Profile :: Steven Paine
West Virginia's superintendent of schools
argues that classroom technology use is
at the core of 21st-century learning.
Steven Paine was especially pleased with one sentence
from President Obama's opening gambit on public education.
"I'm calling on our nation's governors and state education
chiefs to develop standards and assessments that don't
simply measure whether students can fill in a bubble on a
test," the new president said in a speech delivered March 10
in Washington, DC, "but whether they possess 21st-century
skills like problem solving and critical thinking, and entrepreneurship
To Paine, West Virginia's superintendent of schools, the
remarks were an endorsement of the foundation he has laid
since assuming the helm as the Mountain State's top education
official in 2005. That year, West Virginia became the
second state in the nation-- eight more have followed suit--
to enter into the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a coalition of business, education, and
policy leaders that advocates for instilling in K-12 students
skills that go beyond traditional content standards to include
global and civic awareness, critical thinking, problem solving,
and technology literacy.
Under Paine's leadership, West Virginia's Department of
Education launched the 21st Century Learning Initiative and
revamped the state's content standards and objectives to
emphasize these skills. Other states seeking to take similar
steps have turned to West Virginia for guidance. The state's
path to incorporating 21st-century skills into the classroom is
now outlined on the department's website in a document, "A
Chronicle of West Virginia 21st Century Learning Initiative".
The cornerstone of the effort is technology, which Paine
believes is "at the core of 21st-century learning."
Critics of the approach argue that the focus should be
on bringing more rigor to teaching the customary content--
English, math, social studies-- as opposed to imparting these
so-called soft skills. Paine, preferring to call them "performance"
skills, disagrees. "Go talk to the kids," he says.
"They'll tell you that simply raising the rigor of the traditional
experience isn't going to improve their outcomes. We have to
help them understand the relevance of the content to their
lives and to the world in which they live."
When Paine wants to go talk to the kids, he doesn't have to
go far. His son is a high school junior, part of the generation
of digital natives who have never known a world without computers,
the internet, and cell phones. "He and his buddies
are unbelievable in
their ability to use
their iPhones and their
MacBooks to link to
Paine says. "It's second
nature to them,
part of their world."
"Go talk to the kids. They'll tell you that simply raising
the rigor of the traditional experience isn't going
to improve their outcomes."
Two days after
speech, and less than
a month after passage
of the $787 billion stimulus bill that includes $650 million
for education technology, Paine had breakfast with 15 West
Virginia secondary school students. At the meeting, he
asked them what they would do if they were in charge of
spending the stimulus money allocated to education.
"Their answers were pretty interesting," Paine says. "Things
like, 'More technology tools in classrooms; we want to be
engaged in learning. Our teachers are good, but they need
more training in how to use technology to facilitate learning.'
One student said, 'That's just how I learn. That's my world
when I go home.' These kids were dead-on. We talked about
how there is this explosion of information out there, and that
in addition to using these technology tools to teach the content
that is traditionally taught, teachers should be working with
students to acquire new information and helping them learn
how to discern what is useful and what is not."
The son of educators, his father a middle school principal
and his mother an accomplished pianist who taught music in
the public schools, the 53-year-old Paine grew up in Berea,
OH, a suburb 10 miles southwest of Cleveland. It was his athletic
prowess that carried him to West Virginia, recruited by
Fairmont State College as a swimmer. He lettered in the sport,
but has since left it behind. "Right now I might sink," he says.
Paine went on to West Virginia University to pursue an education
career. He began teaching in the late 1970s, and after
two decades-plus working across the state as a teacher,
curriculum director, assistant principal, and principal, he
became the state's deputy superintendent of schools in 2003,
ascending two years later to state superintendent. He
has guided the forging of partnerships with tech companies
such as Intel, Cisco, Oracle, and SAS Curriculum Pathways. Thinkfinity,
a tool created by Verizon, provides West
Virginia's K-12 teachers with a free online portal to 55,000
educational resources aligned with the state's academic
standards, including grade-specific lesson plans and other
interactive tools and materials for students. TechSteps, a framework for teaching technology literacy,
is instituted in all of the state's K-8 schools through a partnership
with SchoolKit and emphasizes
project-based learning-- as well as assessments that move
away from the multiple-choice tests that Paine believes can be
inadequate for measuring student progress.
