Despite waning budgets, spending on school technology is likely to remain steady or increase slightly in the coming year as schools grapple with the new new data tracking and reporting elements of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), analysts say.

K-12 schools in the United States will invest close to $6 billion in instructional technology this year, according to a report unveiled Sept. 16 by Quality Education Data Inc. (QED). The company’s annual Technology Purchasing Forecast attributes the estimated $60 million increase in spending over the previous year primarily to NCLB’s demands.

“Schools are increasingly making a bigger investment in administrative software to track students, inform the community about educational progress, and meet the new requirements of the federal [law], said QED President Jeanne Hayes. “We’re already seeing that the federal government’s push for more detailed information about various subgroups, such as students by ethnic background, is driving greater investment in systems that offer more robust reporting on student academic progress.”

She continued: “If this projection holds, districts will have kept funding for instructional technology relatively steady, which is a substantial achievement in these days of state budget deficits and other pressures.”

Schools are expected to spend $5.8 billion on instructional technology this year, QED says. Although that figure is only modestly above the $5.74 billion in expenditures reported last year, it caps off a four-year downturn in a category that has been in steady decline since the boom years of the late 1990s, when schools spent in excess of $8 billion a year on technology-related resources from desktop computers to internet access.

Of the 446 district technology coordinators surveyed nationwide, more than 90 percent reported having installed student information systems, including data warehousing solutions for tracking students’ records, electronic student assessment programs, computerized report cards, and attendance records software.

Those investments notwithstanding, QED estimates the continued need for student information systems software constitutes a $350 million to $400 million market for schools this year.

Other key investments include a substantial stake in courseware. Seventy-two percent of schools surveyed said they had plans to bolster instructional content through such purchases, followed by instructional management systems at 38 percent and assessment software at 29 percent.

Hayes said the increase in instructional courseware spending is indicative of an attempt by schools to move away from a traditional “shrink-wrapped” solution to a system where site-wide licenses enable educators to provide simultaneous access to a greater number of students at any one time.

Wireless technology is another area where schools plan to expand their investments, according to the report. Over two-thirds of the districts surveyed (68 percent) reported current ownership of wireless devices, a jump from 39 percent in 2002.

Hayes called the anticipated rise in spending on wireless hardware devices and networking components a cost-conscious attempt by administrators to reduce the amount of money spent to lay wire and make schools more technology-accessible.

The costs associated with an investment in wireless technologies now are far less than the price of installing new hardwired infrastructures down the road, she noted, especially in older school buildings where the capacity for such investments is limited.

An additional 7 percent of districts report they will purchase wireless devices for the first time this year. Districts reportedly will be spending $220 million in 2003-04 for wireless networking and equipment, including portable wireless laptop carts and wireless-enabled handhelds.

Despite a swath of school-related spending cuts, other analysts who follow the education market say they agree with the anticipated increases in technology spending this year.

According to Matt Stein, a lead analyst for Boston-based Eduventures Inc., the need for accurate reporting under NCLB has forced schools to increase their stake in technology-driven data systems, even at a time when budgets are tight.

While most schools already have invested in solutions that promise to help them better track and disaggregate individual student data in accordance with the law, the majority of schools, he said, still are in the market for answers to the problem of centralization.

Schools still need tools that help them bring critical information together in one easily accessible database, where it can be cleaned, scrubbed, and reported

accurately to state and federal agencies, Stein said. Once schools meet this need, he added, the costs associated with these investments will be reduced significantly.

One company that has experienced rapid growth as a result of the need for customizable student information systems is the Pulliam Group, a California-based firm whose Instructional Data Management System provides a tool for districts to track student data and achievement in accordance with standards-based instruction.

“NCLB really has been driving growth,” said Barry Pulliam, the company’s chief executive. A former district superintendent, Pulliam said his company prides itself on delivering data management solutions that are not only effective, but easy for educators to use. The key, according to Pulliam, is to offer systems that analyze first how a student is doing and, second, in what areas they need to improve.

See these related links:

Quality Education Data
http://www.qeddata.com

Eduventures Inc.
http://www.eduventures.com

The Pulliam Group
http://www.pulliamgroup.com