What’s Arne Duncan’s Legacy on Ed-Tech?

By Sean Cavanagh — October 05, 2015 5 min read
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan discusses accountability systems, waivers, and preschool in a wide-ranging interview last week.
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Arne Duncan has announced his plans to resign as U.S. secretary of education later this year, bringing an end to a long tenure in which he pushed for far-reaching and sometimes divisive changes in school policy. But what will be his legacy on educational technology?

Duncan served as secretary at a dynamic time in the ed-tech space. Private investors were pouring vast amounts of money into digital products, seeking financial returns, during his time in office. And districts were taking on ambitious and in some cases daring ed-tech projects in the hopes of leading to increased student learning and engagement.

But it was also a confusing time for many K-12 officials. Some struggled to implement sweeping ed-tech efforts, while others were vexed by digital projects they were obligated to implement, such as delivering state online tests.

As secretary, Duncan had limited ability to shape many of the forces at work in the ed-tech space. (The federal government, for instance, contributes only about 10 percent of the overall amount spent in K-12 education).

Caveats aside, here are a couple of the defining aspects of Duncan’s time in office, as they pertain to ed-tech:

The Loss of the Enhancing Education Through Technology Funds Program

In 2010, the Obama administration recommended and Congress ultimately agreed to an elimination of the program, over the objections of many K-12 organizations. The EETT once provided $700 million in yearly funding, supporting a range of tech activity in school districts, including professional development. The Education Department provided a temporary $650 million infusion of money to the EETT through the economic stimulus in 2009, but did not propose maintaining its $100 million annual support for it after that. (The Obama administration has since recommended reviving the EETT, but that’s certainly no sure thing.

Many ed-tech advocates have been dismayed by the disappearance of the program, saying it left a major void in supporting state and local efforts in ed-tech, and led to a loss of expertise on digital issues.

“It was an unfortunate decision, and it slowed us down as a country” in addressing K-12 tech needs, said Keith Krueger, the CEO of the Consortium for School Networking.

Doug Levin, the president of EdTech Strategies, who consults on K-12 issues, argued that the Education Department wrongly assumed that states and districts could easily find ways to manage rapid changes in tech curriculum, assessment, and instruction without federal support.

“There was a belief that there was more capacity in the schools than, in fact, there actually was,” Levin said. With the EETT cut, he said, a lot of “state and district leadership was lost.”

Support for States’ Migration to Online Testing

As part of the stimulus, the Education Department created a Race to the Top assessment program, which ended up supporting about $350 million in test-development work by two big coalitions of states: the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.

The department encouraged the use of technology in assessment in its call for applications for funding, and both consortia used federal funds to focus heavily on putting together tests that can be delivered online. Whether states will be able to deliver online tests without major breakdowns (several states have weathered disruptions over the past year) remains to be seen.

Helping Districts Gain Faster Web Connectivity.****

This one carries multiple asterisks. The biggest infusion of federal money into ed-tech during Duncan’s tenure was delivered by the Federal Communications Commission, not the department of education. The FCC overhauled the E-rate program and provided $1.5 billion more annually to the program. Both Duncan and President Obama praised the commission’s work, arguably mustering political support for the plan, but the redesign of the E-rate was an FCC production.

Duncan also promoted the Obama administration’s Connect-Ed program, which arranged for industry to support K-12 districts’ digital needs. But that program has largely been associated with the White House, not the education department.

Encouraging Tech Developers to Work in Schools

Duncan and the agency he leads have publicly encouraged the tech industry to focus on creating innovations that can work in schools. Their efforts included the posting of a host of web resources for companies, including an “Ed Tech Developers’ Guide,” offering a primer on the K-12 arena.

Those efforts essentially challenged tech innovators to take a chance on the market. Selling in that space remains tough, but Duncan’s agency encouraged companies to bring new ideas to schools, not just to the consumer arena. “They certainly portrayed [the school space] as a good market,” Levin noted.

Promotion of Open-Ed Resources

Obama’s administration has backed open ed. resources across government. And the department of education had championed the concept on several fronts. Most recently, the agency named what it said is the first-ever adviser focused specifically on open educational materials. It has also backed the Learning Registry, an open, online information network meant to bring vetted, organized academic content to educators on sites they already use.

Districts around the country, meanwhile, are testing open resources as alternatives to traditional commercial content. State efforts such as EngageNY are pushing open content to audiences around the country. Initial funding for EngageNY was provided by the federal Race to the Top program, a major effort championed by Duncan.

Tech Development Through Competitive Grants

The Race to the Top program, as well as the Investing in Innovation (i3) program, both created opportunities for applicants to use federal money to bring digital strategies to the classroom. The upshot of these efforts on school technology probably won’t be known for some time. But it’s clear that many districts incorporated tech in their plans to refashion teaching and learning.

For instance, an EdWeek analysis last year of grants awarded to school districts through Race to the Top found that many of them used the money to design “personalized learning” tech-based strategies for helping schools and students.

Public Backing for Ed-Tech’s Ability to Help Students and Schools

Through the secretary’s use of the bully pulpit, and through the plans laid out by his agency in its national ed-tech plans, Duncan and many of his staff conveyed that they believed in the power of digital tools and systems to fundamentally change and help schools—even if they recognized that progress was far too slow, maintained Krueger.

“From the moment this administration came in, they saw technology as a catalyst for a different kind of learning,” Krueger said.

That’s my working list. Now it’s your turn: What did I miss?

CORRECTION: The original version of this item misstated Doug Levin’s title at Ed-Tech Strategies.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.