He has made inroads, but Paine says he still has much to do
to fulfill his vision for West Virginia's schools. The challenge is
threefold: equipping every classroom in the state with basic
technology tools, developing the broadband infrastructure to
ensure their use, and providing professional development so
teachers can make the most of these resources.
Steven Paine delivered the keynote
speech at the first FETC Virtual
Conference & Expo, a free education
technology event held online April 23.
Visit here to find coverage of the best of FETC
Virtual, as well as links to event
archives, including Paine's keynote
address and informational sessions.
"Yesterday's tools were the chalk and chalkboard; today's
tools are a laptop, projection device, and a digital whiteboard,"
Paine says. Together, these instruments can vitalize classroom
content and facilitate meaningful interaction between teachers
and students. The failure of state and local budgets to allow
for these tools "shows how far behind we in American public
education are in providing support for our teachers," Paine
adds. He hopes that a combination of state and local funding,
along with the
new federal stimulus
help to address
A heavily rural
state, West Virginia
has a lack
of sufficient bandwidth
in many of
its schools; thus,
the promise of
about $7 billion in stimulus money for high-speed internet
initiatives in rural and underserved urban areas leaves Paine
hopeful. Expanded bandwidth would enhance a wide variety
of technology-based programs and online resources that the
state's education department currently offers through its Teach 21 website. "It's a
real equity issue, because it's our poorest areas that don't
have the bandwidth access, and this digital divide is increasing
the gap between the haves and the have-nots," Paine says.
On the issue of professional development,West Virginia has
now trained several hundred teachers to serve as technology
integration specialists who can mentor their colleagues and
teach them research-based strategies for incorporating
technology into lesson plans. The ultimate goal is to have one
such individual in every school.
Technology integration specialists go through an intensive
40-day training program developed by the US Department of
Education. The program is designed to break down the reluctance
among some teachers, particularly those less sure with
technology, to change their practices. To further that effort,
Paine hopes-- again, with the benefit of the stimulus funding--
to implement a concept he calls "building the back porch":
creating a virtual space where teachers can informally share
practices and exchange ideas on effective methods of
instruction for today's tech-oriented generation of students.
Although he didn't call it that at the time, Paine first came
up with the idea of training a technology integration specialist
in the early 1990s, when he was working as a middle school
principal. "Multimedia computers with CD-ROM drives had just
come out, and we had networked computer labs with instruction
programs that kids would engage in at their own pace," he
recalls. "But we had very few teachers who understood how to
use these tools. So I freed up an eighth-grade social studies
teacher to spend half of her days exploring the technology and
to then begin working with her colleagues."
He stops, as if reflecting on a prehistoric era. "Boy, have we
come a long way."
And yet, Paine insists there is considerable catching up to
do if educators wish to join the world inhabited by the digital
natives who comprise West Virginia's student population.
"The technology is continuing to emerge," he says. "It's not
just laptops. There is now so much that you can do with a
BlackBerry or an iPhone, or even a simple cell phone-- and
yet, here we are, banning cell phones from schools."
He recently read with interest about Romania's commitment
to bringing universal access to high-speed broadband to every
one of its citizens, seeing the country's efforts to use technology
to boost its standard of living as analogous to his goals
with West Virginia's students. "Our kids can be as competitive
as any kids in the world if we can extend the right bandwidth
and technology access to them," he says. "Technology
today is the great equalizer of educational opportunity."
Dan Gordon is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.
This article originally appeared in the 05/01/2009 issue of THE Journal.