As school leaders nationwide try to understand what President Bush’s slimmed-down 2006 education budget–which includes the proposed elimination of the $500 million Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) block-grant program–might mean for their schools, educators in the president’s home state of Texas warn the cuts, if enacted, could spell trouble for a number of ambitious school technology experiments currently under way in the Lone Star State.

Tops on the list of endangered programs is the Technology Immersion Pilot, or TIP, a massive, $14.5 million initiative rolled out in 23 school districts across the state to study the impact of 21st-century technology on student learning in the middle grades. Besides outfitting students with a wealth of cutting-edge technologies–from more than 15,000 wireless laptops equipped with personal eMail accounts to educational software programs for every major discipline–TIP also seeks to provide the training and assessment critical to schools’ success under Bush’s signature No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which asks that evidence of student success be reflected in standardized test scores.

But Anita Givens, who runs the fledgling program for the Texas Education Agency (TEA), says the pilot’s expansion and subsequent evaluation hinges on the money it receives from the federal government, and especially EETT–one of 48 national education programs Bush has asked Congress to scrap in 2006.

“We think we are on to something here that could really transform learning in schools,” noted Givens, who believes TIP operates from a simple philosophy that has implications for schools nationwide. Instead of integrating this large-scale technology initiative incrementally, the idea behind the immersion pilot is to fully equip both teachers and students with technology up front, giving them the resources they need to achieve higher standards and, ultimately, better test scores.

“If you only ever do one piece at a time, you never get there from here,” said Givens, who authored the immersion concept as an alternative to step-by-step technology integration programs. “You’re always in the cycle, but you never see the impact.”

Without help from the technology block-grant program, Givens said, it isn’t likely TIP will muster enough financial backing to survive beyond the pilot phase, which is set to expire sometime in 2006. Though the TEA will look for other sources of money, including private funding, to subsidize the initiative, Givens said, it will be difficult to expand the program into larger institutions without additional EETT funds. And that’s a big disappointment, she said, especially given the president’s pledge to bring NCLB accountability into the nation’s high schools.

“It’s a model that we believe holds good promise for student achievement,” explained Givens, who said communication and attendance spiked significantly in participating schools during the first couple of months and has remained strong throughout the early stages of the program. “Community support is up, and discipline [problems are] down. Now what? Are we supposed to just give all that up and go back to the old way of doing things?”

In the near term, Givens and her staff have other budget-related headaches to contend with. To provide scientific evidence of the pilot’s effectiveness in schools, the state had wanted to use a portion of its TIP funds to conduct a controlled experiment that would examine the technology as it was being used in 22 participating schools and pit the results against those of 22 judiciously selected control, or non-immersion, schools. The evaluation was supposed to help educators more closely assess the association between technology access and student use; its effect on the overall learning community, including students, teachers, administrators, and parents; and, of course, its influence on student outcomes on standardized tests, which many educators believe to be the NCLB-mandated lynchpin of any new school improvement program.

And TIP isn’t the only ed-tech program in this spiritual home of NCLB that finds itself in danger.

According to Marcia Proctor, state technology planning coordinator for the Technology Planning and eRate Support Center (TPESC) in Waco, Texas, a loss of EETT funds would jeopardize several other initiatives under way throughout the state, including an online program that lets all of the more than 1,300 public and charter schools across the state store, access, and update their district technology plans–documents she says are prerequisites to receiving state and federal funding for technology.

Other programs facing elimination include the Texas STaR Chart, an online tool that reportedly has helped nearly 140,000 teachers statewide assess their school technology skills, and a program dedicated to providing eRate support to schools–one Proctor claims helps needy schools statewide reap an average of $400 million a year from the $2.5 billion federal program. If the cuts were to go through, Proctor said, she would almost certainly have to let go five full-time employees whose sole job is to help schools apply for eRate funds.

“Because of federal funding, in the past Texas has been able to capitalize on pilot programs … that have allowed for the successful integration of educational technology,” said Proctor, who believes any significant loss of ed-tech funding at the federal level would seriously jeopardize Texas’ position as a national leader in school technology integration.

Although Proctor applauds the Bush administration for attempting to fully integrate technology across the curriculum by allowing schools to pull technology funds from other portions of the federal budget, namely Title I funds for underserved kids and Reading First grants, she said those responsible for making the final funding decisions must realize that ed-tech programs are vying for these funds, too. Otherwise, she said, school technology is liable to be left behind.

That’s a possibility that worries Katherine Conoly, executive director for instructional support at the 40,000-student Corpus Christi Independent School District.

According to Conoly, Corpus Christi uses 40 percent of the EETT funds it receives from the state to subsidize important professional development and training programs for new and veteran teachers.

“If you don’t first train teachers to use the technology, then the students aren’t going to learn it,” she said, adding that technology training is especially critical for veteran teachers who have not “adopted technology naturally.”

The other 60 percent of Corpus Christi’s federal technology funding is used to purchase hardware, software, and other technology-based instructional services, including equipment for the TIP program, in which Corpus Christi is a pilot participant.

As Texas educators begin mulling contingencies that might salvage their programs if the Bush budget passes in its current form, some familiar faces in Washington are ramping up lobbying efforts to promote a more tech-friendly spending plan.

The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) has launched a new internet-based Advocacy Toolkit stocked with templates, starter kits, research-based articles, and communication strategies designed for conveying the importance of educational technology to a variety of audiences–from local and federal lawmakers to school board officials, school or district leaders, and members of the business community.

The goal, according to ISTE Chief Executive Officer Don Knezek, is to “work advocacy from a number of directions,” empowering educators not just inside the beltway, but across the country, to make the case for a stronger federal commitment to technology in the nation’s schools.

Educators who want to make their voices heard also have access to the online Ed Tech Action Network (ETAN)–an advocacy campaign ISTE developed last year in collaboration with the nonprofit Consortium for School Networking. ETAN consists of a grassroots web site and online community whose members receive legislative updates and action alerts, as well as tools and training to help them become advocates at the local, state, and federal levels.

If educators in Texas, and elsewhere, want to see their ed-tech initiatives continue into 2006, ed-tech backers say they need to state their case to Congress–and to anyone who will listen.

“Effective advocacy from people close to the classroom makes a huge difference,” said Kurt Steinhaus, education policy advisor for the state of New Mexico and ISTE board president-elect. “I learned that as a classroom teacher, and I’ve seen it time and again in my policy work with state and national organizations.”

Links:

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

Corpus Christi Independent School District
http://www.corpuschristiisd.org

International Society for Technology in Education
http://www.iste.org

ISTE’s Advocacy Toolkit
http://www.iste.org/advocacy/toolkit

Texas Education Agency
http://www.tea.state.tx.us/

Ed-Tech Action Network
http://www.edtechactionnetwork.org

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