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Federal Opinion

Directionless Dictates

By Doug Johnson — April 15, 2005 3 min read
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I’ve always been a sucker for audacious goals advanced by the government. Putting a man on the moon. Connecting all schools to the Internet. Making sure every child is literate. If you’re going to make a plan, plan big.

So it was with great anticipation that I began reading the National Education Technology Plan, which was released by the U.S. Department of Education in January.For the $1.4 million the feds spent on it (which works out to about $20,000 perpage), it ought to be one heck of a plan.

Just a few things were missing--a coherent vision, baseline data on technology use in schools, empirical research indicating best practices, and measurable goals. Funny, these are all things that school districts like mine are asked to provide in our district technology plans. Out of the report’s 60-odd pages, however, we did get six pages covering seven broad “action steps and accompanyingrecommendations.”

The first is “strengthen leadership,"and personally, I’d suggest management and interpersonal skills training before technology training for most administrators. Among other things, the feds also want us to “consider innovative budgeting.” Given the state of school finance, is there any other kind? “Improve teacher training” is ironic considering that the feds recently cut the Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers to Use Technology program (better known as PT3), which was designed to do just that. As for “integrate data systems,” I wonder how many of the 210,000 students who provided the U.S. government with input mentioned the importance of this.

As you may have guessed, I found these recommendations uninspiring, things that most districts are already working toward rather than dreaming about. Say what you will about its ugly implementation, but the goals of No Child Left Behind are exciting--all children literate and all teachers highly qualified. The NCLB provision requiring that all children be technology literate by the end of 8th grade isn’t even mentioned in the NETP. And the issues we as educators think are important--what our children can and should be doing with technology--were simply left out.

Where are the NETP’s educational goals, such as ensuring that all students can use information technology to solve problems and communicate effectively? Or that everyone in schools can use online resources safely and ethically and that children with special needs can meet their educational goals through the use of adaptive technologies? How about permanently closing the digital divide by providing 24/7 access to online opportunities for every kid in the country?

I am curious to know whether any of the input the feds collected from practitioners and educational organizations was actually read. I don’t see my suggestions reflected in the plan, but then again, I didn’t expect that. My vision of technology use is rather different from that of the federal education department and technology companies with lobbying power.

Knowing that we currently have an administration that uses oil companies to write energy policy, I suspect that consultant and author (and one-time special ed teacher) Nancy Willard is correct in assuming that those companies with a strong economic interest in this plan had a major role in its construction, as well. On the well trafficked WWWEDU online forum, she calls the NETP a “business growth plan for the educational technology and Internet companies” and notes the enthusiastic response to the plan by the Software & Information Industry Association. She rightly questions who is “in the driver’s seat” of this plan--business or education?

Still, I’m not losing much sleep over this document, which for now amounts to only vague recommendations. Until federal funds are allocated with the requirement that one of its “action steps” is addressed in order to receive them, I think we can all safely put the education department’s report on the shelf. It is far more important that our district and state tech plans reflect educational values.

The NETP is no “man on the moon by the end of the decade” challenge but rather an incomplete set of instructions on building a irectionless bottle rocket. What could have been an opportunity to help schools become technologically savvy turned out to be an expensive waste of time.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 2005 edition of Teacher Magazine as Directionless Dictates

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