Policy & Advocacy Viewpoint

Was I Wrong on Obama?

With his defunding of EETT, the new boss seems to many ed tech advocates to be just like the old boss.

President Obama released his fiscal year 2011 budget request Feb. 1, and the news for the ed tech world, at least at first glance, was not good. Obama requested that Title II-D of the No Child Left Behind Act, Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT), the only dedicated stream of federal technology funding, be consolidated under a newly created program, Effective Teaching and Learning for a Complete Education, and that its budget be eliminated. The move brought a surge of e-mails and phone calls from people who recalled that I endorsed then-candidate Obama for president (see "President Ed Tech," October 2008) on the basis of his platform on educational technology.

One sample letter: "Nice endorsement, you jerk. I feel like we are back in the Bush years with the zeroing out of EETT."

And that was from a friend.

So I wonder, Was I wrong to expect more from Obama? Have we regressed? Outward signs notwithstanding, look deeper, and I think you'll find the answer is no. Consider the motivations of the two administrations. When the Bush administration proposed deep-sixing EETT, the official reason for the move was that the program fell into the category "Not Performing, Results Not Demonstrated." The unofficial comment from some congressional staffers was that EETT's job was done, since there was now plenty of technology in our schools.

Contrast that with the reason given for defunding EETT in "A New Foundation for 21st Century Learning: Education Technology Investments in the 2011 Budget," a document released from the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) at the same time Obama unveiled his budget: "The administration is not requesting separate funding for [EETT] in 2011, but rather is encouraging the infusion of educational technology across a broad range of programs in order to improve teaching and learning."

As had not happened in the prior administration, Obama and his team are going to great lengths to explain that lack of funding for EETT does not mean lack of support for technology. Outside the budget process, they've taken a number of actions that back that stance up. For example, significant effort has gone into developing a National Education Technology Plan, to be released in mid-March, and a National Broadband Plan embedded with educational targets, also to be released in mid-March. The United States Department of Education (ED) has hired Karen Cator, a well known technology advocate, to fill the position of director of the Office of Educational Technology, and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has placed an emphasis on installing and using state and local data systems in the administration's signature education initiative, the Race to the Top grant program. On top of that, the White House has launched Educate to Innovate, a campaign aimed at boosting STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education.

Morever, when the budget came out, the OSTP issued two policy statements: One was the aforementioned "New Foundation" document; the second was titled "Preparing Our Children for the Future: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Education in the 2011 Budget." Government watchers have said they cannot recall when a federal education budget was ever joined by such strong supporting policy.

"New Foundation" is particularly interesting. It opens with this: "The 2011 budget makes a strong commitment to technology that transforms how educators teach and how students learn. The president strongly believes that technology, when used creatively and effectively, can transform education and training in the same way that it has transformed the private sector."

This is all wonderful rhetoric--the same rhetoric that sold me on the Obama ed tech platform initially. In fact, rereading the Obama campaign materials, one sees the same language is showing up in these new documents. And some in Washington, DC, such as Douglas Levin, executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA), are skeptical. "For an administration that has fashioned itself as more tech savvy than its predecessors," Levin said, "zeroing out EETT and leaving effective implementation of technology to vague language such as 'encouraging the infusion of educational technology across a broad range of programs' potentially strips innovation-minded educators and state and district leaders of the tools they need to provide a 21st century education for all of their students."

SETDA, the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), and the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) issued a joint statement that decried the cutting of EETT, but in part supported the White House's interest in integrating technology across program areas. "We were very pleased to hear the Obama administration's commitment to infusing technology across the range of its proposed programs and school reform initiatives," the statement read. "We fully concur that, as the president stated, 'Technology, when used creatively and effectively, can transform education and training.'"

The support, however, came with a caveat--put some teeth into it: "We would like to see those sentiments translated into specific, tangible allocations that meaningfully incorporate technology ... across all program areas and [are] supported by targeted research, evaluation, and investments that enhance state and local educational technology leadership and capacity, educator professional development, and technology-based innovation."

"New Foundation" does name several possible K-12 targets for technology money that can be found in the 2011 budget. Shown here, these are precisely the places where teeth are needed:

  • The Department of Education's Investing in Innovation (i3) Fund, a $500 million grant program aimed directly at school districts;
  • A $40 million National Science Foundation Cyberlearning Transformation Education program for STEM education;
  • Increased investments in technology-based research and development;
  • Funding for "national activities" insupport of technology-related efforts;
  • Support for capacity-building grants to states and tech-based interventions under the ED's Effective Teaching and Learning for a Complete Education program; and
  • "Allowable" technology-based interventions in Title I, Race to the Top, and various other grants.

So, we have an administration that, based on the evidence, believes in the power of technology in education, but wants to take a radically different approach to encouraging its use, shifting away from funding through loosely structured grants to having ed tech use integrated across all educational programs. But will the plan described in the budget actually attain that lofty goal, and, if the concerns voiced by Levin and the leaders of ISTE, SETDA, and CoSN prove justified, what should be done?

Lest we forget Government 101, Congress is the body that actually creates an appropriations bill and then funds it. "The game is not over," says Keith Krueger, CoSN's CEO. "The focus is on the administration's proposals now, but they are proposals, and Congress makes the law."

A technology lobbyist who asked for anonymity said the game inside the Department of Education is not over either. Guidelines for many of the current and proposed programs, including how billions of dollars should be directed, have not yet been drawn. There is still time for SETDA, ISTE, and CoSN to have some influence, but they need to be more specific about how their recommendations can be implemented across various projects.

More specifics are certainly needed from the administration as well. Its use of open-ended terms such as "allowable" technology-based interventions is not good enough. It leaves open the possibility, and thus the likelihood, that the words won't be lived up to. The fact is many technologies are allowable purchases now in Title I and other programs, but technology is not an integral part of these programs at the state level, nor is it in all but a handful of schools.

The good news is that people inside the ED, especially Karen Cator, welcome suggestions, as do members of Congress, who are looking forward to the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the latest iteration of which is No Child Left Behind. ISTE and CoSN have set up the Ed Tech Action Network to organize information for Congress and the administration, but, for that to work, you need to use it. Good, effective policy will not happen without your advocating for it. Let them know that rhetoric is not enough; rhetoric must be accompanied by funding, and funding can bring action.

This article originally appeared in the March 2010 issue of THE Journal.