Duncan: Use tech to leverage change

To avoid being caught short when stimulus money runs out, school officials should use the short-term federal funding to upgrade technology and improve the tracking of student data, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told eSchool News in a wide-ranging interview on June 12.

Duncan, at the U.S. Department of Education (ED) headquarters in Washington, D.C., said federal school officials would continue to push for data-driven learning programs — based on analyses of individual students’ academic strengths and weaknesses. As the federal government pours $100 billion into the schools, he said, administrators should consider implementing technology upgrades.

Adopting innovative technology now could pay dividends for school systems in coming fiscal years, the secretary explained. ED has $10 billion in discretionary dollars that will be awarded to schools that meet goals set in the education stimulus.

“There are a number of one-time technology investments that make tremendous sense,” Duncan said. Using technology to improve student achievement makes teachers feel almost as if “they’re cracking a code,” he explained. With adequate student data, teachers come to realize that effective instruction is not based on “just a guess or an assumption or a hunch, and all that is being driven by technology.”

On his recent “listening tour” of school systems nationwide, Duncan said, he spoke with young teachers who were able to adjust lesson plans for students after electronically tracking classroom progress.

“In a real-time way, [teachers] know what’s going on,” he said. “That only happens with technology.”

***See page 3 for audio of the eSchool News interview with Arne Duncan***

Regarding technology leadership at the department itself, Jim Shelton, ED’s assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement, refused to comment on when ED officials would fill the department’s top tech position. He also declined to say who is being considered for the job. The department’s Office of Educational Technology (OET) has been without a leader since former director Timothy Magner left the post earlier this year.

The OET director position is considered key by many observers. Reason: A central objective of this office is to identify and then advocate for the most effective ways to use technology to improve teacher performance and bolster student scores. The office has most recently released a study on the climbing enrollment in online courses and strategies for educators in online forums. Shelton said a national education technology plan would be released in early 2010.

In the meantime, Duncan said, schools should incorporate digital content into everyday classes and consider open-source learning management systems, which have proven cost effective in school districts and colleges nationwide.

Responding to recent reports that some states are using stimulus dollars simply to supplant funding normally provided from state budgets, Duncan said federal education officials could use a “carrot and stick” approach to ensure that stimulus spending represents worthwhile investments, not stopgap measures during a down economy.

“Where we see folks acting in bad faith, where we see folks not acting in children’s best interest, we have a couple options,” said Duncan, adding that ED can “sit on” the next installment of stimulus money if states or school districts are misusing the funds. “I’m not looking for a fight, but we’re prepared to do that if the situation were to warrant that.”

“If they do the right thing, they will have access to unprecedented discretionary money to drive change in a time of tremendous economic hardship,” Duncan added. “If they don’t, then they do their state and their children a great disservice. … This is really a test of creativity and innovation.”

Denny Carter

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