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When Enough is Not Enough

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A guide to allocating scarce resources for school technology.

Most states, governors, and parents want modern technology in their schools. The question is no longer what to do with the technology, or how it will help student outcomes, but how to get the money and how to allocate it. Education technology is very expensive, and few states can find the funds to implement it all in one fell swoop. Thus, when there isn't enough money to fully implement a comprehensive school-technology plan, how should a state allocate available funds?

We have been working with a number of governors and education chiefs who are trying to determine just that. From our discussions with them and with many others across the country for whom the technology money questions have become complicated and vexing, we offer the following thoughts to guide decisionmaking:

  • Factors affecting allocation decisions. Allocation decisions depend on a number of considerations. First, does a state have a special need that can be met by targeting its technology spending? In a state where the student population is geographically dispersed, a distance-learning network provides comprehensive curricula to isolated schools. Similarly, inner city areas, with high unemployment rates for high school graduates, might benefit from intensive high school training in using technology on the job. Second, do spending patterns enable a state to get more bang for its buck through quantity discounts or the leveraging of funds? Third, will particular approaches garner strong political support for future education-technology spending? A computer for each teacher, for example, can ensure more effective uses of technology and thereby win their support for future fund raising. Also, if technology is implemented in a way that provides skilled workers for a state's businesses sooner rather than later, business's direct contribution to school technology and its support for public fund-raising efforts will be enhanced. Finally, spending that most clearly and quickly demonstrates the effectiveness of school technology is the most powerful argument for more resources.
  • Merit or equity. The first question policymakers must answer involves equity and merit--which should take precedence when distributing funds for school technology? Allocation on a per-student basis across the state enables every school to receive its "fair share" of available funds. Taxes are paid in every school district; shouldn't every school benefit from their use? Though allocation by enrollment is most equitable, this method of distribution may spread limited resources too thin to have any significant impact. If every classroom gets a single computer, the benefits from having a critical mass of computers in each classroom will not materialize. If all the funds are used to buy computers, but schools run out of money before they pay for teacher training, voters will see little payoff from technology spending and will be unwilling to spend more on it.

Suggestions to use their per-student allocation to establish a school computer lab should be rejected out of hand. Many schools with computer labs for a decade or more have had no commensurate improvement in student outcomes. Labs may teach students how to use technology, but they rarely enable the integration of technology into instruction--which is what we intend.

Under a competitive-grant program, schools that can demonstrate that they will make the most effective use of technology will receive the most funds. There is a strong argument for providing funds to these schools first. Schools which demonstrate interest in technology use through application for scarce federal, state, and private funds and have teachers using technology are schools most likely to provide a supportive environment. In these circumstances, technology can have a significant impact. These schools are likely to be the ones that already have some technology and that can leverage new money. To illustrate, a school with computers could benefit greatly from wiring funds for Internet access or for development of sophisticated course software. But a school with no technology would not be able to accomplish as much. Wealthier schools or districts (which probably already have some technology) can afford to hire grant writers to make the most plausible case for more funds. Poorer schools are then at a competitive disadvantage, creating a "have and have-not" situation. On the other hand, poorer schools often have a greater ability to purchase technology by using their Title I compensatory-education funds. In either case, an allocation by demonstrated commitment tends to make "the rich" richer, but will provide funds to schools that are most likely to produce positive results.

  • Allocation by socioeconomic status. Although high-socioeconomic-status schools may be more effective in competing for technology funds, research implies that their students might not benefit as much from technology as educationally disadvantaged students. Technology has a particular advantage in this student population, where traditional teaching methods, fear of teachers, or the pace of the class all may cause students to be unresponsive. Computer-based instruction has produced significant achievement gains for this group. Technology is perceived by students to be less threatening than traditional instruction; it provides extensive drill and practice with immediate feedback; it enables individualized diagnostics; and it allows students to work at a pace that meets their needs. Going beyond drill and practice, Union City, N.J., an urban district with a large number of educationally disadvantaged students, used technology in support of the district's curriculum changes. The results were dramatic. Passing rates for the elementary grades went from the 30-to-35-percent range to between 70 and 80 percent after the implementation of technology. The marginal benefit of providing funding for a district such as Union City surely exceeds the benefit to a less educationally disadvantaged district.
  • Allocation to selected districts or schools. Based on effectiveness criteria, then, a state should prefer allocation by socioeconomic status or by competitive grants, rather than by enrollment. But both merit-based allocation and socioeconomic-status-based allocation only benefit a segment of the taxpaying population. Recognition of this has led some states to consider allocating funds sequentially to districts. Such a plan begs the question of which districts should be first in line for technology funds. If eligibility depends upon ability to use the money most effectively, we are back to a merit-based system at the district rather than the school level. Low-socioeconomic-status districts, or low-achieving districts, might make more sense--with a caution to avoid allocation to districts based on political grounds.

