With the nation’s focus expected to shift toward improving math and science education, spurring technological innovation, and preparing students for success in the new global economy, as outlined in President Bush’s State of the Union address on Jan. 31 (see story: Bush: Boost math and science), ed-tech advocates say the need for federal leadership on the integration of technology into instruction is more important now than ever.

Despite this need, they say, it’s been nearly six months since there has been a point person in the federal government’s Office of Educational Technology (OET) to turn to for guidance on issues related to school technology.

For its part, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) says it is actively looking for a new leader to fill the void left by OET’s former director, Susan Patrick, who resigned her post last August to assume control of the North American Council for Online Learning (NACOL).

“We are working to fill the position and expect to have an announcement in the near future,” wrote ED’s press secretary, Susan Aspey, in an eMail message to eSchool News. ED said it takes time to fill top-level positions and that widespread turnover throughout the department has made the task even more difficult.

Promises aside, leaders in the ed-tech community are growing restless. The longer the position goes unfilled, they say, the harder it is to convince lawmakers and other federal officials of the benefits of a technology-rich education. The issue appears even more urgent now, given the president’s newly outlined focus on math, science, and technology education.

Since Patrick’s departure last year, Congress has voted to cut federal spending on educational technology by millions of dollars, reducing funding for the Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) block-grant program from $496 million in 2005 to $275 million this year.

Though the director of OET has no direct control over how much money Congress allocates in the federal budget, ed-tech leaders say having someone in the position might help reaffirm a point the administration readily acknowledges: that technology is essential to a high-quality, 21st-century education.

“I think that we need a strong voice at the table educating both officials within the administration and members of Congress about how instructional technology can make a difference in student learning,” said Keith Krueger, chief executive officer for the Consortium for School Networking, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group focused on promoting the effective integration of technology in the nation’s schools.

The longer the position stays open, Krueger said, the more difficult it is for groups such as CoSN and others to state their case that educational technology is critical to promoting effective, widespread reform in schools.

“What we need is someone who can help get the data that are being collected about the impact of educational technology up to the higher-ups in the department,” said Melinda George, executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association.

Both George and Krueger said ED has informed them of its commitment to fill the position. In an eMail message to eSchool News, the department’s Aspey stressed that the effective integration of technology continues to play a critical role in the administration’s overall vision for schools.

“The educational technology office remains an important part of our continued efforts to improve data decision making at the department and throughout public education,” she explained.

Ed-tech advocates agree–a new head of OET is essential, they say.

“I think the position is extremely important,” said Patrick, who as director of NACOL now serves as an advocate for the continued adoption and acceptance of online learning in schools.

Because the director of OET reports directly to the Secretary of Education, Patrick said, the position is “uniquely positioned to advocate for systemic change.”

And she would know. Having spent close to two years in the role, Patrick says it remains one of the only positions within the department dedicated to evaluating agency programs–including federal grants–to ensure the effective integration and inclusion of technology.

As OET director, Patrick said, one of her most important duties involved reading and evaluating language in federal grant programs to ensure that technology and virtual schools enjoyed the same consideration and eligibility as traditional schools.

“Technology should be included in every single grant area,” she said, noting that OET was created through legislation to serve a coordinating role–providing policy guidance and advocacy about the effective use of technology to all areas of the department.

Beyond reviewing federal funding programs and advocacy, Patrick said, the director of OET also is responsible for promoting innovation, as well as commissioning studies and research intended to explore the benefits of effective technology integration in schools.

“We really need someone in this position who is capable of bringing a lot of different perspectives together,” Patrick said. “This idea of [educational technology] isn’t just a concept like it was 15 years ago. This is real, and this is happening.”

Given the rapid advancement of technology and its growing role in education, Patrick said, it’s critical that ED find someone to take her place–and the sooner the better.

But, as officials within the administration pointed out, finding high-quality candidates to fill top-level government positions isn’t easy, nor is it a process that can occur overnight.

“In Washington all jobs, whether in the administration, on the Hill, or wherever, are subject to steady turnover,” Aspey said. “It takes time to find, clear, and confirm candidates for top administration jobs.”

Having been through the process herself, Patrick concurred. “It takes a long time to go through the government hiring process,” she said.

This isn’t the first time OET directorship has weathered an extended vacancy. It took former Education Secretary Rod Paige nearly a year to hire Patrick’s predecessor, John Bailey, in 2002.

Bailey, who served as ed-tech director for the state of Pennsylvania before joining ED, came on board to replace Linda Roberts, who held the position she helped create during the late ’90s as a special advisor for the Clinton administration.

The transition went much more smoothly when Bailey left in 2004 to join President Bush’s reelection campaign. Rather than drag out the process, Paige promptly tapped Patrick–Bailey’s understudy and a veteran of the department–to succeed him. When no such action was taken following Patrick’s sudden exodus last summer, some began to question whether then-newly appointed Education Secretary Margaret Spellings might have other plans for the office.

As federal officials continued to push the notion that technology should be viewed as an integral part of every facet of education, and not as its own, standalone component, there was some speculation that Spellings might seek to fold OET’s responsibilities into some other branch of the department.

ED, however, is quick to dismiss those concerns as rumors and says it is committed to installing a new leader in the position.

OET isn’t the only office within the department with a “Help Wanted” sign currently hanging in its window.

ED currently is searching for candidates to fill six top-level department positions, including Under Secretary, Assistant Secretary for Management, Assistant Secretary for Vocational and Adult Education, General Counsel, Chief Financial Officer, and Commissioner of Rehabilitative Services Administration.

Unlike OET, however, each of these positions requires both presidential appointment and Senate approval. Part of what made Patrick’s appointment so easy for Paige in 2004 was that ED didn’t have to go through the full confirmation process to bring her on board. Patrick already had gone through that process when she joined ED to serve as an executive under Bailey.

Given the high visibility and high-pressure nature of many of these types of positions, Aspey said, turnover at this level of government is not uncommon.

“There is natural turnover in these jobs as people move on to other opportunities,” she explained in her eMail message.

Links:

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

North American Council for Online Learning
http://www.nacol.org

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

State Educational Technology Directors Association
http://www.setda.org