Northern Elementary School in Scott County, Ky., perches atop a hill surrounded by cow pastures and horse farms. The spanking new building looks as out of place as a Lexus on a 19th century street.
Inside, the juxtaposition is even more acute: Every classroom in this year-old school is equipped with a telephone, a computer, and a monitor that enables teachers to call up video programs and films at the flick of a switch.
“In our county,” says principal Danny Bolling proudly, “I’m the ‘state of the art.’”
But it’s a distinction he won’t enjoy for long.
As part of the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990, the legislature created the Council for Education Technology and mandated that it develop a five-year plan for the “efficient and equitable use of technology” throughout the state. To support it, lawmakers have pledged to provide a total of $200 million by 1996.
The ambitious agenda includes plans to develop one statewide system for both administrative and instructional purposes. Eventually, every student, teacher, and administrator in the state will be hooked into a communications network that can shuttle instructional programming, assessments, financial and management data, and accountability information from one end of the Bluegrass state to another.
Sitting in the middle of that web, trying to nail down the specifics of the plan, is Joe Kirkman, executive director of the education technology council and associate commissioner of education technology.
“If we do our job well, students, teachers, and administrators all over the state will be able to communicate—`talk’ with each other—at will,” Kirkman says, flashing one of his frequent grins, “and our system of public schools will be more effective and more efficient.”
But getting there will not be easy. Currently, there is no direct communications link between the state education department and Kentucky’s 176 school districts. Most information is submitted in writing and entered by hand. And, although some school systems have acquired a broad range of instructional technologies representing millions of dollars in expenditures, others have almost no computer hardware or software.
When Kirkman came on board last June, the monumental undertaking was dead in the water. In February, lawmakers had rejected a plan submitted by the technology council because it lacked sufficient detail. “It wasn’t a plan; it was malarkey,” complained Pete Worthington, speaker pro tem of the Kentucky House of Representatives and chairman of the education-technology legislative subcommittee.
The nine-member panel, appointed by then-Gov. Wallace Wilkinson, found itself in a Catch 22 situation. Although the committee of educators, business leaders, and policymakers lacked the technical expertise to devise a more detailed proposal, lawmakers refused to release any funds that would enable them to hire outside consultants until a plan was approved.
“For about 90 to 100 days, there was this pushing and shoving between the General Assembly leadership—Mr. Worthington, in particular—and the leadership of the council as to how we were going to move this thing forward,” recalls Jack Foster, then-Gov. Wilkinson’s secretary for education and humanities and a member of the council.
It was then that Thomas Boysen, the new commissioner of education, decided to call on a former associate for help. And before he knew it, Kirkman had moved from the sunny shores of Orange County, Calif., into the Holiday Inn across the street from the Kentucky education department.
The 48-year-old businessman—who has spent the past 20 years helping school districts design information systems—didn’t know much about Kentucky politics. But observers say the former high school athlete with the puckish grin and crinkles around the eyes has a knack for getting things moving and a keen ability to negotiate.
One of his first acts was to set up a multi-agency steering committee that includes representatives from the council, the state education department, the legislature, and the state board of education to help reach consensus on the program’s objectives. “From the beginning, it was clear to an outsider that all four of these agencies had to work together,” Kirkman says. “They just didn’t recognize it.”
He also convinced the council that it should create one integrated system that could serve both administrative and instructional purposes, rather than two separate ones. “I have watched the public school system for 20 years put money into administrative computers and put money into instructional computers like they were two different things,” he explains. “I’ve always felt that it made the cost of technology twice what it should be, and denied us . . .the benefits.”
But most important, Kirkman talked the council into having three internationally renowned systems-design firms develop competitive, detailed plans for implementing educational technology in the state, based on the panel’s ideas. The three firms—Andersen Consulting, Digital Equipment Corp., and Deloitte and Touche—were expected to submit their final documents to the council last month.
They were to include cost estimates; standards for building wiring and hardware that would make the system compatible across schools and school districts; a draft blueprint or selection guide of hardware and software products from which schools could choose; a failure-recovery plan; a procurement, distribution, and maintenance plan; a staff training and development plan; a systems-security plan that addresses such issues as how sensitive data will be protected; and recommendations about how to move the project forward in stages.
Only one of the master plans will be selected to drive Kentucky’s efforts over the next five years. And only after that plan is approved by the council, the legislature, and the state board of education will the money begin to flow.
“Until such time as we have a high-quality state master plan, people are reticent to open up the spigot, and I really give them a lot of credit for that,” Kirkman says. “It’s not easy to do. Boy, you get some money on the table, and you get a generally held belief that all you’ve got to do is take the money and start buying computers and shipping them.”
