Special Report
Ed-Tech Policy

Getting Up to Speed

By Andrew Trotter — March 22, 2007 12 min read
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America’s policy leaders can take a bow: Most schools today have technology for learning that few imagined just a decade ago. Most classrooms have multiple, multimedia computers linked to the Internet and access to high-quality software and digital content. Teachers have the computer tools that those in many other professions enjoy, and many receive training to hone their use of technology in instruction. Students hop onto the Google search engine to research their term papers online, and they craft class projects using multimedia tools.

Getting more technology into schools has been a priority for policymakers over the past 10 years, and in many respects, that goal has been accomplished. Yet few experts would argue that America’s schools are making optimal use of the new digital tools they have received. Likewise, few can point to evidence that all the new technology has translated into great leaps forward in student learning.

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“The honest assessment is [it has had] very little impact,” says Elliot Soloway, a professor of computer science and education at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor who has spent much of his career developing ways to use digital tools in classrooms.

Though federal, state, and local policy initiatives have poured billions of dollars of technology spending into schools, average student achievement is little better than it was 10 years ago, at least as measured by reading, mathematics, and science scores on the federally sponsored National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Focused research on the educational benefits of technology has been scarce, meanwhile, with those studies that have been conducted reaching mixed conclusions.

Policymakers shaping schools’ technology fortunes have had other goals in mind, too, such as giving students experience with computers to prepare them for work in an increasingly digital, and global, economy. But even on that score, doubt reigns over whether students who leave high school are on track to compete successfully.

In November, for example, the Educational Testing Service reported that an assessment of 6,300 college and high school students found that only 52 percent could correctly judge the objectivity of a Web site, and only 40 percent knew how to use multiple terms in a Web search to narrow the results.

Irvin R. Katz, a senior research scientist at the Princeton, N.J., testing company, says the study’s preliminary findings appear to confirm concerns that many young people’s facility with technology may be skin-deep. While young people “are able to use the technology for social reasons or entertainment reasons and even some academic reasons,” he says it’s less clear that they possess more-sophisticated skills, such as recognizing when online information is “reliable and valuable and from a relatively unbiased source.”

Looking Back

Ten years ago, as society’s use of the World Wide Web was starting to take off, officials in the Clinton administration focused on how to make K-12 schools a beneficiary of advanced telecommunications.

To grasp the new tools, schools needed improved access to the Internet, which meant modern computers, connectivity, and network infrastructure. But even school districts with substantial resources often had a hard time scraping up the money to pay for them.

Federal studies had also highlighted an incipient “digital divide” between rich and poor Americans, which officials argued could lead to great differences in opportunities for learning and jobs, a point that made headlines when the White House articulated it in 1996.

Policymakers concluded that promoting affordable access to the Web for all schools could narrow that gap between rich and poor. They also reasoned that it would let even inner-city schools tap into world-class troves of information, for example, and communicate more effectively with families.

See Also

Read the related story,

E-Rate’s Imprint Seen in Schools

Congress authorized the federal “education rate” program in the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Over the past decade, the E-rate has amounted to a $2 billion annual subsidy to schools for the cost of telecommunications services and access to the Internet, with the largest proportion of the money going to schools with the greatest poverty.

Connectivity to the Internet was one of four elements that the Clinton administration concluded were essential to successful technology use in the first national education technology plan in 1996. The others were good-quality academic content, teacher training, and multimedia computing.

In the succeeding years, those elements guided federal funding streams for technology—including grants that passed through the states to school districts, as well as direct grants to districts to support innovative demonstration projects.

Many states, during flush budget times in the late 1990s, took the federal government’s cue. Legislatures passed grant programs to help school districts purchase classroom computers and invested in statewide computer networks for use in education.

With President Clinton about to leave office, his administration produced a second national plan in early 2001 that called for more research on student learning to guide technology decisions, among other principles. But that plan was aborted by the turnover in presidential administrations that coincided with its release.

