Policy Advocacy

'A Test of Leadership'

Arne Duncan says the stimulus money earmarked for education technology provides local school districts with the resources for reform. It's on them to carry it through.

WE BELIEVE TECHNOLOGY is at the core of education reform, so we are giving you money and flexibility, but it is up to you to make it happen and then tell us what works.

That was the clear message I took from recent forays to Washington, DC, where I intended to find out what the Obama administration has in mind for advancing the use of technology in public education. During my visits, I interviewed Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Jim Shelton, the assistant secretary for innovation and improvement; attended a forum on emerging technologies held by the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA), where Shelton and Aneesh Chopra, White House chief technology officer, held forth in a lively questionand- answer session; and participated in a private gathering for SETDA members with Department of Education (ED) staff responsible for the operation of Title II-D, the federal Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) program.

"Technology is essential to the strategies we are using to reform education," Shelton said at one point during the Q&A at the emerging technologies forum. Speaking directly to SETDA members, he said, "People are about to figure out how important you are to accomplishing education reform in this country."

He cited the four assurances that are at the core of the education funding created by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009: college- and career-ready standards, preK-to-college career and data systems, improvements in teacher effectiveness, and intensive support for low-performing schools. And he said that it is impossible to make good on any of the four without technology, particularly the providing of help to students in low-performing schools. "The question is," Shelton asked, "what do we do to actually excel, not just meet basic standards?"

Duncan and Chopra believe that technology can play its most important role in education by tracking student progress to help teachers realize when instruction is working and when it is not. Chopra explained how large retail stores can adjust sale items in response to all sorts of varied data points, such as weather, the score of an NFL game, and the day of the week, while teachers wishing to adjust instruction to make decisions that are right for students are struggling with disconnected analog inputs from curriculum, textbooks, and test scores.

"Data and analytics are the key," Chopra said emphatically. Duncan agreed, saying there was no longer any reason for teachers to have to rely on "just a guess or an assumption or a hunch-- and all that is driven by technology."

According to Duncan, the administration is putting an unprecedented amount of money into education and technology, and wants the recipients of the funding to try innovative ways of applying it. He has concerns about ARRA funds being flowed through established programs. "What we really want to do is have folks rethink existing resources," Duncan said, rather than put their attention only on the stimulus dollars. His department is making an effort to cite best practices and provide the funds with as few strings as possible, but it is up to the local school districts to implement.

"When I was in Chicago," he joked, "I used to think that all the good ideas could not come out of Washington, and now that I am here, I know all the good ideas don't come from here.

"This is a test of leadership. We want to empower local leadership."

Readying a New Tech Plan

As for EETT funding, Duncan said that the cut in the program for the proposed 2010-2011 budget-- from the current $267 million down to $100 million-- should not be taken as a signal about how the Obama administration regards technology. "Not at all," he said with a firm shake of his head, and then looked to Shelton.

"Through the stimulus, we have an unprecedented $650 million [for EETT]," Shelton said, picking up from his boss. "In addition, we are publishing a new National Educational Technology Plan early in 2010 that will paint a vision for where we are going to go, and then have new dollars flow behind that, as opposed to people spending on things that, frankly, are disconnected from that central vision." The notion that a national plan will actually drive the allocation of dollars will be a new and welcome possibility for education technology.

Mike Smith, who helps administer EETT and is a senior adviser to Duncan, adheres to the broad vision set forth by the secretary and Shelton. In a meeting with state technology leaders that was as much a pep talk as it was a discussion of the nuts and bolts of distributing both the stimulus-born EETT funding and the program's federally budgeted funding, Smith and Jenelle Leonard, the ED's director of school support and technology programs, encouraged their audience to be innovative and think big. Smith couldn't help but insert some wishful thinking.

"When the Obama administration looks back on this time in education eight years from now," he said, "it will see that technology had the biggest impact on education."

States have the option to make all of their EETT funding run through a competitive grant program or to split it, whereby 50 percent is competitive and 50 percent flows to schools through the Title I formula. Inevitably, school districts with small numbers of Title I students will receive very small amounts of money, with little potential for that money to have an impact. Smith encouraged states to use all their EETT funds in competitive programs and to make the awards large. Doing so will take political will and require more work, he said, but can result in a much greater payoff.

Smith added that tech directors should attempt to leverage technology into Title I and the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), another idea consistent with Duncan's plans. The ED is having conversations with Title I staff, who are revising their guidance on the use of Title I funds, including the additional $13 billion provided by the ARRA. The revisions will include some examples from the EETT guidelines to demonstrate how technology can be used for Title I.

Chopra explained how large retail stores can adjust sale items in response to all sorts of varied data points, while teachers wishing to adjust instruction are struggling with disconnected analog inputs from curriculum, textbooks, and test scores.

Reconsidering NCLB

Meanwhile, Duncan is looking ahead to the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act. He intends to work closely with Congress to improve it and to fund it, but promises not to rush it. "This is something that will be around for six or eight years," he said. "We have to get it right." There are hints about the direction he sees reauthorization heading. Duncan said that we need to have clear goals and let schools figure out how to reach those goals rather than the "fundamentally backward" way the law is written now, which is "loose on the goals and prescriptive on how you get there."

Duncan believes we need to change the way we measure success with more emphasis on growth rather than a set target. He is putting his budget where his mouth is: The official word from the Education Department is that it will commit up to $350 million to "support states in the creation of rigorous assessments linked to internationally benchmarked common standards being developed by states."

Duncan also would like to forestall the narrowing of the curriculum that has occurred under NCLB in many schools. He noted the importance of the arts, physical education, and other neglected subject areas for all students.

Shelton provided additional hints about what may be contained in NCLB's reauthorization. He advised the state technology directors to watch the guidelines for the Race to the Top Fund, a $5 billion pot of money created by the stimulus bill that will be used to reward schools for advancing innovation in their classrooms. "If you think those principles are not going to show up in reauthorization," he said, "you would be wrong."

This article originally appeared in the 8/1/2009 issue of THE Journal.