Early this year, the state hopes to connect all school district offices with the state department of education and begin distributing some hardware—or money to purchase hardware—to local schools for use by students.
By next year, it wants to begin building the network that will link individual schools, classrooms, and students to each other, the district offices, and the state. And by 1995, it plans to have in place a full-fledged system.
The state would like to integrate video, voice, and data technologies so that all could be routed over the same communications network, rather than wiring a school building three times: once for telephones, once for computers, and once for cable or television. But it is waiting to determine whether the costs will be prohibitive.
It is also struggling with a number of other questions, such as how to ensure the quality of the hardware and software used in schools, how to prevent wasted expenditures when the technology is changing so rapidly, how to equitably distribute money and resources, and how to ensure that teachers and administrators are effectively trained to use the new technology.
Because Kentucky is trying to create a statewide education system that provides maximum flexibility for individual schools while holding them accountable to the same standards, it did not want to dictate precisely what equipment and instructional programs schools could purchase. In addition, the state had to develop a system that would enable districts to build upon—not scrap—the technology they already had in place.
To meet those concerns, the council has proposed creating what is known as a “distributed” or “decentralized” network. All schools must install wiring and purchase equipment that meets certain architectural standards. But the standards are such that a variety of products could be used.
The education department will work with school districts to ensure that the instructional software helps students meet the new learning goals established by the state. The state will then procure software products that are both worthwhile and widely applicable so that schools can use them without paying an additional licensing fee. Schools that choose to use other software products can do so at their own expense.
Each school will also be required to come up with an educational technology plan before it is given money or equipment.
“Educational research shows us that if education technology is put into schools and it isn’t wellplanned, it fails; that’s pretty clear,” Kirkman says. “It also tells us that if people aren’t trained on it, it fails. So, we may make some mistakes here, but there’s no excuse for us making those mistakes.”
The state is still grappling with the question of whether it should purchase or lease hardware directly and loan it to schools or provide schools with money to buy equipment on their own. It is also struggling to come up with an equitable distribution scheme.
When the council began its work, “we didn’t even know how many computers were out there,” Foster says. “We didn’t know what school districts were currently spending. We didn’t know what software was being used. We didn’t even know what the student-computer ratio was.”
A survey conducted last spring revealed that all school sites in Kentucky currently have satellite receivers. And, in many districts, the number of television sets is approaching one per classroom. But the ratio of students to computers ranges from about 11 students per computer in the wealthiest districts to 22 students per computer in the poorest ones. Similarly, the wealthiest school districts are spending almost twice as much as their poorer counterparts on equipment per student.
The state now has to devise a distribution plan that benefits technologically poor districts without “punishing” others that have made the often costly and difficult decision to acquire education technology on their own. “There’s an awful lot of people who have bought technology who feel that other people who haven’t . . . are going to be given theirs, and the ones who have bought it are going to be penalized,” says Rep. Worthington.
Bolling, the principal of Northern Elementary School, is one of those who is worried. “Are we going to have to wait until everybody else catches up, or will we be able to forge on?” he asks.
So far, the state hasn’t given him an answer. Policymakers are expected to reach a consensus this month, so that the state can begin distributing equipment or money to schools in the spring.
Another vexing issue that faces states everywhere is how to fund and provide training for teachers and administrators who are expected to use the new technologies.
Rep. Worthington predicts that the costs for Kentucky’s hardware and software are going to be so “monumental” that the state won’t be able to afford to invest much money in training. In addition, he argues, “the expertise of working with personal computers is, in my mind, just simply time on task and attitude. And we can’t afford to pay people for that time on task.”
But Foster warns that without adequate training, the technology could go unused. That the state does not have funding set aside to provide that training, he says, “remains a bedeviling thing.”
Kirkman, as might be expected, is looking at technology itself as a possible solution to the training problem. He would like to see the state education department, the higher education community, and Kentucky Educational Television forge a formal link, so that the bulk of professional development could be conducted via distance learning.
The council is planning to fund some demonstration sites that would provide concrete examples of what the new technologies can do and how they can be used, but the criteria for selecting those is still under discussion.
In the long run, the state will have to evaluate whether its substantial investment in technology is worthwhile. “I think the basic belief is that technology is good for the public school system,” Kirkman says. But belief alone cannot sustain a multimillion-dollar effort.
“I don’t know how you’ll know that it’s worth it, anymore than you’ll know whether it was a good investment to raise our teachers’ salaries or to change the way we fund our schools,” Foster says. “I think we have here something more similar to a chemical compound. It isn’t what each element is worth, but it’s the interactive effect of those elements that will give us the result.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1992 edition of Teacher as State of the Art