Direction Shifts

The game changed with the arrival of the Bush administration and the enactment of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which became law in early 2002.

Digital Divide

An analysis of student computer use in 2003 found that the percentages of children who used computers at school varied relatively little by family income. While 86 percent of students from families with the highest incomes used computers at school, 80 percent of those from the lowest income level did so, too. The income-related gap in computer use at home, though,was far more substantial. The rate of at-home computer use among children from families earning under $20,000 a year was less than half the rate among students whose families had annual incomes of at least $75,000. In fact, more students in that top bracket used computers at home than in school.

*Click image to see the full chart.


SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics, 2006

While the wide-ranging law restructured school technology funding, many analysts say that it had an even greater impact on technology through its school accountability provisions.

The law’s demand that schools improve their performance, as judged by a largely test-based set of student outcomes, has come to dominate school improvement strategies, whether or not they involve technology. The 5-year-old law requires that schools show adequate yearly progress in improving scores both schoolwide and among subgroups of students—those with disabilities, from low-income families, with limited English proficiency, and from particular racial and ethnic groups.

As a result, many districts have shifted technology spending toward improving their data-analysis capabilities and acquiring computer software that helps students practice the measured skills.

In the view of Barbara Means, an education researcher at SRI International, a policy and research group based in Menlo Park, Calif., that shift has had some positive consequences, including forcing educators to look “with some urgency” at student outcomes.

But she and other experts complain that the NCLB law has devalued innovative uses of technology in favor of drill-oriented software that helps prepare students for standardized tests to meet accountability mandates. “I’m afraid right now we are just practicing for the state tests,” Means says.

Overall, she contends, the Bush administration seems to view technology as “useful for keeping track of test scores, and you don’t need it in schools.”

Not so, replies Timothy J. Magner, the director of educational technology at the U.S. Department of Education. He says an emphasis on data systems was a natural outcome of a law that demands data-based accountability. But he said the administration appreciates the value that technology offers to teachers, as well as to administrators in charge of backroom number-crunching.

Spending Priorities

This year saw a large jump in the number of states identifying data management systems as a major spending priority. Although the number of states citing professional development fell by 14 percentage points, that area remains one of the states’ top spending priorities.

*Click image to see the full chart.


SOURCE: EPE Research Center, 2007

“Part of the opportunity we have in education technology right now is to begin to link backroom and classroom,” Magner says.

The third national education technology plan, required under the NCLB law and unveiled by the Bush administration in 2004, urged states and school districts to invest in student assessments and administrative data systems.

The plan said such systems could be used to allocate educational resources and inform teachers to help personalize instruction. It also endorsed the expansion of virtual schools.

Yet the plan made no mention of a federal role in paying for school technology.

President Bush’s budget proposals have three times called for eliminating the government’s major appropriated technology funding for K-12 education, the Enhancing Education Through Technology program. Congress has reduced funding for the program, a provision of the No Child Left Behind law, from more than $700 million to $272 million, but has refused to zero it out.

The administration argues that other parts of the NCLB law can be tapped to pay for technology, such as programs to provide educational services to disadvantaged children and to support parental choice and educational innovation.

Innovation Neglected?

Christopher J. Dede, a professor of education at Harvard University, sees a drift from innovation in schools since 2002 and counts it as a major policy shortcoming.

Dede, a researcher in technology innovation who has developed game-like “immersive” computer environments to teach social studies and science, says schools have tended to use their technology “suboptimally”—often by simply automating what they were doing already.

“Automating requires a lot less thinking and relearning than changing does, but automating produces only marginal gains,” he says.

For his part, Magner of the Education Department suggests that automating often leads to more-fundamental innovations. Fields other than education, he says, have adopted technology to streamline existing practices, which eventually led to basic changes in the way they operated. Schools are in such a process, he argues.

“You can’t fix 20th-century schools anymore,” Magner says.

Underwriting research of innovative learning tools is one place that a surge in federally financed research could help, experts such as Dede argue.

