America, over the past 10 years, has invested more than $40 billion to equip schools with computers and connect classrooms to the internet, the Benton Foundation pointed out at a conference Dec. 11, in Washington, D.C. Now, as a financial crisis engulfs most state governments, that multi-billion-dollar technology investment is at risk, Benton warned.

The conference, hosted by the nonpartisan, public-interest foundation, was held to preview a new report intended to outline what must be done to ensure the nation’s ed-tech investment doesn’t go to waste.

The report, “The Sustainability Challenge: Taking Ed/Tech to the Next Level,” is scheduled for online release in the next two weeks with a print edition to follow Jan. 1, 2003. It is the third in a series from Benton focused on the eRate and other ed-tech funding issues.

“We’ve made significant progress in getting computers and the internet into America’s classrooms,” said Norris Dickard, Benton Foundation director of public policy and editor of the publication. “However, it’s become clear that many schools are not using this new infrastructure to its maximum potential. Schools need well-trained teachers and [high-] quality curricula that take full advantage of these ed-tech investments. Yet states are cutting ed-tech funds, and technology fatigue may be hitting state and local policy makers—just as they are given new authority to transfer federal ed-tech funds to other uses.”

The Benton report outlines a number of critical “next steps” the foundation said are needed to sustain America’s ed-tech infrastructure and ensure that this investment helps support student achievement. The report offers a “Sustainability Top Ten List” of reforms including these:

  • Accelerating teacher professional development
  • Professionalizing technical support
  • Ensuring all Americans have 21st Century Skills and
  • Adopting a new national goal to bridge the home and community digital divides

Besides those four recommendations, the report includes calls to implement authentic ed-tech assessments, create a national digital trust for content development, focus on the emerging broadband divide, increase funding for federal ed-tech block grants to $1 billion, share what works, and continue ed-tech funding research.

As school leaders at the conference and elsewhere got their first look at the findings, they all acknowledged the report’s sound content and good intentions, but some questioned the feasibility of implementing its recommendations.

One California educator predicted Benton’s recommendations will do little to better the increasingly troubled situation in schools in her home state. “I get really tired of hearing these things. The suggestions are the same [as] have been espoused for years,” said Sharon Eilts, a teacher in the Sunnyvale, Calif., School District. “These suggestions seem like pie-in-the-sky when we in the trenches have so much to deal with. The old war horses like myself keep plugging along, but an apple and some oats would be nice.”

But another educator had a different perspective. “These recommendations are a good distillation of priorities, based on the experiences of educators and researchers across the country,” said Nancy Messmer, director of library media and technology for the Bellingham, Wash., Public Schools. “It feels right to me to emphasize strengthening the key relationship in learning – that between teacher and student – by accelerating and deepening ongoing professional development.”

According to Helen Soule, special assistant for technology in the office of postsecondary education at the U.S. Department of Education (ED), America’s schools must have “netricity.” This is like electricity, she explained, computer access and the internet must be available in every classroom at every school nationwide. “We have to get technology into the mainstream of everything that we do,” she said. “This administration believes that technology is very important in education.”

Margaret Honey, co-director of Education Development Center Inc., an international non-profit organization, is a co-author of the Benton Report. The wide array of choices and the rapid pace of change make technology a challenge for educators, she said: “What we have tried to do here is lay out a foundation for this new culture of learning that has to take place.”

According to the report, “There are a number of emerging models that states and local districts can follow to get the most from, and sustain, their instructional technology infrastructure.”

One such model is the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) initiative developed by the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN).

Too often school leaders look at technology funding as a one-time hardware cost, said Sarah Fitzgerald, one of the event’s panelists from Funds for Learning, an education consulting firm specializing in the eRate. Fitzgerald helped develop CoSN’s TCO model. What decision makers often fail to realize, she said, are the inherent costs associated with technology training, maintenance, and technology upkeep.

“Schools need to ask about the softer costs,” Fitzgerald said. “When you think about the vast numbers of computers put into classrooms over the last four or five years – you have not seen that same commitment for tech support.”

Another problem, Fitzgerald said, is that low-performing schools often have low-tech expectations, as opposed to high-performing schools, which have the means to take bigger, more productive strides toward technology innovation.

Still, she said, just because a school lacks the financial wherewithal to implement the latest gizmos doesn’t mean ed-tech initiatives should be shelved until more money is available. In fact, she added, it’s the poor-performing schools that must work hardest to increase technology’s availability. Benton’s Dickard acknowledged the challenge of allocating adequate resources to technology during a time of shrinking budgets, but he said it is necessary nonetheless.

As he wrote in the report: “We contend that it is imperative for schools to leverage the large ed-tech investments they have made to date, to maintain the infrastructure they have in place, and be strategic about upgrading and supporting networks in the future.”

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and other recent federal initiatives provide a framework, Dickard said, which places the emphasis on accountability, results, and identifying what works best to achieve success.

Now that local leaders have more discretion as to how they spend federal funds, Dickard said, schools might choose to spend money originally meant for technology integration on other needs, such as hiring additional teachers or building extra classrooms.

For some institutions, the temptation to spend technology dollars on non-technical needs increased on Dec. 2. That’s when the ED announced, in its final NCLB rules, that students in failing schools must be allowed to transfer to any school within their home district, despite existing challenges such as overcrowding, class-size limitations, and health and safety requirements.

“Some schools might say, ‘We don’t need technology; what we need are more teachers in the classroom,'” Dickard said: That’s why federal and state governments must step up efforts to increase ed-tech funding despite state budget shortfalls.

Even educators in school districts celebrated for their progressive use of technology are concerned by the fiscal state of the states.

“All of the current initiatives in public education, from technology to comprehensive curriculums, are in danger due to fiscal problems at the state and local levels,” said Jim Hirsch, assistant superintendent for technology at the Plano, Texas, Independent School District. “All of us in public education continue to strive to reach these and similar targets in our communities. But until a sustainable model for funding public education is brought forward, we will continue to strive in starts and spurts, but not reach all the targets we’d like.”

Another educator, commenting on the new report, offered his own assessment of the current situation.

“We are always having financial crises in education,” said Marc Liebman, superintendent of the Marysville, Calif., Joint Unified School District. “That isn’t going to change, so the real questions is what are we doing and how are we going to expand what we are doing with the resources we have.” Toward that end, he added: “It would be nice if [ED] and the state [education departments] would prioritize what they expect, instead of giving everything the same priority. That’s how they can help us be more successful.”

The Benton Foundation hopes its new report will provide educators and policy makers with a blueprint for what must be done, especially in hard times, to preserve the massive technology investment already in place in the nation’s schools.

Links:

Bellingham Public Schools
http://www.bham.wednet.edu/

Benton Foundation
http://www.benton.org/

Consortium for School Networking
http://www.cosn.org

Education Development Center Inc.
http://www2.edc.org/

Funds for Learning
http://www.fundsforlearning.com/

Marysville Joint Unified School District
http://www.mjusd.k12.ca.us/

Plano Independent School District
http://www.pisd.edu/

U.S. Department of Education
http://www.ed.gov