As Congress begins debate this summer over a series of bills to reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA), lawmakers will be asked to decide how much leadership the federal government should provide in making technology an important part of the teacher education process.

At issue, among other things, is the fate of a $62.5 million federal program that encourages partnerships between universities and K-12 schools to help new teachers integrate technology into their instruction.

A bill approved in mid-June by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce would sustain the four-year-old Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers to Use Technology (PT3) program for another four years and would explicitly allow federal grant money from the Improving Teacher Quality program to be used for training new teachers in the use of technology.

Known as the Ready to Teach Act (H.R. 2211), the bill’s passage would signify a partial victory for lobbyists and other ed-tech advocates, many of whom are concerned that the exclusion of PT3 from President Bush’s 2004 budget proposal will lead to the program’s extinction.

“The decision of majority staff on the House Education and the Workforce Committee to reauthorize PT3 with no significant changes represents an important victory for education technology advocates,” according to the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), a national nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the use of information technology in K-12 schools.

When the bill reaches the full House for debate, however, lawmakers will have to weigh the Education and Workforce Committee’s recommendations against those of the House Appropriations Committee, which voted earlier this year not to fund PT3 in its version of the 2004 education budget. The Senate Appropriations Committee also has excluded PT3 funding from its version of the budget.

Bush administration officials argue that PT3 is unnecessary because the Improving Teacher Quality program already provides nearly $3 billion to support teacher preparation and professional development initiatives. But ed-tech advocates say PT3 is the only federal program that specifically addresses pre-service teacher training in the use of technology, an important topic as schools of education reform their pedagogies to address 21st-century classroom challenges. Continued federal leadership in encouraging this type of reform is necessary, they contend.

“Making sure teachers are prepared to use technology when they arrive at the schoolhouse is critical,” said Keith Krueger, CoSN’s executive director. Given the increased accountability demands of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and other sweeping measures, Krueger says the effective use of technology in schools presents one of the most significant challenges educators face today.

PT3 has been targeted for elimination during the last three funding cycles and was only narrowly rescued from the chopping block last year when Congress decided at the last minute to fund the program at the previous year’s level.

According to the program’s web site, more than 400 consortia—including colleges and universities, K-12 schools, and state departments of education—have benefited from PT3 funding since its inception in 1999.

The goal of PT3 is to transform teacher education through the infusion of technology. For instance, the University of Tennessee is approaching the final year of a three-year PT3 initiative it calls Project ImPACT (Implementing Partnerships Across the Curriculum with Technology), designed to equip pre-service teachers with technology skills they can use to bolster student achievement in their future classrooms.

With approximately $1.3 million in funding from the federal government, the university is working in conjunction with five neighboring K-12 schools to restructure teacher preparation curricula to meet technology standards; implement a team-based technology training and mentoring program; develop curriculum-specific applications of technology in literacy, math, science, and special education; and build a performance-based portfolio assessment system for educators.

Project Director Blanche O’Bannon said the program so far has been key to training aspiring educators both in university classrooms as well as on site at K-12 schools, where many college students serve as intern teachers during the school year.

“It gives us the opportunity to really focus on infusing technology into the classroom,” she said. “It’s just been a tremendous boost.”

O’Bannon said the program is critical because it does more than simply teach young educators how to use technology applications. More importantly, it underscores how technology can be used in the classroom to achieve better results among students—an attribute that has gained significant clout in light of NCLB accountability standards and more stringent teacher-quality requirements.

Since the program began two years ago, O’Bannon said the university has seen several of its education graduates move into highly competitive teaching posts across the country. “It gives them a real cutting edge,” she said. “The program has just been phenomenal.”

ImPACT still has one year to go before its funds dry up, but O’Bannon said the university hopes to keep the program going through the use of additional PT3 funds. “We really need another funding period to get things where they need to be,” she said. “There is real concern about whether the program will be funded again next year.”

At George Mason University (GMU) in Virginia, university faculty have been employing PT3 funds to collaborate with K-12 teachers in three surrounding school districts to fashion a learning model dubbed “High-Touch Mentoring for High-Tech Integration.” The program includes newly designed teacher preparation courses, provides models for more effective use of technology in schools, and demonstrates software programs that can be used in education.

Debra Sprague, who heads the project, said PT3 has had “a major impact on what GMU and other universities are able to do, especially those that don’t have as much of a technology focus.”

Sprague said the program has opened the door for a new culture of communication among universities, providing opportunities to exchange best-practice techniques and thus increasing the value of technology training among pre-service teachers.

“PT3 has had a major, major impact on the field of teacher education,” she said.

HEA, which first took effect in 1965, has not been reauthorized since 1998. The Ready to Teach Act is just one piece of HEA, which is expected to undergo several revisions—including changes in federal student aid policies and teacher certification programs—before final votes are cast.

Jee Hang Lee, senior legislative associate with the Washington, D.C.-based policy analysis firm Leslie Harris & Associates, called these preliminary committee approvals “the first step in a long road” to the eventual reauthorization of HEA—a process he expects could drag on until sometime in mid-2004.

Links:

House Education and the Workforce Committee
http://edworkforce.house.gov

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

Leslie Harris & Associates
http://www.lharris.com/flash/home.html

Project ImPACT
http://web.utk.edu/~impact

High Touch Mentoring for High Tech Integration
http://www.techmentor.org/ourproject.html