to leverage
technology into Title I and the Individuals With Disabilities
Education Act (IDEA), another idea consistent with Duncan's
plans. The ED is having conversations with Title I staff, who
are revising their guidance on the use of Title I funds, including
the additional $13 billion provided by the ARRA. The revisions
will include some examples from the EETT guidelines
to demonstrate how technology can be used for Title I.
Chopra explained how large retail stores can adjust sale items in
response to all sorts of varied data points, while teachers wishing
to adjust instruction are struggling with disconnected
analog inputs from curriculum, textbooks, and test scores.
Meanwhile, Duncan is looking ahead to the reauthorization of
the No Child Left Behind Act. He intends to work closely with
Congress to improve it and to fund it, but promises not to
rush it. "This is something that will be around for six or eight
years," he said. "We have to get it right." There are hints
about the direction he sees reauthorization heading. Duncan
said that we need to have clear goals and let schools figure
out how to reach those goals rather than the "fundamentally
backward" way the law is written now, which is "loose on
the goals and prescriptive on how you get there."
Duncan believes we need to change the way we measure
success with more emphasis on growth rather than a set
target. He is putting his budget where his mouth is: The
official word from the Education Department is that it will
commit up to $350 million to "support states in the creation
of rigorous assessments linked to internationally benchmarked
common standards being developed by states."
Duncan also would like to forestall the narrowing of the
curriculum that has occurred under NCLB in many schools. He
noted the importance of the arts, physical education, and
other neglected subject areas for all students.
Shelton provided additional hints about what may be
contained in NCLB's reauthorization. He advised the state
technology directors to watch the guidelines for the Race to
the Top Fund, a $5 billion pot of money created by the stimulus
bill that will be used to reward schools for advancing
innovation in their classrooms. "If you think those principles
are not going to show up in reauthorization," he said, "you
would be wrong."
This article originally appeared in the 8/1/2009 issue of THE Journal.