Published Online: May 3, 2005
Published in Print: May 5, 2005, as Federal Role Seen Shifting

Federal Role Seen Shifting

The leaders who steer federal decisions about technology investments appear to be establishing new priorities.

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The leaders who steer federal decisions about technology in America’s schools are facing a fork in the road, and the real possibility exists that the federal government may leave the route it has followed for more than a decade.

And educators who believe digital technologies should play a pervasive and broad role in schools are worried.

In February 2005, the Bush administration asked Congress to wipe out all the money for the major federal grant program that, in several versions over the past decade, has provided nearly a half-billion dollars annually in support of technology in schools. Today, these Title II, Part D grants, which are part of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, pay for myriad programs in all the states. In fact, the proposed zeroing-out of the $496 million technology grant fund represents the lion’s share in President Bush’s suggested fiscal 2006 cuts to education, which could be docked by more than $530 million.

Even if Congress refuses to eliminate the grants, the proposal makes clear the administration’s view that most targeted federal spending on most forms of technology used in schools has run its course.

“We believe the purpose of this federal program has reached its end,” C. Todd Jones, the associate deputy secretary for the budget in the U.S. Department of Education, says of the grants.

Title II, Part D, called the Enhancing Education Through Technology Act, authorizes grants to school districts for a wide range of purposes, including programs that teach children “21st-century literacies” and that help teachers learn to integrate technology into class activities. States may use 5 percent of the grants for administrative costs. Half of the remaining funding is awarded to districts on a competitive basis; the rest is distributed from the states to districts under a per-pupil formula.

Jones points to changes in the educational landscape for why the president has proposed cutting the so-called “E2T2” grant program.

See Also
See the accompanying item, “Chart: NCLB Technology Funds”

“The world has changed in the past two years,” he says, noting that, according to an annual federal survey, 92 percent of schools now have Internet access in their instructional rooms—which include classrooms, computer labs, libraries, and media centers—compared with 77 percent in 2003. In 1994, only 3 percent of instructional rooms had Internet access.

Also, the number of computers in schools has soared over the past decade, reaching one Internet-connected computer for every 4.1 students nationwide, according to Market Data Retrieval, a research firm based in Shelton, Conn. That is the ratio recommended by the Education Department.

“It’s the administration’s view that there is no longer a significant need for a state formula grant focused on, and limited to, educational technology,” says Jones.

An explanation on the Education Department’s Web site of why the technology grants should be cut says that Title I grants, teacher-quality state grants, or other federal funds could help districts blend technology into teaching and learning.

‘The Wrong Direction’

The reaction from education organizations to the proposed change in federal direction is predictably critical—with consternation heightened by the fact that many state and local budgets are too strapped to make up for the loss.

“We were really chagrined,” says Anne L. Bryant, the executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based National School Boards Association. “It’s a major statement and is the wrong direction.”

Advocates such as Bryant point out that many computers in schools are overdue for costly upgrades or replacement and that most teachers are still uncomfortable with their skills using technology for instruction—assertions backed by data from surveys by the federal government and MDR.

They argue that the grants serve the No Child Left Behind law’s mandates by helping schools close achievement gaps between children of different backgrounds and ensure that all teachers are highly qualified. They add that the skills students develop through the use of technology will be vital to their success in the high-tech job market.

Bryant says President Bush’s proposed elimination of the federal grants for educational technology would be felt most keenly in school systems serving poor children, which federal technology funding tends to favor.

“The federal role has always been about assisting poorer systems, schools, and programs; in terms of education technology, that certainly was its bias—to assist those who were needy,” Bryant says.

‘Top Priority’

“The other irony,” Bryant says, “is that after four long years, the administration came out with what we feel is a very good technology plan.”

Just three weeks before the fiscal 2006 budget announcement, the National Education Technology Plan—the third since 1996 and the first of the Bush administration—promised continuity in school technology policy.

The seven recommendations—strengthen leadership, use budgeting innovations, improve teacher training, support e-learning, expand broadband Internet access, use more digital content, integrate data systems—harmonized with the goals of the E2T2 grants.

