The U.S. Department of Education (ED) has released its third National Education Technology Plan–and there are ample grounds for optimism [story, Page One]. Calling for stronger leadership, improved teacher training, greater access to broadband internet service, more digital content, and interoperable data systems, the plan offers a roadmap for using technology to transform learning.

If change is the message, then teachers are the messengers. And here the national plan is clear. For teachers to keep up with technology and learn how to integrate it effectively into the fabric of their lessons, then stakeholders at every level must heed the new plan’s call for improved pre-service teacher preparation in technology use, greater access for teachers to learn best practices, and more formalized standards to ensure consistent, high-quality teacher training.

The previous ed-tech plan, issued in 2000, made a strong case for improving the quality and quantity of technology-focused teacher training. Citing extensive research, ED noted that well-prepared teachers use technology more frequently, use it in a greater variety of ways, both individually and with their students–for instructional as well as preparatory and administrative purposes–and are more likely to increase their use of technology over time.

The next step is translating sound educational theory into practice. The 2004 Teachers Talk Tech survey, an independent study commissioned by CDW-G, underscores the urgency of implementation. When we asked more than 1,000 K-12 teachers across the country to evaluate the role of technology in their classrooms, 93 percent said computers in the classroom are an integral part of learning and a powerful tool capable of helping transform the educational experience. Knowing the positive impact computers can make on how students learn, eight out of 10 teachers said they want more technology training. However, too many told us they are self-taught and learn from their peers, or even from their students. Clearly there is a need for formal teacher training to maximize the potential of classroom computers and educational software.

Several states have taken an important first step toward addressing this issue. Currently, 37 states plus the District of Columbia have technology standards both for practicing teachers and for those just entering the profession. But if you look beyond the establishment of benchmarks, only 15 of these states require any technology coursework for an initial teacher’s license, and just nine have a test that demonstrates technology proficiency. For re-certification purposes, just 10 states require additional technology training or any form of technology assessment whatsoever. At the administrative level, only Florida and Georgia require incoming officials to show evidence of technology-related coursework.

It is necessary–but not sufficient–for states to establish technology proficiency standards. Professional development and assessment strategies are the critical next steps. CDW-G’s Teachers Talk Tech survey suggests that cookie-cutter training is not the best approach. While half of the nation’s teachers are self-taught users of classroom technology, the others rely on a broad range of training resources–from formal seminars and workshops to friends, colleagues, and even the students themselves.

In addition to lacking technology training, nearly half of the teachers polled told us they lack the time to keep up with new developments. One solution is 24-7, web-based training. Several schools already are using this approach to augment traditional seminars.

At present, nine states require teachers to demonstrate technology competence by taking a test, while four states demand this of their administrators. While mandates are effective, such drastic measures might not be necessary. An alternative approach is the use of teacher incentives.

In the 2003-2004 school year, just 12 states offered professional or financial incentives to teachers taking a technology-related professional development course. But while the practice is not widely funded by the federal government, districts around the country are developing their own teacher incentive programs. In Orange County, Fla., for instance, teachers who complete a 13-week course in integrating technology with their classwork receive a Palm handheld computer. Other districts motivate teachers to pursue technology training by offering incentives ranging from laptop computers to classroom software to professional development credits.

Currently 27 states offer such incentives for administrators. I believe this is a positive sign–and one the new National Education Technology Plan was remiss in not highlighting. As leaders in 21st-century schooling, it is vitally important for school administrators to understand technology and how it helps teachers teach and students learn.

Local leaders must be steadfast in their commitment to professional development. The voices of educators and other knowledgeable citizens need to be heard by the people who establish budgets and set local priorities. If states and school districts are to maximize the return on their substantial technology investments, schools need what International Society for Technology in Education CEO Don Knezek calls “savvy, consistent, persistent leadership.”

On this point, the new plan puts forth strong language. It calls for leaders at every level to “not only supervise, but provide informed, creative, and ultimately transformative leadership for systemic change.” Beyond visionary language, I am optimistic of the plan’s success because it makes critical and specific recommendations for increased investment in leadership development and administrator education programs to develop a new generation of tech-savvy leaders, skilled in technology decision making and organizational change.

To help children achieve their potential, we must begin with their teachers. Our task is twofold: Give teachers increasing access to powerful technology resources, and make sure they have the skills and comfort level to use them effectively.

Chris Rother is vice president for education at CDW-G.