Special Report
School & District Management

Big-District Priorities

By John Gehring — May 03, 2005 7 min read

The educational technology spending priorities of the nation’s largest school districts appear to be leaning heavily toward technologies that help educators analyze student-achievement data and then adjust their teaching based on what those results show.

At the same time, big districts are using a mix of financial resources to maintain—and, in some cases, increase—the amount of money they are devoting to educational technology in general. But some officials in those districts say President Bush’s proposed cuts in federal aid for educational technology could derail future spending.

Technology Counts 2005
Electronic Transfer
NCLB Focuses on Data Tools
State Support Varies Widely
Federal Role Seen Shifting
Schools Eye Future Costs
• Big-District Priorities
State Data
State Snapshots
Table of Contents

In the 1.1 million-student New York City public schools, the nation’s largest school system, leaders are spending about $300 million on instructional technology for the 2004-05 school year, out of an overall district budget of $13 billion. A centralized information-technology office oversees those efforts, but more than 1,000 schools in 10 district regions also have the freedom to shape their own programs and tap aid from city coffers, state and federal grants, and foundations.

In the Bronx, a borough which includes 127 schools and some 90,000 students, school leaders budgeted about $5 million for instructional technology efforts for the 2004-05 school year. Among other priorities, schools have budgeted more money to enhance math teaching through the use of videoconferencing technologies.

The 740,000-student Los Angeles school district has a $4.5 million central-office instructional technology budget that is supplemented by competitive federal grants, such as the $5.5 million the district won in 2004 to bolster the teaching of mathematics and science through the use of technology. The school system’s eight local districts and more than 800 schools also apply for their own grants and have the flexibility to use funds to supplement technology programs.

But Themistocles Sparangis, the chief technology director for the Los Angeles district, is concerned about the Bush administration’s proposed elimination of Enhancing Education Through Technology, or E2T2, grants in its budget plan for fiscal 2006. That money helps states and, in turn, local districts pay for programs that improve the use of technology in the classroom.

“We are at the mercy of state and federal allocations,” Sparangis says. “It would make it more difficult to do what we are doing right now,” if E2T2 is scrapped.

See Also

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Chart: State Priorities

In the 196,000-student Philadelphia schools, almost $3 million of the $15 million information-technology budget is being spent on classroom-level technology efforts. A new instructional-management system that provides real-time student data that teachers can access from their desktop computers is the centerpiece of the district’s plans to help teachers use technology to shape instruction.

After students take benchmark exams every six weeks online, the instructional-management system analyzes data and shoots the results back to teachers. Along with testing data, teachers have demographic information, supplemental resources, lesson plans, and curriculum guidance at their fingertips. The district plans to spend $10 million on the system over the next five years.

“We’re providing data to teachers’ desktops that they were never able to get to in a convenient fashion,” says Vincent DeTolla, the Philadelphia district’s executive director of educational technology. “Traditionally, they would have to go to the main office and get hard copies. This is a radical change in education. The tools provide this information instantaneously.”

Making sure technology is used strategically as part of a larger framework of standards is critical, according to Yong Zhao, the director of the Center for Teaching and Technology at Michigan State University.

“District leadership should resist the temptation of new technology, but work with what they have and truly foster good uses for it,” Zhao recommends.

Many large districts with sizable bureaucracies don’t do enough to support teachers’ efforts to use technology, he adds, and fail to adequately use the technology they already have in schools. “They should think hard about how technology can support their educational goals,” he says.

Texas’ 211,000-student Houston school district is trying to do just that, by moving from viewing technology as “disparate tools to an integrated instructional package,” according to Laura Palmer, the district’s director of technology administration. Houston has a centralized curriculum for instructional technology called CLEAR, an online curriculum package of daily lesson plans and other resources that teachers access through the district’s Internet portal. The package also has a link that lets teachers see students’ benchmark-testing results and target instruction to students’ weaknesses. The district spends about $3 million a year on the CLEAR package of tools.

An $8.6 million state grant has allowed all Houston teachers to own laptop computers. Administrators are also using technology to help them work more efficiently. By the end of this school year, the district wants all principals to be using “dashboards” on their desktop computers that will allow them to work on school budgets, order supplies, and analyze student performance and other data.

“The technology has changed the way we work,” says Anne McClellan, the principal of Challenge Early College High School in Houston. “We can really work smarter.”

The 300-student school, which allows students to earn both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree in five years, spends about $100,000 a year out of its $1 million budget on instructional technology.

Making sure technology is used strategically as part of a larger framework of standards is critical.

Like all principals in Houston, McClellan has authority to shape her own budget according to her needs, and she is specifically tapping funds to build “smart classrooms,” a paperless environment where students and teachers have access to a range of technology tools. The classrooms cost about $200,000 each to set up, and along with base funding the school receives from the district, the school is using state and federal grants to build the classrooms.

The 280,000-student Clark County, Nev., school system, which includes Las Vegas, is one of the nation’s fastest-growing districts. The system builds more than a dozen new schools each year, and in fall 2004 completed a districtwide computer network that connects all schools and facilities to a high-speed network that allows for more advanced uses of technology.

For the 2004-05 school year, Clark County began using an instructional-data-management system, a Web-based program teachers can use in their classrooms to access student test results and other information.

“We haven’t had that kind of data in a timely fashion for teachers before,” says Christy Falba, the district’s director of mathematics, science, and instructional technology. “The focus is on linking instructional technology to standards and school improvement. It’s not just about technology as an end, but it’s about using technology as a tool to help with those big-picture things.”

More than 150 “educational computing strategists”—teachers with expertise in instructional technology—help teachers and school administrators in the district use technology more effectively.

In Florida’s 262,000-student Broward County system, which includes Fort Lauderdale, district technology leaders spent six months evaluating technology programs and infrastructure with the help of outside consultants. The district will spend $100 million a year over the next five years on technology, a significant chunk of the district’s roughly $4 billion annual operating budget. Among other priorities, Broward County is hoping to use some of that money for “electronic textbooks” as a way of saving money in the long run on costly textbook purchases, and to provide students with online lessons that can be updated. The goal is ultimately to allow students to access their textbooks through the district’s Internet portal at any hour of the day.

Broward Virtual Education already gives students the opportunity to take courses in business, computer education, foreign languages, science, mathematics, and other subjects online. Modeled after the Florida Virtual School, the nation’s largest state-sponsored online school, the district’s online courses can be taken from both home and school.

Before joining the district, Vijay Sonty, the district’s chief information officer for information technology, formerly led technology efforts at a Fortune 500 company, the New York City-based Interpublic Group of Companies Inc., one of the world’s largest advertising and marketing communications organizations.

“School districts are lagging behind other industries as far as technology,” Sonty says. “Politics, paperwork, and protocol tend to be the bottleneck. If we can deal with that, we can help schools. There is a lot of opportunity.”

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