Duncan: Schools Have an Opportunity To Rethink Education Investments

In a broad-based interview with THE Journal at the United States Department of Education offices June 12, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stressed the importance of thinking differently about how we invest resources in education. "What [superintendents] do with the new money misses the point. What we really want to do is have folks rethink existing resources as well. And what I would argue in lots of places is that existing resources are not being spent as wisely as they could," he told THE Journal.

ARRA Funding
And this goes for technology. As "unprecedented money is being distributed to education," the Department has stressed wise investments that acknowledge the one-time nature of funds under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA). Guidelines from the Department for all these funds point out the "funding cliff," and note, "These funds should be invested in ways that do not result in unsustainable continuing commitments after the funding expires."

Yet, Duncan pointed out, "There are a number of one-time technology investments that make tremendous sense." He noted the need for data systems to track student progress and help teachers realize when instruction is working and when it is not. No longer do teachers have to rely on "just a guess or assumption of hunch, and all that is driven by technology."

EETT Investments
Even with the unprecedented money from ARRA, THE Journal noted that the ed tech community was concerned about the administration's budget proposal for FY 2010 in which money for Title II D, Enhancing Education Through Technology, was slashed from the $267 million in the 2009 budget to $100 million. THE Journal asked whether this was a signal of future support for technology from this administration. Duncan shook his head, adamantly said, "No," and turned to Jim Shelton, assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement. Shelton explained that the Department was putting together a national technology plan and that when the plan was completed, they would have a better idea of priorities for technology and funding needed for those priorities.

While the Department has had national technology plans in the past, the plans have not had funding tied to them. The implication is that this plan will be different.

Digital Content & Bandwidth
Duncan encouraged administrators to think differently about how resources--traditional and new--are invested and extended beyond current programs, such as EETT and Title I, into areas traditionally held tightly by states, such as instructional materials. Duncan and Shelton both commented on how digital content can not only provide teachers and students with interesting and flexible materials but also save money. Duncan mused about the possibility of using cell phones to distribute information to students, although "kids are on their cell phones the 14 hours a day that they are not in school."

When asked whether the drive toward more common standards would make this movement more to flexible materials easier, Shelton said, "Yes." Part of the cost for textbook publishers is trying to deal with at least 50 sets of standards, and that isn't efficient for anyone.

Yet with all this digital content, there will be a need for greater bandwidth to deliver that content. In response to a question about how the Department was working with other agencies to get more bandwidth to the schools, Jenelle Leonard, director of school support and technology programs in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education in the Department, talked about meetings she has attended with other agencies to develop a plan to get more bandwidth to rural areas in the country, including the schools. A draft of the plan has been completed. Shelton noted the continual problem of "the last mile," but said he was encouraged by the commitment of all the agencies to give schools a high priority.

Duncan is well aware of the problem. As he has traveled the country on his listening tour, he said that lack of access to sufficient broadband has been stressed by administrators, teachers and parents, particularly in rural areas of West Virginia and other states.

Duncan said he was particularly encouraged by the attitude of President Obama's nominee to be Chairperson of the Federal Communication Commission (FCC), Julius Genachowski. He has reached out to Duncan more than once to say how important it was to him that schools are served well.

Office of Educational Technology Still Up in the Air
The topic of a new director for the Office of Educational Technology provided the least amount of discussion. Shelton refused comment on who that person might be, when a name might be released, or even where the position would be placed in the organization. Beginning with the first Director, Linda Roberts under Secretary Richard Riley in the Clinton administration and continuing through John Bailey, Susan Patrick, and Tim Magner under President Bush, this position has always reported directly to the secretary. Rumor in Washington is that the position will report to the assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement, Shelton, and not the secretary.

NCLB Reauthorization: A New, Non-Toxic Name
The reauthorization of NCLB is never far from Duncan's mind. He said he intends to work closely with Congress to improve it and to fund it. But, he said, he will not rush it.

"This is something that will be around for six or eight years," he said. "We have to get it right."

One thing he said he intends to get right is having clear goals and letting the schools figure out how to reach those goals, rather than the "fundamentally backwards" way the law is written now, which is "loose on the goals and prescriptive on how you get there."

Duncan also said he believes we need to change the way we measure success. He favors more emphasis on growth. This means different and varied assessments. He also would like to forestall the narrowing of the curriculum that has occurred under NCLB in many schools. Duncan noted the importance of the arts, PE, and other aspects of the curriculum for all students.

One thing that will change is the name. Duncan noted that No Child Left Behind is "toxic" and that maybe we should ask a bunch of 10 year-olds what they think the law should be named. "I have said that as a joke in the past, but maybe that's what we should do."

About the Author

Geoffrey H. Fletcher is the deputy executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA).