Funding | Feature

This Is Not Your Father's Tech Plan

Experts now say that when it comes to crafting successful plans for STEM funding, short-term and piecemeal are out, while long-term and strategic are in.

The conversation on improving science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education has moved to a national stage as President Obama and his administration continue to emphasize its importance in our nation's ability to compete with the rest of the world. Understanding the importance of this issue, K-12 district leaders are crafting technology plans that aim to help fund and execute STEM improvements--but some experts suggest that districts need to turn their thinking around. It's not the technology plans that can fund STEM education, but STEM initiatives that can fund technology.

How do districts make that shift in perspective? The answer lies in big-picture thinking, according to ISTE President and STEM expert Helen Padgett. Districts must develop a more strategic way of thinking in order to move STEM education to a new level. "The name of the game now is systemic change, with districts moving toward a more rigorous interdisciplinary approach," says Padgett. "Districts need comprehensive plans to bring about improvements in STEM education, and that is reflected in the funding."

Funding sources such as School Improvement Grants and NEH Challenge Grants are looking for in-depth strategic district plans, confirms funding expert Jenny House of RedRock Reports. "Districts must include strategic objectives in their plans, plus long-term vision, a longitudinal data-gathering system, textbooks, professional development, change management, and more, as well as hardware and software," she explains.

According to Jim Bowler, CEO of Adaptive Curriculum, an online math and science publisher that works with districts to locate STEM funding, today's school districts need a new name for their technology plans. "It's not really about a technology plan," he says. "It's about an innovation plan with long-term goals that aligns curriculum and other resources to the plan and assesses understanding and thinking skills."

In other words, this is not your father's tech plan.

Change Is Fundamental
Carrollton City Schools (GA) took the concept of rethinking and renaming their technology plan a step further. When the district designed a new "system improvement plan," they decided to focus front and center on long-term integration of STEM courses while addressing technology, personnel, professional development, evaluation, funding sources, and No Child Left Behind.

The district's plan includes a STEM program at the high school level and professional development focused on co-teaching, funded by a grant from the Georgia Department of Education. "We realized we were teaching science, technology, engineering, and math in isolation," says the district's superintendent, Kent Edwards, "so we started out with a new program in which all STEM courses are co-taught, by, for example, a math teacher and an engineering teacher, the goal being to build student interest and improve critical thinking and problem solving skills."

Carrollton City's systemic improvement plan also includes a feeder system that continually expands students' skills, starting with the youngest students. According to Edwards, the district redesigned several units for gifted students in grades 1 to 3 to include STEM, is developing a program with Lego for grades 3 to 5, and has made a STEM elective available to students at the junior high level. "The long-term goal is to be able to teach more advanced skills at the high school level," says Edwards. "And we are already seeing success. Our high school placed in the top 10 in a national robotics competition, and we are proud to say that we were one of the very few non-magnet, non-charter, and non-private schools to reach this level."

These fundamental changes in the way schools teach and assess STEM subjects are needed to build successful innovation plans, says Bowler. He provides another example of this type of change: "NSTA now recommends an end to survey courses," Bowler explains. "Instead, schools need to pick the important STEM concepts and help students study them in depth to build conceptual understanding."

A good way to begin planning this type of systemic change, says RedRock Reports' House, is by doing a gap analysis, or a comparison of actual performance with potential performance and goals. Districts need to identify the successful STEM programs they have in place and determine what they need to change to meet strategic objectives. "The gap analysis should help districts plan where they want to be each year moving forward," says House, "and, along with the long-term vision, it should be the starting point for all planning."

Carrollton City Schools is addressing some of its objectives by investing heavily in professional development and co-teaching. The district system improvement plan includes training in technology integration, ISTE standards, best practices, assessment, 21st century classroom technologies, diagnostic and assistive technology, and more. This combination of in-depth professional development programs and technology solutions can help foster and maintain high-quality STEM teachers--an important responsibility that Bowler says districts must take on if they want to improve STEM education. "It's all about attracting the right teachers, training them, and retaining them," he explains. "The days of rote memorization of content are over, and districts need to be sure their teachers can adjust."

Strategic Funding
Because STEM grants can fund many items that can be used across the curriculum--student and teacher laptops, interactive whiteboards, mobile carts, learning management systems, data collection systems, and more--districts can use these tools to enhance teaching and learning in other subject areas. Explains Carrollton City's Edwards, "Our plan is focused on all students and curriculum areas, but the state-of-the-art STEM component has provided funds for laptops and other technology items, as well as professional development, that have an across-the-board benefit."

But in order to make that happen successfully, explains House, "the strategic thinking needs to be in place long before the plan gets down to the level of individual hardware or software solutions." In other words, acquiring new technology should only be one piece of a consummate, well-thought-out plan to secure funding. Edwards agrees, saying that when it comes to securing funding for its innovation plan, district leaders should "start with the end goal and look creatively at locating both funding sources and partners for the long term."

Another way to secure STEM funding and help improve other curriculum areas at the same time is through the creation of focused magnet schools, according to ISTE's Padgett. "We're just starting to see this idea gain traction," she says. "A few districts are starting out by changing one middle school into a STEM magnet school to attract students and parents. Then of course they need an elementary that feeds into it, and they might start 'STEAM' in the younger grades, where the A stands for the arts--another new direction in STEM thinking. And then expansion to the high school level follows naturally."

In addition, says Padgett, building connections with the community is key for districts seeking funding. "They need to show that they are developing local buy-in and bringing in experts--industry leaders, doctors, engineers, academics, museum directors, and so on--to provide content expertise and role models, connect STEM to the real world, and build interest in STEM careers," she explains.

Carrollton City Schools bolsters its community ties by working with local technology companies to provide internships for high school students. The district also plans to develop a STEM Academy in partnership with local companies, both on and off campus, where courses will be co-taught by district teachers and company engineers. "This is a win-win arrangement," says Edwards. "Our industry partners like it because we are helping them build the workforce of the future."

Through its innovation plan, Carrollton has taken advantage of a variety of funding sources. In addition to the initial grant from the Georgia DOE, the district has used SPLOST (Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax) funds and local property taxes to update its technology infrastructure. "Districts always need to pull together funds from different sources," says Edwards. "The important thing is to fit all the funding sources into a systemwide plan."