eSN: How do you view the current state of educational technology in America’s K-12 schools?

Bush: Used properly, technology offers the promise of individualized learning, provides access to rich reservoirs of information, and facilitates communication among students, teachers, parents, and experts. For example, parents can monitor their child’s progress from home; schools can create links with sister schools around the globe; and teachers can enable simulations of math and science concepts.

Currently, the federal government invests about $3 billion in educational technology through a wide range of programs to help our schools. Among these is the Federal Communications Commission’s $2.25 billion Schools and Libraries (“eRate”) program, which helps provide affordable access to advanced telecommunications services for all eligible schools and libraries in the United States. In addition, the Department of Education spends more than $730 million on eight programs under Title III of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act each year.

These programs have sped the deployment of computer hardware and internet access to our nation’s schools. By 1999, 95 percent of public schools had internet access, up from only 35 percent just five years earlier. And the FCC reports that 63 percent of public school classrooms have internet access, while 82 percent of the country’s public schools and more than half of the country’s public libraries have received discounted services under the eRate program.

It is far from clear, however, whether the federal investment is actually having an impact on educational achievement. A 1999 Education Testing Service study stated, “The purpose of providing technology to schools is to improve student academic performance and other educational outcomes, not to provide state-of-the-art equipment for its own sake.” I believe we need practical solutions—not just theories and cosmetic changes.

Gore: Providing all of our young people with an outstanding education is a top national priority requiring national leadership. A fundamental challenge for our public schools is to help every child reach the high standards needed for success in today’s economy, society, and democracy.

The investments in our children’s technology are already paying off. More than a million classrooms have been connected through the eRate program. Now, 95 percent of public schools have some access to the internet, compared to 35 percent in 1994. And we have increased the number of classrooms connected to the internet 20 times—from 3 percent to more than 60 percent of classrooms. Today, the eRate is helping about 38 million children in more than 80 percent of our public schools. It is also benefiting half of our libraries.

Beyond the eRate, federal investments in educational technology have gone from under $30 million a year to more than $900 million as proposed in our budget—a 30-fold increase. We have made stunning progress in getting computers to children in the classroom, too. In 1994, 35 students had to share one multimedia computer. Today, less than 10 students have to share a multimedia computer.

There is still much to do. We have to finish the job of connecting our classrooms. We need to make sure that all our teachers have the skills they need to incorporate technology into learning, and we need to take advantage of the unique opportunities that technology brings to the classroom—like personalized education and better communications with parents.

But this isn’t about connecting kids to technology, it’s about connecting them to a whole new world of learning and opportunity. Today, millions of children can go to school, turn on a computer, reach a hand across the keyboard, and reach a library of information on the internet that is arguably larger than the Library of Congress.

eSN: What do you feel are some of the most pressing technology issues facing K-12 schools today?

Bush: I believe the greatest challenges facing educational technology are the lack of adequate teacher training, high administrative costs, and inflexible rules and requirements imposed on local schools. The same 1999 Education Testing Service study recommended that federal policy makers increase their efforts to ensure that teachers are properly trained to use the computers and target teacher training efforts at high-poverty urban and rural schools. While spending on technology has increased 25 percent over the previous year, investment in teacher training has increased just 5 percent.

According to another report, “the vast majority of K-12 teachers are novice or completely inexperienced internet and computer users.” The National Center of Education Statistics’ survey reports that only 20 percent of America’s teachers feel prepared to use new computer applications and know how to integrate them into their classrooms. In addition, only one in five teachers knew of lists of recommended education software published by districts or states. Only one in 10 had found software that was tied to academic standards issued by districts and states.

The federal effort in educational technology is balkanized, inflexible, and administratively burdensome. If a school wants to receive funding for software development, it must fill out an application for the Software Development Program. If, instead, a school wants to receive funding for teacher training, it must fill out a separate application for the Middle Schools Teacher Training program. If a school or library wants to use federal funds for access to the internet, it must apply to the FCC; to obtain computer hardware to make that access meaningful, a school or library must go to other sources. And these applications are all evaluated separately, despite the fact that the overall effectiveness of these technology programs is interdependent.

The inflexible rules of the Schools and Libraries program are particularly onerous: the catalog of eligible equipment that can be purchased with eRate funds is 36 pages long. The eRate application and instructions are an additional 56 pages and take hundreds of hours to complete. Last year, the Schools and Libraries Division of the Universal Service Administrative Company, which distributes eRate funds, conducted two-day “regional training sessions” in seven cities, dedicated solely to teaching school administrators how to fill out these forms. The eRate program requires more training to fill out federal forms than many schools provide in technology training for their teachers.

Furthermore, schools are being punished for minor technical errors. [Earlier this year,] the FCC denied millions of dollars in federal funding to hundreds of schools in Oklahoma and other states because the schools had listed on their applications a service provider employee as the primary contact instead of a school employee. The Cranberry School in rural Pennsylvania lost $17,000 in eRate dollars because it mistakenly filled out one box. The superintendent of the school stated, “Everyone in our area is being charged to support technology in schools, but schools are being left out based on technicalities.”

