Joining Forces


 A Third Millennial Challenge:

Harness the Power of Educational Technology to Advance the Standards Movement

By an interesting stroke of fate, the standards reform movement and the birth of the Internet-powered PC grew up at about the same time in the early 1990s. By another twist of circumstances, the public is now in a new decade, beginning to lose confidence in the promises offered by both of them to transform traditional teaching and learning. Those who have watched the education reform scene for some time might explain the public’s skepticism as the emerging realization that both movements may turn out to be reforms that were initially oversold and then, like educational television and cooperative education, will begin to disappoint.


While it may be premature to write off both of these highly touted reform strategies, there are certainly some warning signs that we need to be aware of. In the case of standards, the warning signs are less subtle than they are with technology. No one is planning to boycott the use of technology (as several communities are threatening to do against the use of high stakes testing), but clearly some are expressing concern about the ultimate educational value of hundreds of millions of dollars invested in hardware, software, maintenance and technology training.


Teachers themselves, according to a recent survey of technology use in Education Week, do not rate highly the quality of educational software, or the value of the World Wide Web. For example, only 14 percent of surveyed teachers who use the Web for instruction say that these sites’ primary mission is to “help students master the skills and knowledge they need,” while 36 percent of teachers report that the overall quality of software is a “big” or “moderate” problem. Without doubt, the quality of what is available both online and off the shelf will continue to improve, but over how long a period? We need to further question whether we are missing an important “opportunity cost” in not making technology serve more education purposes, rather than connecting it more explicitly with the standards reform movement.


Establishing “Superstandards”

It is impossible to describe in any exact terms what this opportunity cost might look like. It is also difficult not to be accused of technophoria (an unrealistic belief in the power of technology to solve problems) when describing that opportunity cost. However, it is reasonable to speculate what it would be like if youngsters, particularly those who were traditionally classified as being at educational risk, were motivated to spend time otherwise devoted to video games on standards-based educational activities. How would classrooms look if teachers knew how to readily integrate material downloaded from the Web into a standards-based curriculum? We may never know, as the two elements that need to converge, high quality digital content and integrated professional development, rarely coincide within the same school district, let alone the same school.


The difficulty the U.S. has experienced in connecting broad policy mandates with changes in teaching and learning is perhaps an inevitable consequence of both our uniquely decentralized system and its tendency towards what Stanford University Professor Larry Cuban refers to as “loose coupling” between classrooms and policymakers. Hence we appear to be constantly reforming since we are always trying to repair the last round of failed reform efforts. Centralized systems, such as the one that operates in the U.K., are somewhat better at being able to link their reforms with changes in classrooms through such mediating devices as the inspectorate system.


For Hudson Institute Researcher Denis Doyle, the development of standards-based reform policies in the U.S. has finally leveled the playing field. Through the power of the Internet and the work of Achieve, Inc., 49 states will be able to compare their standards against each other. This will lead eventually to their convergence into one set of “superstandards,” which will then fulfill the goal of the exercise: standards-linked lesson plans.


According to Doyle, the New York Times Learning Network is already setting the pace by linking its lesson plans (centered on news items) to the national standards using common language shared by 40 states’ standards. Doyle’s faith in the free market leads him to believe that simply having producers of educational content post their material online (preferably in the form of standards-based lesson plans) will be the bonus that teachers have been looking for, even though it places a considerable burden on already overworked teachers to sort out the gold from the dross.


Standards in the U.K.

By contrast, the U.K. started down a different path in 1990 by developing a bold vision that offered an interesting compromise between a free market and a government controlled response. A closer examination of what Prime Minister Blair has referred to as a “third way” approach throws some of the issues concerning the connection of standards and technology into sharper relief, and makes us aware of some alternative approaches that might otherwise be overlooked.


At the beginning of Prime Minister Blair’s administration, the U.K. established a National Grid for Learning (NGFL) to make the best digital education content available for all schools. NGFL is the brainchild of Financial Times researcher Chris Yapp, who quickly understood how the Internet could be used to harness educational material for the benefit of universal access to lifelong learning.


In simple terms, the Grid acts as an Internet portal with linked sites creating an easy way for teachers and students to find the quality sites and digital content they need to advance the standards. As the government document states, “The NGFL is both an architecture (or structure of educationally valuable content on the Internet) and a program for developing the means to access that content.” By encouraging “new models of supply, which free teachers and others to concentrate on their professional priorities,” the government hopes to develop a market for high quality education content available online.


