Federal Act Boosts StudentStandards Aimed at Technology

By Andrew Trotter — September 03, 2003 8 min read
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After years of quiet activity, a movement to tune schools to the technology-driven “literacies” of contemporary life is getting its volume pumped by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

State education departments are paying new heed to what some call 21st- century or contemporary literacies because of a goal in the federal education law of ensuring that every 8th grader is proficient in the use of technology by 2005.

“Culminating with NCLB, there’s a new type of literacy,” said John P. Bailey, the director of educational technology for the U.S. Department of Education. “It’s taking the right kind of technological tools [and] applying it to different tasks in problems that students face inside the classroom, and that we face in work as well. It’s not just [computer] programming.”

See Also...

View the accompanying table, “State Technology Standards.”

It doesn’t hurt Mr. Bailey’s cause that the goal is attached to federal formula-based grants to states totaling about $700 million a year. That money also supports improving academic achievement through technology and blending technology into teacher training and curriculum development.

The federal initiative has spurred recent interest in the experience of the few states that have had technology standards in place for years.

“I’m getting questions from state technology directors from all over the country,” said Frances B. Bradburn, the director of instructional technology for the state education department in North Carolina, which has had a state curriculum on technology and information literacy since the early 1990s, and has an 8th grade technology-skills test that is required for high school graduation.

Though the federal goal on technology literacy lacks the regulatory teeth that the No Child Left Behind law provides for some other goals, such as improving reading and math skills, it underscores assertions by many school and corporate leaders that schools are not preparing students for a technology-rich society.

“We’re preparing them for an age gone by,” said Don Knezek, the chief executive officer of the International Society for Technology in Education, based in Eugene, Ore. The professional group of educators has led the development of the National Education Technology Standards, or NETS, the most widely used technology education standards.

But some educators hold that the focus on standards diverts attention from the fundamental challenge of using technology well in the classroom.

“It gets in the way of appropriate integration of technology,” said Jamie McKenzie, an author and a former school administrator and teacher who publishes an electronic newsletter and Web site, both titled From Now On, for educators.

Beyond the Basics

Proponents of the contemporary literacies, of which there are several competing lists written by different groups, say young people need to be systematically introduced to the use of computers and the World Wide Web and their many digital relatives.

The new literacies are intended to go far beyond the basics of simply operating technology, to include such skills as evaluating the quality of Web pages and using online content appropriately for school research and assignments. In North Carolina, the state technology test—combining pencil-and-paper items and demonstrations of the ability to use technology—has become a focal point for school districts.

“According to our testing people, [the test] has done more to achieve equity in North Carolina than any other initiative,” Ms. Bradburn said. “By pushing districts to provide computers and incorporate 21st- century skills, everything about it has meant all children have the same opportunities in North Carolina to become technology-literate,” she said.

Still, she acknowledged that districts have varied widely in how they have implemented the state curriculum—especially in providing teachers with professional development.

Some schools have done better than others, Ms. Bradburn said, citing the 950-student Timber Drive Elementary School near Raleigh as an example of one that has succeeded in using the standards effectively.

Susan King, the principal, said the school’s approach is to come up with activities that carefully blend technology literacy with academic goals. In a typical science or social studies assignment, for example, students collect and evaluate information from the Internet, discuss the content, and write essays expressing their opinion on the topic.

Addressing both academic and technology goals—day in, day out—requires close collaboration by adults with the necessary skills, and plenty of planning time. Timber Drive teachers routinely work with media specialists and computer- resource teachers, as well as parents and guidance counselors.

“We are consciously reflecting adult patterns of work,” said Ms. King, who receives advice from a local committee that includes business leaders. “It doesn’t happen always naturally; you really have to plan for it, make it happen.”

Some experts are impressed with what they’ve seen at Timber Drive Elementary.

“They have got it all together,” said Ferdi C. Serim, the author of Information Technology for Learning: No School Left Behind, a recent book that makes a case for contemporary literacies.

Mr. Serim, who has visited the school, said it “stands out for developing contemporary literacy for the past six years and has experienced remarkable growth in student achievement as a result.”