These inflexible rules also limit the services and equipment that qualify for federal funds. For example, in addition to being prevented from using eRate funds to purchase computer equipment, schools are also prevented from purchasing and installing as separate components either microwave or digital radio systems that can deliver high-speed internet access at low cost. Finally, the inflexible rules penalize states such as Iowa and Washington that have already independently developed high-speed services.

Gore: The most pressing technology issue facing our public schools is to finish wiring every classroom to the internet and train students and teachers to use information technology to individualize learning and bridge the digital divide. We must undertake a new national effort to provide basic skills in new technology, including a major initiative to achieve computer literacy for every child by the end of the eighth grade. I would expand teacher training in effectively using the internet in the classroom and deploy AmeriCorps national service corps members to teach and promote the internet in schools, libraries, and technology centers that need them the most. In addition, we must make the best educational software available to every school so that all students and teachers will be able to use computers and internet access to the fullest.

eSN: If elected president, what measures do you plan to take to address the digital divide?

Bush: In order to improve the effectiveness of our nation’s technology education and close the digital divide, I want to provide schools maximum flexibility to use educational technology funds. By establishing a single technology program, we could ensure that schools no longer have to submit multiple grant applications and incur the associated administrative burdens and costs to obtain educational technology funding. Furthermore, a single program will facilitate comprehensive and integrated educational technology strategies that target the specific needs of individual schools. In fact, the American Association of School Administrators, representing more than 14,000 superintendents and public school leaders, issued the following statement in connection with legislation in the U.S. Congress that would consolidate existing Department of Education technology programs:

“[This] provides school districts with the benefit and convenience of a single federal technology program. For the last several years, our members have requested a single source of technology assistance. The numerous technology competitive grant programs in ESEA are frequently so narrowly targeted that local districts find it difficult to obtain funding … schools will have increased flexibility to buy technology resources that best fit their needs.”

In order to give schools increased flexibility in the use of federal educational technology funds, as president I would establish a $3 billion “Enhancing Education through Technology Fund.” By working with Congress to create this single fund, which would combine the FCC’s eRate program and eight of the Title III education technology programs under the Department of Education, we can streamline the process and cut overhead and time.

In addition, I would free schools from federal restrictions and end bureaucratic red tape by removing detailed federal regulations, allowing schools to have maximum flexibility in using federal technology funds for such activities as teacher training, software purchase and development, and system integration. And I would continue to give priority to the most disadvantaged schools. I would ensure that federal funds are distributed based on need, giving priority to rural schools and schools serving high percentages of low-income students.

I also think it is important that the federal government provides schools with information on the uses of educational technology with the goal of advancing student performance. Currently, the federal government provides educational technology to public schools and libraries, but it does not conduct research into the effectiveness of such technology in advancing learning and student achievement. The 1999 ETS study raises critical questions, such as: “What types of investment in technology most improve academic achievement? Does technology affect important educational outcomes at all?” The report concludes, “Unfortunately, for all the investment in educational technology, there is a surprising lack of hard data on its effects … the federal government does not collect national data expressly for the purpose of evaluating [how] educational technology [affects achievement].”

In order to collect research data on the effectiveness of educational technology, as president I would provide $65 million in new funding annually to the Department of Education’s Office of Education Research and Improvement. With that, the federal government will perform its basic research function by providing funding to universities and other research institutions to study ways in which educational technology can boost student performance and close the achievement gap.

Across the country, thousands of schools, foundations, and community centers are working to use technology to improve student achievement. At the same time, public and private efforts are providing more than $7 billion annually for educational technology. This significant effort is generating thousands of educational technology laboratories nationwide. Unfortunately, there is far too little sharing of information among schools, educators, and research institutions about the most promising uses of technology to close the achievement gap. For example, a recent survey by Education Week indicated that “educators are struggling to find high-quality software and web sites … [and] matching software instruction with state or district curricula is a moderate or big problem.”

In order to ensure that schools and educators have the latest information on the tested uses of technology to improve student achievement, as president I would provide an additional $15 million in new funding annually to establish the “Education and Technology Clearinghouse.” The Clearinghouse will collect and disseminate information on effective, research-based educational technology programs, best educational technology practices, and the latest research studies. With this new data collectively added and stored to existing knowledge, educators can more effectively and directly teach their students with tried and true formats and information.

Gore: I believe that we must redouble our efforts to close the digital divide in this country. The internet has been a major force behind our current economic prosperity, and we need to make sure that all Americans have the skills and access to technology to succeed in our new economy. In the information age, computer literacy is not just an important skill—it is a fundamental civil right. As president, I would not be satisfied until every American has learned the ABCs of the internet: access, basic skills, and high-quality content.

Unfortunately, low-income, rural, and minority families are still much less likely to have access to computers and the internet. As president, I would launch a new crusade to make internet access as universal as telephone access in every American household. I would encourage public-private partnerships and make major new investments in high-speed and satellite technologies to bring affordable internet access to the hardest-to-reach urban and rural communities. In the meantime, we must make sure every low-income community has a technology center where both children and adults can access the internet and learn to use technology.