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.”

ED — which must distribute all stimulus-related money by Sept. 30, 2010 — has laid out a series of goals schools should strive toward with the stimulus money, but Duncan said he did not want to dictate exactly what kind of innovation should be developed at the district level.

“Our job is really to empower that local leadership and not treat them like sheep,” he said. For example, Duncan said, finding ways to use cell phones to deliver lesson plans to students would improve education and meet federal guidelines.

“Kids are on their phones 14 hours a day,” he said.

Duncan said he would watch stimulus money closely, not just read proposals submitted by policy makers and legislators struggling to balance state budgets.

“I’d much rather watch someone’s actions than listen to their words or read their fancy paragraphs.”

Duncan had chided South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford this spring for initially refusing stimulus funds for his state’s school system. South Carolina lawmakers largely opposed Sanford’s stance, and on June 4, the state supreme court ordered Sanford to abide by a South Carolina budget law and request the $700 million in federal funds.

“First,” Sanford wrote in a letter eMailed to Duncan, “it’s important to state one last time for the record what a monumentally terrible idea I believe the entire so-called stimulus act is, and why in particular utilizing this money as our General Assembly has done is ultimately going to cause more harm than good.”

Said Duncan with a laugh, “I’ve never had to beg someone to take money.” Such experiences have surprised the secretary in his new role: “Some things I anticipated, some I didn’t.”

In addition to the financial crisis, an item at the top of Duncan’s to-do list is the reauthorization of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Some aspects of the federal No Child Left Behind law, first passed by Congress in 2002, would need to be overhauled. The law’s name — which Duncan called “toxic” — could also see a change soon, although Duncan refrained from saying when the switch would come.

Reforming NCLB would require a philosophical turnaround, Duncan said. Under the Bush Administration, NCLB “was very loose on the goals and very tight, very prescriptive on how you get there.”

“I think that’s fundamentally backwards,” he argued. “I think it should be very tight on the goal … and be much looser on how you get there.”

Providing more funding for NCLB’s federally mandated academic goals and focusing on a growth-over-time model — in which educators focus on incrementally raising school’s standardized test scores each year — will be two reform efforts during the Obama Administration’s term, according to the secretary.

Duncan said NCLB has largely been seen as an inflexible, “blunt instrument” that devastates school morale when federal standards are missed year after year in some districts.

“Some of those schools labeled as failures actually are getting pretty significantly better each year,” he said. “To call them failures is misleading and unbelievably demoralizing to teachers and parents and the community.”


Click here for audio of the eSchool News interview with Arne Duncan (mp3 audio)

Office of Educational Technology

Education Department: American Recovery and Reinvestment Act

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