The report, “Learning for the 21st Century,” is available from the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

Standards Skeptics

But some educators believe that teachers—if armed with technology, planning time, and teamwork—do not also need a bound book of standards to achieve results.

“Technology is capable of accomplishing some very wonderful things, but I don’t believe they will be achieved through standards,” said Alan Warhaftig, a nationally certified high school English teacher from Los Angeles and a well- known critic of the overuse of technology in schools.

Mr. Warhaftig, who teaches at the 360-student Fairfax Magnet Center for Visual Arts, said some standards cover skills, such as keyboarding, that children learn as a matter of course, and others cover issues that competent teachers handle instinctively, such as analyzing the content on a Web site.

“That kind of higher-level thinking has zero to do with ‘meet Mr. Mouse,’ ” he said.

Richard A. Smith, a former director of instructional technology for the Houston school district, argues that having more than a few principles to follow becomes counterproductive.

“Technology should make your job easier, [but] the standards kind of stifle good teachers,” said Mr. Smith, now a lecturer in the education department at the University of Houston-Clear Lake.

A divide over technology standards was evident in sessions and corridor conversations at the annual National Educational Computing Conference in late June. The four-day conference in Seattle, which drew 9,900 educators and thousands of vendors, is organized by ISTE and, not by coincidence, served as a showcase for NETS.

Mr. Knezek of ISTE noted the impressive list of states that have adopted or adapted those standards, which have three levels, directed at students, teachers, and administrators. Forty-seven states and the District of Columbia are using some part of the standards for students, teachers, or administrators or a combination of those groups, he said.

Even China recently translated the NETS student standards into Mandarin, he pointed out.

The Challenge Ahead

Yet advocates of the various contemporary standards admit that the job of persuading local school leaders to emphasize them is far from over.

As it is, school administrators are much more preoccupied with meeting the federal government’s expectations for showing “adequate yearly progress” in academic-content areas. (“State Reports on Progress Vary Widely,” this issue.)

And the federal goal of technology literacy is a flimsy buggy whip, because, although states will eventually have to assess students’ technology proficiency, the law does not require them to report the outcomes.

So far, only three states—New York, North Carolina, and Utah—have devised assessments of students’ technology literacy based on state standards, according to a 2003 survey by Education Week. (Pennsylvania plans to join that list in the 2004-05 school year.) Of those, only North Carolina makes the passing of a technology test a requirement for high school graduation.

Talk about contemporary literacies is complicated by the existence of several overlapping sets of standards and curricula that educators can subscribe to, which were adopted by groups of school librarians, teachers, and business leaders, beginning in the 1980s.

“We have ‘information literacy,’ ‘information power,’ ‘digital literacy,’ ‘technology literacy'—this is one of the reasons why it’s been so difficult to implement all these,” said David F. Warlick, an educational consultant based in Raleigh, N.C., who trains school administrators in how to provide leadership in the area of technology.

“These very powerful documents are ... largely inaccessible to the public, which includes your boards of education, and legislators,” said Mr. Warlick, whose firm is called the Landmark Project.

The problem of convincing school leaders that they should follow technology standards was addressed in a report released this summer by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a Washington-based coalition of eight public and private organizations that is attempting to define and incorporate into learning the skills students need to succeed in the current century.

“We are creating a common language” for discussion of those skills, said Peggy O’Brien, the CEO of Cable in the Classroom, an initiative of the cable TV industry and a member of the partnership.

Other partners include the National Education Association, AOL Time Warner Inc., Apple Computer Inc., Cisco Systems Inc., Dell Inc., and Microsoft Corp.

The report, “Learning in the 21st Century,” describes preconditions, or milestones, for adapting schools to impart 21st-century skills, including those contained in NETS.

Meanwhile, Mr. Knezek said, the National Education Technology Standards are ready to serve a useful purpose.

“We spent many years waiting patiently for [experts in] content areas to add technology skills and for administrator groups to infuse technology in their programs, but they didn’t know what to weave in,” he said. “There was an absence of consensus on what it is that should be woven in"—a situation that no longer exists, he said.

Coverage of technology is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.


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