School & District Management

State, Federal Ed-Tech Leadership Seen as Key to Innovation

By Michelle R. Davis — February 06, 2013 6 min read

Last school year, Arizona state Rep. Richard Crandall heard about a Georgia school district with an impressive “bring your own device,” or BYOD, initiative. He organized a trip with 13 state and district leaders, including the superintendent of the 38,000-student Gilbert, Ariz. district, to take a look. The visit inspired Gilbert’s own BYOD program, launched shortly after.

More recently, Crandall used his electronic newsletter to match ed-tech leaders with the 63,000-student Mesa district, where voters had approved a $230 million ed-tech bond, in a collaboration to emphasize the use of digital tools for learning.

Crandall, a Republican who is chairman of the House education committee, views himself as a connector in Arizona’s ed-tech arena, highlighting projects that are working, building coalitions, and linking up those passionate about using technology in schools. “That connectivity, those relationships are huge,” he says.

State and federal policymakers can play a crucial role in bolstering or hindering a culture of digital innovation. But it’s not always about passing legislation or relaxing outdated policies, and there can be hurdles to this leadership. That’s why some advocates in the field say there are fewer ed-tech leaders at the state and national levels than there should be.

Policymakers at all levels need to get out of “compliance mode,” says Ken Kay, the chief executive officer of EdLeader21, a subscription-based professional learning community for educators, based in Tucson, Ariz. States “look at federal requirements or create state requirements and then tell schools to do it,” he says. “That’s not modeling creativity and innovation.”

Legislative Failure, Success

But lobbying for innovation in schools can be fraught with disappointments and political peril.

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Crandall, for one, championed a digital learning bill last year that would have provided stricter state oversight of the online courses that have proliferated in Arizona schools. Though it passed both the House and the Senate, the measure drew a veto from GOP Gov. Jan Brewer, who voiced concerns about a state entity’s authority to approve courses.

Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna experienced a much bigger setback. After state lawmakers in 2011 passed his education improvement legislation, which included several ed-tech measures, such as requiring online courses for high school graduation, Idaho voters scrapped the initiative in November by ballot measure.

Luna “went way out on a limb, and he just got whacked and lost everything he had passed,” says Tom Vander Ark, a partner at Getting Smart, an ed-tech advocacy organization, and LearnCapital a San Mateo, Calif.-based venture capital firm. He says lawmakers in other states noticed: “This will give others pause.” (Vander Ark is the author of Vander Ark on Innovation, an opinion blog hosted on edweek.org.)

But when ed-tech measures succeed, it’s critical, experts say, to be persistent in shoring them up, maintaining their presence, and expanding them—even to other states.

Maine’s Learning Technology Initiative brought laptop computers to all 7th and 8th graders in the state in 2002, and has now expanded to the high school level. But keeping the program funded and in a state of continuous improvement takes a huge commitment to regular professional development and highlighting best practices, says Jeff Mao, the state’s learning technology policy director.

Mao says he is often contacted by other state officials and district administrators wanting to replicate Maine’s program and he’s free with his advice. Too often, though, he has watched those efforts “crash and burn,” he says.

One of the common problems, he says, is in district or state requests for proposals, or RFPs, that show education officials simply don’t know what to ask for.

Maine, by contrast, has Apple Inc. officials working in the state full time on professional development for the Maine 1-to-1 program. And Mao’s latest RFP, unveiled around Thanksgiving, calls for permitting other states to join in.

To date, Mao has had commitments from Hawaii and Vermont, and interest from several other states, including Montana and South Carolina. The move benefits both Maine and other states interested in 1-to-1 programs.

“We want to take a leadership stance,” Mao says. “We’re trying to build a bigger market and spread the MLTI way.”

The goal is to create a market for the kinds of cutting-edge technology that Maine is looking for, and to help other states avoid mistakes, Mao says.

But John Bailey, the executive director of Digital Learning Now!, an educational technology advocacy group based in Tallahassee, Fla., says ed-tech leaders need to focus on more than just devices and wiring.

“You can end up with a lot of infrastructure, but no change or improvement,” he says. “It doesn’t necessarily lead to transformation in the classroom.”

National Leadership

What could lead to transformation in the classroom from the state and federal perspectives is modeling how to integrate technology into nearly every type of educational discussion, instead of putting educational technology in a separate silo or department, says Bailey, who was the director of the office of educational technology during the administration of President George W. Bush. Government officials at both levels can make sure to build in effective use of technology as a criterion when making competitive grants to “incentivize not just the acquisition, but the use of it,” he says.

That’s in part what the federal Investing in Innovation, or i3, grants have done, by making technology a key criterion for approval. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education awarded 49 grants, ranging from $3 million to $50 million, to districts and organizations to scale up education programs with proven outcomes or spur the development of new ones.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan also has used his bully pulpit to emphasize technology in education, championing innovations like e-textbooks and the expansion of broadband, and the Race to the Top grant program has built in technical assistance associated with continuous improvement and flexibility.

That emphasis on innovation is what Kentucky is trying to encourage with its new “Districts of Innovation” legislation, which will allow some school districts to begin operating with more flexibility starting in the 2013-14 school year, says David N. Cook, the director of innovation and partner engagement at the Kentucky Department of Education.

The legislation, enacted in 2012, was designed to give regular public schools some of the same flexibility charter schools have. For educational technology, that may mean districts get to spend money on technology that might be designated for something else. Or they’ll be able to opt out of traditional seat-time requirements for class credit that may hinder districts from using more online courses, Cook says.

Cook says he sees his job as part cheerleader and part brainstormer. He says states should take a lead role in spreading effective ed-tech practices across districts.

“My job is to take these incubation sites and figure out how to challenge other districts to do the same thing,” he says. “I’m a connector.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 06, 2013 edition of Digital Directions as State, Federal Leadership Seen as Key to Innovation

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