But they say research on educational technology has remained thin throughout this decade. The government’s biggest research project on such technology, a $10 million, three-year study of reading and mathematics products, has focused on a handful of software products that were already in the marketplace, rather than those at the cutting edge of new trends.

Grants from the National Science Foundation, a funder of university-based research, have continued to flow into educational technology research and development, though far less than a few decades ago, according to John C. Cherniavski, a senior adviser for research and evaluation at the foundation.

In one sign of a revival in research on innovation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation launched a $50 million initiative last year to study the role that digital technologies play in the lives of young people.

Indeed, Magner points to that initiative, as well as to research on educational games by the Washington-based Federation of American Scientists, as evidence that research on innovative uses of technology is alive and well.

Harvard’s Dede says many promising innovations could rise from the “foundational” technology that schools have acquired in recent years. “There is a very exciting, widespread, deep body of resources available for teachers who choose to use it,” he says. Unfortunately, “most teachers do not,” he says.

Despite familiarity with computers and the Internet, says Soloway of the University of Michigan, “the education community is always viewing technology as ancillary, not integral.” Anything viewed as ancillary will not lead to innovative changes in pedagogy, he says.

Yet schools that do not re-examine their habits may never catch up to the rest of society technologically—and especially to young people, the so-called digital natives, experts warn.

“We don’t really value a lot the skills that children may possess—that really prevents us from taking advantage of [those skills in schools],” says Saul Rockman, an independent educational technology researcher based in San Francisco. He notes, for example, that even young children today can communicate over multiple channels—instant messages, e-mail, the Web, cellphones—and organize ideas and information on social-networking sites.

“Schools are missing out on what kids are getting out of technology,” says Henry Jay Becker, a longtime researcher of educational technology at the University of California, Irvine.

What’s Ahead

As in the past, policy on school technology in the years ahead will continue to be framed by broader education policy—currently focused on students’ academic achievement and preparation for the global workforce, as well as the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, which is supposed to occur this year.

Trends in Technology Standards

Among the 50 states and the District of Columbia, all but three now have technology standards for students in place. Slightly fewer states currently have such standards for teachers, while technology standards for school administrators are even less common.

*Click image to see the full chart.


SOURCE: EPE Research Center, 2007

If the law continues to force schools to focus on rapid gains in student test scores, schools may be inclined to favor drills over more exploratory activities, analysts say.

Means, the SRI researcher, says she doubts that the Bush administration, in pursuing the renewal of the law, will veer much from emphasizing technology in schools mainly for testing and keeping track of scores.

But because the law focuses on teacher quality, too, she sees promise in using technology to conduct “formative” student assessments, which are used to guide instruction, with the results placed immediately in teachers’ hands.

Student Standards

Most states currently have some form of technology standards for students. Two-thirds of those states have technology standards that are distinct from other standards. In the remaining 16 states, technology is only embedded in the standards for core academic subjects.


SOURCE: EPE Research Center, 2007

“Where we need to go next is to use assessment not just to classify whether students are proficient or not, but to improve their learning,” Means says.

Other experts on educational technology point out that the Bush administration has taken up the issue of young people’s readiness for the globally competitive workforce, which provides an opening to discuss the role of technology.

“Ideally, NCLB should embrace the importance of 21st-century skills, in which information and computer-technology literacy is a key part,” says Margaret A. Honey, the director of the Center for Children and Technology, in New York City.

Educators will need to keep hitting the “refresh” button on their to-do lists for the digital age, say technology scholars, who note that the Washington-based International Society for Technology in Education is revising its model national education technology standards for students. To existing categories such as information retrieval and digital citizenship, the draft update adds an entirely new one: “creativity and innovation.”

School leaders should also take that course—as should policy leaders in Washington and the state capitals, some experts say.

“Federal and state policy tends to drive what happens in schools,” says Honey, “and it’s only likely to be sweeping changes in policy that will remake our schools—not technology.”


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