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Spellings Seeks Input on Technology’s Role in Schools

By Andrew Trotter — April 03, 2007 5 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings has put up her antennae for the best ideas on how technology can improve education, with the launch of a series of roundtables she is holding with education “stakeholders.”

Katherine McLane, a spokeswoman for the secretary, compared the meetings to Ms. Spellings’ outreach before she created the Commission on the Future of Higher Education in 2005. That federal panel released long-range recommendations for the nation’s colleges and universities last August.

“The goal is at this point to inspire a conversation about integrating technology more efficiently into education, and exploring how we can utilize the technology we have to raise student achievement,” Ms. McLane said last week.

The first of the four planned roundtables took place March 23 in New York City, with about two dozen officials of technology companies and educational publishers, educators from districts that use technology heavily, and researchers.

The companies represented included Texas Instruments Inc., Intel Corp., IBM Corp., Wireless Generation Inc., Harcourt Inc., and Pearson PLC. School people hailed from Connecticut, New York City, the Orange County, Fla., district and the District of Columbia, among other places.

Federal officials present included Kevin J. Martin, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, which oversees the $2.25 billion federal E-rate program of support for school telecommunications. Another participant was Timothy J. Magner, Ms. Spellings’ adviser on educational technology, who issued the invitations to the roundtable about a week earlier.

Taking Copious Notes

The March 23 roundtable was closed to the press, which is Ms. Spellings’ usual practice to encourage candid discussion at this type of meeting, Ms. McLane said.

Participants said the two-hour meeting kicked off with two-minute presentations from educators about their successes in using technology.

Business leaders and researchers also had plenty to say at the meeting, stressing the need for teachers’ professional development and describing the potential of technologies, such as handheld assessment devices and video games, to suit specific learning opportunities.

Larry Berger, the chief executive officer and a co-founder of Wireless Generation, based in New York City, spoke in favor of “things that make teachers’ lives easier.” He said his company’s handheld data-collection system allows teachers to “capture useful classroom data” while meeting the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Several educators said they noticed that the company officials tended to plug their own products at the meeting.

Mark S. Hannum, a mathematics and physics teacher at Banneker Academic High School in the nation’s capital who presented at the meeting, also observed that “from a lot of the business leaders, there was the suggestion that school leaders be held accountable for strategic technology plans.”

“Across the board, people decided that the use of technology is more than how many computers are in your classroom, but how you integrate technology into your teaching,” he said.

Another school presenter, Leon H. Strecker, who teaches a high school engineering class in Darien, Conn., said he sensed that some participants were on a different page from the school people.

“I got the feeling there was a lot of people there that have no idea what it was like to be in a classroom,” he said.

Ms. Spellings reportedly took copious notes and asked many questions, but made few comments.

However, Mr. Strecker noted, “it said a lot to me when Ms. Spellings said basically all this money was spent for technology in schools and she hasn’t really seen anything come from it—that kind of wowed me a little bit.”

Views From Trenches

Mary E. Skipper, the principal of the TechBoston Academy, described how the school’s use of laptops and data collected from computer-based activities have helped her students overcome learning deficits and contributed to 94 percent of last year’s seniors graduating two- or four-year colleges.

The 360-student academy is a charter-like “pilot” school in the Boston school district that was founded with financial support from the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Mr. Hannum underscored the need for improved professional development of teachers, citing a “big drop-off” in know-how between teachers who are technology stars and those with average skills.

“The federal government, as well as local school districts, need to provide much better professional development to integrate the use of technology in instruction,” Mr. Hannum said.

Banneker High, which enrolls 400 students in grades 9-12, has found that training that takes place among teachers at the school “is much more effective than the outside training,” he said.

Teachers also need faster access to data from school benchmark assessments that measure students’ progress throughout the school year, Mr. Hannum said.

In his own presentation, Mr. Strecker said he underscored the power of independent learning, aided by technology. Darien High School, which enrolls 1,200 students in grades 9-12, occupies a new building outfitted with “the whole nine yards” of technology, he said.

His 11th and 12th graders drive the class program, he said. “Over the last couple of years, my engineering class has developed a hybrid fuel-cell-powered car—a true engineering project, because at the time they started there wasn’t much information” about fuel cells. “My most important point … was that technology should empower the student to do learning,” he said of his presentation.

In a speech Ms. Spellings delivered earlier the same day as the meeting in New York City, she tied the role for technology tightly to her department’s priorities in implementing the No Child Left Behind Act, the main federal education law.

“For the first time ever, teachers can measure student progress from year to year and note which strategies work best.” she said. “We know where we’re falling short, where students’ needs aren’t being met, and where more rigor is needed. With the help of technology, we must now begin to answer those needs.”

Robert W. Richardson, the East Coast education manager for Santa Clara, Calif.-based Intel, saw clues in Ms. Spellings’ questions at the roundtable.

“She was especially interested in the role of technology in collecting data about kids and their achievement levels,” he said.

Ms. McLane said details of the other sessions have not been decided.

A version of this article appeared in the April 04, 2007 edition of Education Week as Spellings Seeks Input on Technology’s Role in Schools


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