Obama highlights $90M ed-tech agency

A proposed federal agency would focus on expanding ed-tech learning opportunities.

Educational technology advocates applauded President Obama’s focus on college and career readiness and his call for a new federal agency devoted to ed-tech innovations, which he expanded on in a March 8 speech in Boston.

“I want everyone to pay attention. Even as we find ways to cut spending, we cannot cut back on job-creating investments like education,” he told a crowd at TechBoston Academy in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood on March 8. “There’s nothing responsible about cutting back on our investment in these young people.”

Obama was joined by philanthropist Melinda Gates in the latest stop on his month-long push for an education agenda aimed at garnering bipartisan support for more flexibility and accountability for teachers, an increased emphasis on educational technology, and more innovative standards for students.

The school visit also was designed to draw attention to Obama’s call for the creation of a federal agency designed to pursue breakthroughs in educational technology. Obama requested $90 million for the agency’s first year in the budget blueprint he sent to Congress last month.

The proposal would create an Advanced Research Projects Agency – Education (ARPA-ED), with the goal of transforming educational technology just as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has transformed military technology.

ARPA-ED would further catalyze the ed-tech industry by sponsoring the synthesis and vetting of public and private research and development efforts; identifying breakthrough development opportunities, shaping the next wave of research and development; investing in the development of new educational technology, learning systems, and digital learning materials; and identifying and transitioning the best and most relevant research and development from other federal agencies.

In choosing TechBoston, the White House sought to showcase a school in a working-class neighborhood that had turned around its graduation rate, thanks to new flexibility for its leaders and plenty of help from private foundations.

Offering a recitation of challenges, however, Obama stressed the cost of carrying out an effective education agenda that corrects trends showing U.S. pupils falling behind their counterparts in other countries. In doing so, he set the parameters of the debate under way in Washington on how to continue to pay for government operations through the end of the fiscal year and avert a government shutdown.

“Fixing our schools will cost some money,” Obama said. “Recruiting and rewarding the best teachers costs money. Making it possible for families to send their kids to college costs money. Making sure that some of the state-of-the-art equipment all of you are working on … that costs money.”

TechBoston, a grades 6-12 pilot school within the Boston school district, opened in 2002 with money from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It has made big strides academically through combined efforts of government, businesses, philanthropists, and community groups.

Pointing to that success, Obama sought to cast public education as a joint effort by all sectors of society.

“Reforming education is the responsibility of every single American—every parent, every teacher, every business leader, every public official and, yes, every student,” he said.

Obama is making school improvements a major theme of 2011, linking educational excellence to jobs and private-sector competitiveness.

And while stakeholders expressed support for the ARPA-ED proposal, they also called for consistent education funding to keep U.S. competitiveness strong.

Ed-tech advocacy groups have expressed deep disappointment with proposals from the Obama administration and some lawmakers to defund the Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) program. The Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), the International Society for Technology Education (ISTE), the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA), and the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) said the proposals would eliminate the only federal program dedicated to making technology and training investments in K-12 education that benefit all students.

Authorized as Title II, Part D of the No Child Left Behind Act, EETT gives local school districts need-based grants to improve teaching and learning through educational technology, including the professional development needed for teachers to integrate technology effectively into their instruction. The program received $650 million in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, but the continuing resolution to fund fiscal year 2011 that was passed by the House of Representatives and exists in draft form in the Senate would eliminate funding for EETT.

“Today, as President Obama speaks at TechBoston Academy to tout the need for more technology-related innovation in education, there is an effort under way to defund the EETT program,” the four ed-tech groups said in a March 8 statement. “EETT is the only existing authorized education program designed to leverage innovation and technology to get our economy back on track and adequately prepare all of the nation’s children for the competitive 21st-century global economy.”

The groups said they are disappointed that Congress might eliminate this funding despite ed-tech advocates’ efforts to explain how large a role technology plays in K-12 education today.

“Elimination of the program also is the surest way to devalue the billions of dollars invested over the last two years on improving broadband access to K-12 schools and directly undercuts ongoing state and federal efforts to deploy education data systems, implement new college and career-ready standards and assessments, and address the well-documented STEM crisis. Our educators and students deserve better, and we urge Congress to reverse course and fully fund the EETT program,” the groups said.

“Learning technologies are engaging students, personalizing learning, and increasing educational productivity at a time when student expectations are higher than ever in today’s knowledge-based global economy,” said SIIA President Ken Wasch. “The high-tech industry is poised to help further meet these needs with the backing of public policies that [encourage] commercial investment and aim to help the U.S. lead the world in this emerging industry.”

“SIIA supports the Obama administration’s proposal for an ARPA-ED focused on basic, pro-competitive research that advances the learning technology sector in ways that private investment alone may not support,” added Mark Schneiderman, SIIA’s senior director of education policy. “We call on the U.S. Congress to provide the matching research investment, and to also restore funding to the No Child Left Behind’s Enhancing Education through Technology program needed to prepare our education workforce to effectively deploy these learning technologies through the innovation of our traditional school model.”

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