Effort To Recruit Mentor Teachers In Technology Fails To Connect

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When the 21st Century Teachers Initiative was launched last fall, one national education leader said it would spread "faster than a virus."

Apparently, most teachers were immune.

The initiative aimed to recruit 100,000 technology-savvy teachers to serve as volunteer mentors to their peers with the help of a World Wide Web site jammed full of teaching ideas on using computers and the Internet in the classroom. ("Teacher Mentors Sought To Make Technology Links," Oct. 9, 1997.)

But despite heavy press coverage that included a White House unveiling, the initiative has produced almost nothing beyond rhetoric and frustration, key organizers admit.

Fewer than 5,000 teachers have signed on to the plan so far.

"It was an important issue, it was the right audience, the president announced it, but there was no organization, no money for an organization," said Gwen Solomon, who was working at the U.S. Department of Education at the time and helped with the initiative.

Officials from the lead groups--which include the National School Boards Association, the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the Software Publishers Association--say they still believe in the concept, however.

They recently turned over the management of the initiative to the McGuffey Project, a nonprofit group based in Washington that is preparing for a relaunch attempt sometime this summer.

Unrealistic Expectations

David K. Aylward, the McGuffey Project's founder and director, said the group was started last year as a charitable effort by National Strategies Inc., a Washington-based company led by Mr. Aylward. National Strategies specializes in business startups and influencing public policy on telecommunications, the environment, and other areas.

"We've been going out and finding the kind of resources needed to do this right," Mr. Aylward said in an interview last week. "We're feeling very good about it."

The original organizers admit they were unrealistic about what could be accomplished with a budget of zero, a borrowed staff, and in-kind contributions, without a single group taking overall responsibility. They say that the Web site had technical problems, and that corporate sponsors backed out on some promises to help.

Organizers also say the initiative was rushed from the start to take advantage of President Clinton's endorsement at a Rose Garden event last May--a publicity triumph they deemed indispensable to the initiative's success.

But haste took its toll. "After the president's announcement, people scrambled over the summer to try to get this thing up and running, and some premature dates were set up," said Jamie Horwitz, a spokesman for the AFT.

Kate Mikula, a computer teacher in Antioch, Calif., near Oakland, said she has heard "not one word" since last summer, when she volunteered her name after reading a newspaper article.

Organizers said she should have received two electronic mail responses.

After the official launch of the initiative in October, "a lot of organizations wanted to see its success, but everybody on the coalition had a full-time job," said Melinda Griffith, the state-issues manager at the Software Publishers Association, a Washington-based trade group.

The initiative's failure so far stands in stark contrast to another national school technology effort, NetDay, which recruits volunteers and corporate donors to install telecommunication wires in school classrooms.

NetDay, which began last year, has also relied on a Web site and received a presidential endorsement, but there have been some notable differences. NetDay has had the full-time services of two corporate executives who have crisscrossed the country plugging the effort. Corporate contributions have poured in, often joined by government funds. And tens of thousands of volunteers have taken part in projects to wire thousands of schools.

More Resources

Mr. Aylward said the McGuffey Project would assign five staff members, including a teacher with extensive technology experience, to work on the resurrected teacher training initiative.

He said the first goal is to complete "a new and improved" Web site later this summer. The Web address is http://www.21ct.org.

The plan also includes "creating a physical presence around the country," such as workshops, and setting up state chapters of teacher trainers.

Mr. Aylward said the McGuffey Project would not try to recruit more teachers to the effort until it has completed its plans and the overhaul of the Web site.

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