A compelling feature of the plan was the inclusion of snapshots from the opinions of more than 200,000 K-12 students, whose classes were surveyed online during the planning process. The students explained that cellphones, video games, digital music, and hand-held or laptop computers were as integral to their lives as bicycles and backpacks—and, consequently, should be integrated into school programs.

Susan D. Patrick, who as the director of the office of educational technology oversaw the writing of the plan, told Education Week in January 2005 that the Education Department would develop “action steps” for every recommendation. But in a March interview, Patrick did not address how the budget proposal related to the plan, saying, “I’m not going to go there.”

In retrospect, some critics note signs that the national plan, which was a mandate of NCLB, may have been more rhetoric than an action plan. For example, the policy recommendations address states’ and localities’, but not the federal government’s, role in undertaking and paying for activities.

Observers also point out that the technology plan was unveiled by outgoing Secretary of Education Rod Paige, rather than incoming Secretary Margaret Spellings, who has not commented publicly on the plan and was not available for an interview for this story.

But Patrick says Spellings has declared that “the top priority in technology is integrated, interoperable data systems that allow those analytical trends to be run.” ("NCLB Focuses on Data Tools," May 5, 2005.)

Another reason the technology grants may be on the chopping block is that they do not conform to the administration’s recalibration of the education system toward outcomes rather than inputs. The No Child Left Behind law is outcomes-driven, with schools being judged by their students’ performance on state tests. In the past, federal government support for technology has primarily focused on “inputs,” looking at ratios of computers per student and Internet connections in classrooms and percentages of teachers who have received professional development, even though most grants have required recipients to assess and report on the effect of technology on student learning.

Unbiased Spending Critiques Needed

Some observers, even in the educational technology industry, have praised the proposed cuts to the E2T2 grants.

Jon Bower, the president and chief executive officer of Lexia Learning Inc., says the grants create a funding “stovepipe” for technology that distorts decisionmaking in schools.

Bower, whose Lincoln, Mass.-based company publishes software for reading development and assessment, says: “When I go into a district, I find myself competing against technology for administration. We would compete more successfully if we went head-to-head with reading products.”

One result of the federal program, he suggests, is that too much technology money is spent on hardware and infrastructure, and not enough on the software that actually meets children’s educational needs. That’s why he agrees with the Bush administration that times have changed.

“I agree that ten years ago, it was very important to fund technology; it was unknown—unless you allocated money to it, no one would pay attention to it,” he says. “[But] we are now at the point where technology needs to become invisible.”

Others suggest that the organizations rushing to defend the federal technology grants—and that in March were mounting a campaign to flood members of Congress with e-mails— reflect the predictable biases of grant recipients.

The education historian Diane Ravitch, for one, cautions that “the people who are the recipients of the funds are not necessarily the best, most objective source for determining whether the federal funds are in fact needed. That’s true in every federal program—the people who get the money like to continue getting the money, and the need is somehow never, ever met.”

Ravitch, who was an assistant education secretary under former President George H. W. Bush, calls for “objective analysis not conducted by the people who are recipients as to whether there’s a continuing need, and what that need is.”

Over the past several years, the Department of Education has reined in the scope and level of its research on educational technology.

The Institute of Education Sciences, the department’s research arm, is focusing most of its efforts in this area on validating the effectiveness of existing education software products. Again, the goal is to help school districts and states meet the accountability standards of the No Child Left Behind Act.

One of the two institute-directed research projects in educational technology is a $10 million, three-year national study on software for reading and math instruction, being conducted by Mathematica Policy Research Inc., an independent research organization in Princeton, N.J., and the Menlo Park, Calif.-based SRI International Inc.

But the study examines only commercial products that are on the market and that have been studied previously—a study design that some observers say is backward-looking.

“The candidates for that study represent good thinking in educational technology as of about a decade ago—as a result, it’s not going to be a fair assessment of the potential of education technology,” says Christopher J. Dede, a Harvard University education professor who researches multi-user educational environments and the role of technology in teaching and teacher education. “It’s like conducting a study of antibiotics that doesn’t include any new developments in the last 15 years.”

Vol. 24, Issue 35, Pages 26-28,32

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