As with so many Web-based enterprises, the NGFL is more a “work in progress” than a completed entity. Many of its components remain “under construction,” so the site is constantly evolving. It may be that the grid’s final shape will be quite different from the one first envisaged. For example, the site has added a number of new functions: a Virtual Teacher Center (where teachers can find first class curriculum materials), a Parent Center, and links to a growing number of “community grids” connecting public libraries to other local learning resources. The NGFL has set a bright marker down for how to aggressively bring a nation’s schools into the 21st Century.


Is it working? It is too early to tell. Many fear that the content is not of a high enough quality yet. Almost $80 million (£50 million) of funds made available through Britain’s National Lottery have been set aside for digitizing educational content, and the NGFL has allocated 15 percent of its funding for content. The U.K. software industry complains that too much is being spent on hardware and more schools are paying out of their own pockets for online software.


The government sees a tripling of the market for educational software by 2002, and envisions the NGFL as a way of meeting these needs both online, and through digital broadcast (to be available shortly). Many were interviewed for an October 15, 1999 Times Education Supplement review of the NGFL’s progress. At the time of the writing, they believed that for the NGFL to be a purveyor of “a trusted brand of educational software” in its own right, far more investment should be made in the software that NGFL needs to make freely available to schools. NGFL critics believe that their policy shapers are naïve to expect that teachers developing their own curriculum material and sharing their products on the Grid will fill the current void.


What might be some of the NGFL selling points for a U.S. audience? Three clear advantages of NGFL’s more systematic approach come to mind:


1. Saving time and effort in ensuring greater quality control. In this way, teachers can spend more time on the process of teaching, rather than acting as would-be Internet librarians as they evaluate quality and relevance to the standards.

2. Providing incentives and a vehicle for gifted teachers to get their software into the mainstream of customer use, and place that work on an equal footing with the products of commercial vendors.

3. Assisting the entire nation’s teachers to identify and use high quality materials on behalf of standards-based reform, opening up ways that other digital content (including video and digital broadcast) can assist teachers to integrate complex media into the curriculum.


Are there some elements of the NGFL worthy of emulation in the U.S.? Let’s take some of the key advantages in order:


Saving time and effort on the part of teachers in finding good quality material


There are signs that the U.S. is starting to respond to the need to provide teachers with more efficient ways of finding high quality Web-based material. Technology Counts reports that national groups, such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Geographic Society, have begun to create an online portal that leads teachers to digital content aligned with the national standards. Moreover, a number of states have set up sites to evaluate “digital content” and its relationship to their standards, while four states have even created their own software.


In Doyle’s terms, these developments represent the strength of the free market of ideas, with standards evolving into “superstandards” at the same time as thousands of different instructional units come under the scrutiny of watchdog discipline-based groups. However, the question of whether the national groups will stay at the task long enough remains. Will they continue to pursue rigorous quality standards to help narrow down the choices that teachers have? To what extent, as those choices continue to multiply, will faction-based groups attempt to jump into the fray and divert attention, energy and resources away from higher quality materials? How many teachers will rely on the free market to select these higher quality materials that may take time to identify, as opposed to just going with a familiar off the shelf brand name software?


Incentives for gifted teachers to place their curriculum materials online


There are plenty of gifted teachers preparing high quality content materials. However, they do so on a largely voluntary basis, without the expectation of getting paid for their work, or of their materials being picked up by more than a handful of teachers. It would be hard for any teacher to sort out the good from the bad within any reasonable time frame. What sorts of incentives could be offered?


For states that want to significantly engage the talents of their teachers, it should not be difficult to come up with financial incentives for them to develop digital content, and to have the type of quality control that will attract teachers’ attention. The state might form partnership agreements with the teacher developer, and these agreements might help the teacher and the state eventually negotiate with a software company for the rights to further develop and commercialize the concepts.


Assisting the entire nation’s teachers to identify and use high quality materials on behalf of standards-based reform


We have not yet arrived at a consensus that technology can be used to advance standards-based reform. Even in a state like Texas, where hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in building a world class infrastructure of computers, less than 50 percent of teachers surveyed in the 1997-98 school year by the Texas State Education Agency upload or download information. Just 22 percent use the system for collaborative learning projects. Furthermore, only 6 percent of Texas school districts say their teachers use computers in the classroom on a daily basis.


