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 noted 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 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.” Like electricity, she explained, computer access and the internet must be available in every classroom at every school nationwide.

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, the report suggests. In fact, 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.”

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Benton Foundation