Despite its “impressive” impact in helping the nation’s schools connect to the internet, the eRate remains a work in progress, according to a new report from the Benton Foundation and the Educational Development Center’s Center for Children and Technology (CCT).

The report, called “Great Expectations: The eRate at Five,” recommends several steps to improve the program, including raising the funding cap beyond its current $2.25 billion level and reducing the burden of paperwork on applicants.

After the current funding period ends, federal eRate discounts will have resulted in a nearly $9 billion investment in telecommunications services, internet access, and internal connections for the nation’s schools and libraries.

“The effect of the [program] has been truly impressive,” said the Benton Foundation’s new president, Andrea Taylor, at a Nov.16 luncheon forum marking the report’s release. “Many schools have leapfrogged in terms of their infrastructure from the Industrial Age to the Information Age.”

But as four eRate champions in the United States Congress jointly wrote in their preface to the report, “This is no time to rest on our laurels.”

“Work remains to be done in a number of areas, including professional development, curriculum design, and assessment,” wrote Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., Sen. John D. Rockefeller, D-W.Va., Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, R-Maine, and Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich.

The report “highlights a number of areas where work is needed and provides useful tools and suggestions for maximizing this important investment.”

Benton and CCT compiled their observations from field research and hearings in the new report, which contains chapters written by experts in the field of educational technology.

In the first chapter, Benton Foundation Senior Associate Norris Dickard suggests these seven steps for improving the program:

• Keep the eRate under the direction of the Federal Communications Commission and keep its focus the same. “Calls to move the eRate to the Department of Education as part of a block grant are misguided,” Dickard wrote. “Making it part of the annual appropriations could jeopardize the funding.”

• Lift the funding cap from its current level of $2.25 billion. According to Dickard, “The unmet needs are especially acute in the area of internal connections.”

• Reduce the paperwork burden on applicants. The Schools and Libraries Division (SLD) of the Universal Service Administrative Co., the group that administers the eRate, should examine ways to streamline the application process so that smaller schools and districts can participate on equal footing.

• Conduct outreach and assistance to schools in low-income communities. A California study revealed that 43 percent of disadvantaged schools participating in the survey did not even know about the eRate.

• Investigate ways to improve program administration and structure. Dickard urges policymakers to ask, “Is the [SLD’s] centralized, federal application and appeals process the most efficient way to deliver services?”

• Reassess the appropriateness of current discount levels and priorities. Dickard asks, Do the current discount levels and priorities reflect the most pressing needs? Is looking at the free and reduced-price lunch program the most accurate way to determine need?

• Expand the list of eligible products, services, and vendors. The SLD recently announced that new services, such as Internet2 and wireless networks, will be eligible for eRate discounts in Year Five. What other technologies should the eRate make room for in the future?

Margaret Honey, CCT director, and her colleague Andy Gersick discussed how eRate participants can measure the return on their investment—a timely issue in light of the Bush administration’s focus on accountability.

Their organization is in the final stages of perfecting an Evaluation Toolkit, which will help educators assess the impact of technology-rich activities on skills development, student learning, and media literacy.

“Evaluations have to enable school leaders to determine if they are achieving their goals,” Honey said. “But they need to focus not just on outcomes, but … on process as well.”

In “Great Expectations,” Honey explained that schools must move beyond looking for a direct correlation between investments in technology infrastructure and rising standardized test scores.

Rather, she writes, “We must create assessment frameworks that directly correspond to the unique teaching and learning opportunities that technologies make possible.”

Chris Dede, professor of learning technologies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, introduced his “State Policy Framework for Assessing Educational Technology Implementation” and discussed the need for a more coordinated and systematic approach to educational technology policy-making.

Dede explained how educational technology investments impact, and are affected by, the larger educational reform context in which they are made. He also mentioned the success of the Milwaukee School District, where eRate funds have made it possible for the district to connect all schools to a districtwide network of high-speed lines and fiber optic cable.

“One of the reasons that innovation is so difficult for schools is because our conditions for success are very complex,” he said. “You must understand that the impact of the eRate is as a system, and all the parts of that system are interconnected.”

Following Dede’s comments at the luncheon forum, the panelists fielded questions and comments from the audience.

Among the notables in attendance was Linda Roberts, director of the Education Department’s Office of Education Technology during the Clinton administration. Roberts’ office oversaw the introduction of the eRate program and was pivotal in ensuring the program’s early success. She urged fellow attendees at the event to make data-driven decisions regarding how to acquire and spend eRate discounts.

“When we started this [program], we dreamed that all districts would sit down with their [technology] plan, dream about what they wanted, and then actually [write] the plan,” she said.

Roberts also urged school leaders to look at best and worst practices to get an understanding of how other districts have incorporated the eRate into their overall technology plans successfully.

“The important thing now is to ask, ‘What makes a difference?'” she said. “Why did they do it right in Milwaukee schools, for example, and throw away $20 million in District XYZ?”

“Great Expectations” continues a series of reports on the eRate made possible with support from the Joyce Foundation, a Chicago-based philanthropy with a strong interest in school reform and educational technology.

Related links:
Benton Foundation

Educational Development Center’s Center for Children and Technology

Joyce Foundation