The experts continue to conclude that the lack of professional development has stymied productive use of the equipment. Can we devise some state-based ways to use technology to help jumpstart efforts? One model that PBS developed along with the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) deserves some scrutiny. In a project entitled Mathline, math teachers had access to high quality videos that demonstrated effective teaching of the new math standards. In working with math experts online and in person, they were able to make the often difficult translation between the standards as written in a manual, and the way they can be exemplified in a real classroom setting.


Whether or not we want to train the entire nation’s math teachers or work the problem from the state or local district’s perspective, the costs to develop either a very large scale or more modest teacher development program are considerably reduced following recent advances in digital technology. It is now, for example, relatively inexpensive to send video over the Web or publish a CD. We just need to develop the policies that will create the market for the services needed. These policies might be in the form of tax and other incentives. A state or consortium of states can provide ways that states and districts might be induced to restructure their current spending on the conventional types of professional development (one or two day workshops, for example). With the advent of many more channels available for use in a digitized television broadcast, the opportunities for television programs to broadcast information for specific audiences and purposes challenges our creativity. We could imagine a video of an exemplary classroom teacher with separate channels available to broadcast digital content on the particular standards being discussed, with commentary by an expert on classroom management.


At the heart of such investments would be the ability to capitalize on a frequently neglected insight by Lauren Resnick, one of the champions of the standards-based reform movement. She commented that, unlike traditional approaches that hold time as a constant with the consequence of varying results, true standards-based approaches hold standards constant and see time as the variable. The goal would be to ensure that every child reaches the standard set, no matter how long it might take. This deceptively simple re-formulation of what constitutes the heart of the school’s mission represents a massive change in our thinking. We could go as far as to term it a “a paradigm shift” if it were not such an overused term.


Those who influence the K-12 sector have been reluctant to capitalize on the power of technology with its “learn anywhere, anytime” capability to shift schools from their traditional preference for “seat time.” The higher education sector, by contrast, has rapidly begun to embrace distance learning technologies. Even sage observers of post-secondary education are looking forward to a time when colleges will no longer even invest in bricks and mortar, but rather in the development of online curriculum content and expert mentoring.


Making it Work in the U.S.

Whether we develop “superstandards” or not, simply thinking about online materials as downloadable pages from a textbook or as lesson plans seems too limiting a vision for the future. The existence of the World Wide Web has created renewed interest in developing active learners. For example, students can not only read about science, but in the process of handling primary data, can also engage in doing science. Along the way, they can develop interdisciplinary approaches, connecting scientific understanding to social and historical issues. For a variety of reasons this is hard for many teachers to pull off successfully. The availability of good software and training are among the problems. The U.K. experience makes us aware that we may need greater effort to develop the incentives to continue a push in this direction.


In the interim we can expect more educational publishers moving more of their content online and touting their wares as standards-related, without necessarily challenging the traditional paradigm. Whether the bolder and more far reaching investments, such as those represented by the National Grid, will come from the federal government is in question, given that the U.S. Department of Education is prohibited from developing a national curriculum. The push may come from a set of states whose governors work to create a larger market for software developers who would otherwise not consider working for the smaller profit margins normally available for content-specific education software. The states may even choose to ask the companies to respond to the specific challenges they confront in reaching the standards.


The inspiration for what to focus on may come from common problem areas in 8th grade reading or math as identified by NAEP or TIMMS. Governors might request specific “education content providers” that the state will support in order to develop state of the art materials that will lead to specific gains on NAEP-like assessments. They might also challenge the consortia to develop appropriate professional development material. If the programs are successful, there would be a clear benefit of “going national” with the material. The fundamental point is that technology should be an important ally for the standards movement, when currently its role is marginal at best. Important opportunities exist in the next century to radically change this state of affairs.



Dr. Laurence Peters is a Senior Policy Advisor at the U.S. Department of Education. He taught in the U.K. for a number of years before moving to Ann Arbor to study for his doctorate in Education at the University of Michigan. Subsequently he moved to Washington, D.C. and gained a law degree and worked for six years as a counsel to a U.S. House Subcommittee on Education. He now serves as a Deputy Director of the Empowerment Zone Program Office where he coordinates efforts designed to close the digital divide.


E-mail: [email protected]



The views expressed in this article are Dr. Peters’ and do not reflect those of the U.S. Department of Education.

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2000 issue of THE Journal.