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Published in Print: August 5, 1998, as Lawmakers, Education Policymakers Tackle Technology

Lawmakers, Education Policymakers Tackle Technology

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Portland, Ore.

The logistical and philosophical struggles that schools face in an age of high technology were much in evidence during one session at the recent annual meeting here of the Education Commission of the States.

Edward Miller, the former editor of The Harvard Education Letter, said elementary schools need to weigh just how much on-line learning they want for their students. Schools should consider the importance of hands-on learning, he argued, noting that some schools are focusing so much on classroom work that they're canceling recess.

His words prompted a sharp, swift response from Idit Harel, the president of MaMaMedia, a company based in New York City that runs an interactive, educational World Wide Web site geared toward children 12 and younger.

"This is ridiculous what you're saying," she charged, adding that the recess cancellations were irrelevant. Computers are everywhere, and young children should be allowed to learn through them, Ms. Harel said.

But the discussion was not all adversarial.

"The real challenge here is that every school have a purpose" beyond its technology plan, advised Bruce Goldberg, the director of Co-NECT Schools, a nationwide reform project that uses interactive technology. Schools must have clearly established missions and goals before they forge ahead with technology, he said.

Education technology--the theme of this year's ECS meeting--was also the subject of a closed-door meeting between Iowa Gov. Terry E. Branstad, the outgoing ECS chairman, and other governors and business executives during the July 5-8 conference. Gov. Branstad closed the meeting to encourage a free-flowing discussion, an ECS spokesman said.

In an interview, the Republican governor said the politicians and business leaders agreed that having a solid strategy is crucial to getting the appropriate technology in place. Teacher training is also essential, he said.

Under Mr. Branstad's leadership, the ECS convened a series of working groups on school technology during the past year. In the coming year, the Denver-based commission will offer states tailored seminars on producing technology plans.

About 530 people--most of them state officials and lawmakers--attended the Portland conference last month. School technology was just one of several issues addressed at the meeting. With governors and other education policymakers in its membership, the nonprofit ECS is designed to help states craft sound public education policies.

Gov. Paul E. Patton

Also during the conference, Gov. Paul E. Patton of Kentucky, a Democrat, was elected to serve as the new chairman of the ECS. He plans to work on making postsecondary education more responsive to students and states. Gov. Jim Geringer, Wyoming's Republican chief executive, was elected the group's 1999-2000 chairman.

At a session on international education, experts from several countries, including the United States, discussed academic standards, student assessments, teachers' unions, and lifelong learning.

But Louisiana state Rep. Francis Coleman Thompson had a more pointed concern. He asked the assembled speakers to tell him whether the poor showing of the United States on international assessments was accurate. American high school seniors earlier this year were ranked near the bottom of 21 nations participating in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS, in both subjects.

"Are they better?" Mr. Thompson, a Democrat, asked about other countries. "Are their students doing better comparatively speaking?"

The consensus answer: That depends on whom you ask.

Some pointed out that the American students who participated in TIMSS came from more diverse backgrounds than their peers elsewhere.

And Francisco Marmolejo, the director of the Consortium for North American Higher Education Collaboration, based at the University of Arizona in Tucson, said he saw more of an emphasis on personal student responsibility for learning in his native Mexico than in the United States.

Mexico, however, did not participate in the exam.

Mr. Marmolejo had earlier asserted that, in the United States, people view education as a "personal good." That means learning is valued first for the benefits it provides the individual, and then for the resulting benefits to society. In Mexico, education is "intended to serve as a social good," and its benefits to individual students are considered secondary, Mr. Marmolejo added.

Conference host Oregon was awarded the first of what will be an annual State Innovation Award from the ECS for a program that puts students to work on discarded computers.

Students Recycling Used Technology, or STRUT, sets high school students to work rebuilding donated computers that will eventually wind up in classrooms.

Since its beginnings in 1995 as a partnership between the Northwest Regional Education Service District in Hillsboro and Intel Corp., which has several plants in the Portland suburb, the program has caught on at 60 Oregon high schools and been copied in other states. STRUT students have recycled about $5.2 million in hardware and software in more than 8,000 computers now in schools.

The ECS also honored Robert E. Slavin, the founder and director of the Success for All reading program, for his work, which is based at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and Utah state Sen. David H. Steele for his service to the ECS.

States often confuse "accounting" and "accountability," testing expert Paul LeMahieu told attendees at a session on accountability trade-offs. Mr. LeMahieu, Hawaii's incoming superintendent of schools, served most recently as the director of the Education Research and Development Center at the University of Delaware.

Too many states create accountability systems that do little more than accounting--collecting test-score data and leaving it at that, Mr. LeMahieu argued. But accountability efforts should address a range of concerns, he said, including assigning responsibility for failures, taking steps to ensure equity, and choosing the right measures and indicators. No matter what the system, he added, its designers should expect difficulties. "No place has avoided them," Mr. LeMahieu said.

Margaret D. La Montagne, a senior adviser to Republican Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, said she believes it is important to test students every year for many years. Texas students are administered statewide assessments in grades 3-8.

"We report, report, report," Ms. La Montagne said. The strategy is paying off with rising test scores, she said.

--MARY-ELLEN PHELPS DEILY

Vol. 17, Issue 43, Page 23

Web Resources
  • Read highlights from the Education Commission on the States 1998 National Forum and Annual Meeting.
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