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Competitive Ed-Tech Grants Fuel Teacher Innovation

By Leo Doran — January 11, 2016 4 min read

Should school leaders make teachers compete for first dibs on access to new learning technologies? Some school leaders are saying absolutely yes—give the tools to the educators who will set the best examples and let the others follow.

That shifting attitude explains the emergence of district-sponsored competitive-grant programs for educational technology, for which teachers create detailed applications and plans of action in exchange for first access to ed-tech dollars or professional-development resources.

The 5,000-student Canby school district in Oregon—a system of five elementary schools, a middle school, and a high school—has had an “innovation grant” program in place for seven years, started by former technology director Joseph Morelock, in which teachers can apply for $2,000 ed-tech grants from a $50,000 annual budget pool.

With that approach, Morelock found himself at the front end of a novel practice that has picked up momentum nationally. Instead of delivering ed tech to all classrooms from the top down, many districts are similarly experimenting with having individual teachers, or groups of teachers, apply for access to ed tech based largely on the quality of their ideas for how they plan to use it.

The advantage of the approach, Morelock said, is that it requires teachers to think critically about how they plan to use digital tools. It is, by default, personalized professional development, because it emphasizes teachers’ interests and their individual development.

By the time Morelock left the school system two years ago for the nearby Lake Oswego district, Canby was fielding requests totaling $900,000.

Potential Problems

Of course, there are potential problems with these kinds of competitive-grant programs.

Opening ed-tech decisions to that level of teacher input can generate a push for a wider range of sometimes lesser-known ed-tech products.

Evaluating Ideas, Assessing Impact

School districts that have competitive grant programs for access to ed-tech tools generally use the following process to choose grantees and evaluate their initiatives:

  • District allocates a budget pool for competitive ed-tech grants, and advertises the opportunity to all faculty in the district.
  • A teacher, or group of teachers, generates an idea that is connected to district curriculum priorities. Often with the help of school administrators or their principal, the teacher(s) will write a detailed application and plan of action for how they intend to utilize the ed tech.
  • The proposals are evaluated by a panel, typically consisting of the superintendent, a member of the district’s technology office, a district curriculum official, and often a principal from a different school.
  • Successful applications are funded, and the programs are implemented. Most districts follow up on the progress of their investments by having teachers who receive funding attend and present at workshops, or blog regularly about the progress of their work.
  • At the end of each academic year, grants are re-evaluated to figure out what did and did not work. Successful initiatives can be scaled up across the district either by waiting for other teachers in the district to write similar applications, or by principals and district officials choosing to disseminate the new ed-tech tool through traditional top-down approaches.

Source: Education Week

Steven Ross, a professor and evaluation director at the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University, is wary of the competitive allocation of educational technology.

In addition to worrying that teachers might not have the proper resources or perspective to pick ed-tech products that are safe, effective, and protect student privacy—a job he says is more appropriately left to district leaders with some input from teachers—Ross sees the potential for a chaotic “Tower of Babel” environment in which different products are used in different ways in the same school.

Morelock conceded that his technology office “got better at being nimble” to accommodate all the new apps teachers were seeking access to, while reiterating that having access to new ed-tech tools was important, but that protecting students’ digital privacy was always paramount. He is working to put a competitive ed-tech grant program in place in the Lake Oswego district.

Ross favors the more traditional model in which districts carefully plan and select a product, pilot and evaluate it, then buy the educational technology in bulk, and deliver it to schools through a well-designed implementation program that allows each teacher equal access.

As Morelock and many other experts argue, however, it does not matter how well suited a piece of ed tech is to a district if the teachers do not adopt it properly. According to Morelock, teachers are the “pedagogical experts” and should be heavily involved in ed-tech decisions.

For example, Lisa Parmentier, a special education specialist at Knight Elementary School in Canby, noticed years ago that the district was ahead of the curve in making iPads and other ed-tech hardware available to teachers. At the same time, she also realized that many of her colleagues were only using the iPads for what she calls “basic skill and drill” exercises that do not unlock the full potential of the technology.

Crafting Winning Proposals

Other case studies bear out similar usage patterns, according to ed-tech experts. Under the traditional model of doling out ed tech to all teachers simultaneously, a handful of teachers become enthusiastic early adopters who are highly successful in integrating the technology into their classrooms. These educators are followed by a second cohort who halfheartedly utilize the technology without seeing marked changes in results, and a final group essentially avoid using the technology altogether.

Morelock sought to counteract potential teacher apathy by engineering his ed-tech rollout to require teachers to put “skin in the game” by agreeing to attend periodic workshops and year-end group evaluations on their programs’ effectiveness.

After having her first proposal rejected by a review panel of district officials and a principal, Parmentier successfully applied for more district ed-ech funds in a bid to address the special needs of the 2nd through 6th graders she primarily works with. A key part of her proposal was her observation that scores on reading-comprehension tests for some of her students would jump from 20 percent or lower to 70 percent or higher when a text was read aloud to them.

Ross also expressed skepticism of claims made by proponents of competitive allocation of ed tech that the process fosters organic growth of successful approaches in schools.

Some educators would disagree. David Schuler is one of them.

The superintendent of Illinois’ High School District 214, which includes six high schools and more than 12,000 students about 25 miles northwest of Chicago, has also operated a competitive ed-tech-allocation program for the past eight years.

Schuler noted that the system is designed to reward teachers who are deeply invested in unlocking the full potential of an ed-tech resource by allowing them first access to the technology.

Schuler also emphasized that the competitive-grant model is conducive to piloting innovation. Post-mortems of pilot programs allow districts to better understand if a new technology is, in Schuler’s words, “the latest gadget” or if it facilitates “true transformation.”

Coverage of the implementation of college- and career-ready standards and the use of personalized learning is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, at www.gatesfoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the January 13, 2016 edition of Education Week as Educators Compete for Ed Tech

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