Their plans for using technology to improve schools differ on specifics, but Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain have each taken the position that educational improvement efforts should be firmly supported using technology.
The presidential nominees also agree that the federal government should play a significant role in improving the use of technology. Sen. McCain’s proposals would put a higher priority on the development of online schools, however, than Sen. Obama’s would.
Teachers’ assessment of their level of skill with technology has not changed over the past three years, according to an annual survey.
SOURCE: Project Tomorrow 2007
The two campaigns’ general agreement on the important role of educational technology was touched on most recently at a public discussion on “educational entrepreneurship” that featured Lisa Graham Keegan, a former state superintendent of schools for Arizona who is an education adviser to the McCain campaign, and one of the Obama campaign’s education advisers, Michael Johnston, the principal of the Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts in Thornton, Colo., which serves grades 7 to 12.
In a question-and-answer session at the Oct. 8 event sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank, both advisers responded to a question about whether the federal government should help roll out broadband access to the Internet to schools and communities throughout the United States. The government currently gives limited support to this priority through the E-rate program.
Ms. Keegan and Mr. Johnston both responded favorably.
“We are very close on that,” Ms. Keegan said, referring to the positions of the McCain and Obama campaigns.
She then ticked off the Arizona senator’s proposals to redirect federal funds toward building new virtual schools, providing scholarships to help students attend virtual schools, and developing courseware and access to math and science courses.
“I agree,” Mr. Johnston said of Mr. Obama’s support for the use of broadband technologies in schools. “The key question is access for rural regions, which need highly qualified teachers, and to make tools accessible.”
He added that the Illinois senator supports “online learning as one of the portfolio of options, as a way to exercise school choice.”
Role in Competitiveness
The similar views on technology in education by the top two presidential candidates is pleasing to educational technology advocates, who have long and sometimes successfully lobbied for a larger federal role in this area. They are optimistic that no matter who wins in November, they will have receptive ears in the White House.
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“We appreciate that both candidates have addressed the important role of educational technology to make a difference for our students,” said Mary Ann Wolf, the executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, based in Washington.
In August, SETDA, the Consortium for School Networking, the International Society for Technology in Education, and the National Education Association sent a list of questions on educational technology policy to the two candidates that asked about the potential role of federal programs, policies, and funding to serve as a catalyst for states and districts in maximizing the potential of technology to improve student learning.
But with global financial turmoil and the U.S. economic outlook commanding the spotlight in the presidential race, Ms. Wolf said she was not surprised that neither campaign had answered the questionnaire as of Oct. 8.
She hopes, though, that the campaigns will see a strong connection between the use of educational technology and economic competitiveness.
“Education should be viewed as an underpinning of so many of these important areas, specifically the economy and global competitiveness,” Ms. Wolf said.
The McCain Agenda
Online learning has been growing rapidly in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Public secondary schools in the U.S. that provided students access to online learning.
K-12 school districts with distance education programs that planned to expand online offerings the following year.
School districts that cited “the course was otherwise unavailable” as the No. 1 reason for offering online courses.
SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics 2007, 2005
That comment echoes the theme of a public-service-announcement campaign that the four education groups launched in August, using print and radio ads that urge both candidates make technology-rich “21st-century classrooms” a top national priority.
Sen. McCain’s proposals for virtual schools and online tutoring programs are wrapped in his belief in the effectiveness of school choice and his argument that federal funding in Title II of the No Child Left Behind is not currently being spent effectively.
Rather than add money, Sen. McCain said in a speech in July, he would retarget $500 million of that Title II funding for states to create new virtual schools and help develop online courses for students.
Through a competitive-grant program, he proposes making available $250 million to states that commit to expanding online educational opportunities. These funds could help start virtual math and science academies and expand the availability of Advanced Placement courses in math, science, and computer science, as well as help offer more online tutoring services and foreign-language courses.
He also proposes providing $250 million for “digital passport scholarships” to assist students in paying for online tutors or enrolling in virtual schools.
Low-income students would be eligible for $4,000 scholarships to enroll in an online course that delivers preparation for college-admission tests, credit recovery, or tutoring services by a virtual provider.
The Obama Agenda
Sen. Obama’s plan for federal spending on innovation and technology is more comprehensive and adds to existing federal education programs.
He proposes establishing a $500 million matching fund to help ensure that technology is fully integrated into schools. The fund would put technology in classrooms so that innovative learning technologies—such as simulations, interactive games, and intelligent tutors—could help improve the quality of learning and instruction.
The U.S. ranks 15th among 20 developed countries with the largest number of broadband subscribers per 100 inhabitants.
SOURCE: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development 2007
The Obama plan would also develop technology for better student assessments to chart students’ individual needs throughout their school years and send the resulting performance data to teachers and parents in real time.
Sen. Obama also proposes creating new technology-based curricula with leaders in the technology industry, so schools could offer courses that help students develop high-demand technology skills and give students opportunities to work on authentic technology-oriented projects.
As models, the campaign cites technology-infused schools, including the New Tech High Schools, a network of 35 schools that use project-based learning to teach 21st-century skills. The Democratic nominee also supports the use of technology to allow teachers to work collaboratively with their peers across the country to share best practices, and to provide more individualized help to their students.
Neither candidate has publicly recalibrated his educational technology plans in light of a federal budgetary picture that most political observers believe looks bleak.
Sen. McCain has indicated for months, however, that he plans to freeze federal spending for most programs, including education. Sen. Obama has not offered any new specifics on spending for education in light of the current economic crisis.
Michael J. Petrilli, the vice president for national programs and policy at the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute, said virtual schooling “is one of the few areas where I see a pretty sharp difference [between the two candidates], not just the traditional Democrat versus Republican split.”
Sen. McCain’s plan to put “a lot of money into online learning” seems designed to appeal to middle-class suburban voters, he said.
“To date, online learning has had a much bigger impact in suburbs than it has in the cities.” he said. “Online learning that takes place at home is not particularly well suited to places where families are in crisis.”
Though Sen. Obama’s plan supports virtual schools as one of many options for school choice, his overall approach to technology in education, as is traditional for Democrats, is much more focused on disadvantaged communities, according to Mr. Petrilli, who served as a U.S. Department of Education official during President Bush’s first term.
“He has to be more careful,” he said of Sen. Obama, because he depends on support from the nation’s teacher unions, which are wary that virtual schools will siphon students and money away from traditional schools.
Coverage of mathematics, science, and technology education is supported by a grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, at www.kauffman.org.
A version of this article appeared in the October 15, 2008 edition of Education Week as McCain and Obama Share Basic Views on Ed. Tech.