By implementing technology a district at a time, there may be savings, particularly for wiring and infrastructure costs. For instance, it is more cost-effective to purchase one T1 line per district and to share an Internet connection with every school than to provide an independent connection for each school. Also, district needs will tend to be part of a comprehensive plan allowing for quantity discounts. In addition to cost savings, implementation at the district level has educational benefits. These plans allow for an overall technology plan in support of curriculum changes--changes that are from grade to grade and school to school. District implementation also allows for greater efficiency in administration.

If resources cannot fully fund technology in all district schools, model schools might be an effective way to demonstrate the impact of education technology. These models also can rally public support for larger and broader financial support. With continuing support and significant dissemination, carefully selected model schools provide evidence that technology improves learning. This would help other schools and community members understand technology and make decisions about how to use it in schools. Unfortunately, model schools may benefit the haves more than the have-nots, or at least some schools rather than all of them. This is so because the least expensive way to build a model school is where there is already some technology available.

  • One grade at a time. If everything can't be done at once, some states implement technology one (or several) grades at a time. This can start at the beginning of elementary school, when kids start high school, or even in the 12th grade. In each case, there is opportunity for cost savings from large purchases of grade-specific software, curriculum development, and teacher training. This approach has a political advantage over a district-by-district allocation in that every school with the targeted grade gets some resources.

By starting with the lowest elementary grades and adding a grade or two each year, the first set of students will have access to technology throughout its K-12 experience. Younger students are able to learn new technologies more easily and will not need to adjust to a new way of learning midway through their school years. Students and their parents will create a demand for funds to continue implementing technology in successive grades, because they recognize its effectiveness. They will not accept a sudden end to learning with technology when a student reaches a particular grade.

The downside to this option is obvious: Children already in high grades will not receive the benefits of a technology-rich education. Further, support from the business community will be scant when the promised labor-market benefits of technology-literate graduates are 12 or more years away.

Implementing technology first in high schools puts limited resources into students that are closer to entering the labor market. Business is more likely to support a program that provides more skilled labor in the short term. Moreover, if high schools today have more technology than elementary schools do, new funds could be better leveraged there. The key obstacle here is the way high schools are organized. Fifty-minute class periods attended by different groups of students preclude many of the benefits that technology can provide, such as integrated instruction across disciplines and cooperative learning.

To summarize, limited funds should not be distributed to all classrooms by enrollments. Giving every school a little money will not enable it to do anything meaningful and classroom technology will fail. While such an allocation is the automatic suggestion of many politicians who do not want to favor one area over another, it is the least effective path.

Competitive grants should be ruled out because they are not equitable. It is difficult to get general public support for grants that benefit only some schools or districts, perhaps schools outside many taxpayers' districts. Although we preclude model schools financed by the state for the same reasons, this does not rule out such models financed at the local level.

This leaves us with implementation by district or grade level. If politically feasible, implementation by district would be our first choice. Funds would be provided based on a plan demonstrating that the district was prepared to use the funds effectively. Within the district, emphasis could then be placed on implementation at particular grade levels. In order to maintain broad-based support, however, grade-level implementation might be more likely to occur.

From an educational standpoint, technology implementation starting in kindergarten or 1st grade makes the most sense. Yet from a political perspective, if business support is important for additional funding, consideration should be given to starting in the 9th or 10th grade. An obvious compromise would be to start simultaneously in grades 1 and 10, rather than doing two elementary grades a year. Finally, if money is not available to do one whole grade level in a year, funds should go first to the lowest-socioeconomic-status schools in the selected grade. This will bring these schools up to par in terms of technology with better endowed schools. And we believe educationally disadvantaged students will demonstrate the greatest gains from their technology-rich education.

We have drawn some specific conclusions about how to allocate scarce resources for technology in the schools. But every state must consider its unique circumstances before selecting a particular path. Each state must make short-run choices to maximize the likelihood that adequate funds will be available over time in order to ensure full implementation of technology and the benefits that will result.


Lewis C. Solmon is the president of the Milken Institute for Job & Capital Formation in Santa Monica, Calif., and a former dean of the University of California at Los Angeles graduate school of education. Kalyani R. Chirra is a research analyst for the institute.

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