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OnCUE Archive - 2002, October

The
Only Game in Town

The
federalNo Child Left Behind Act
is the only major source of ed-tech funding for a cash- strapped California. 

By Brian McDonough

One
thing's for sure -- the money's gone.

The
state is in a fiscal crisis that has led to a severely reduced budget for
fiscal year 2002-2003. No one's exactly predicting a sudden return to the
dot-com glory days by next July, so the 2003-04 year is likely to be fairly
lean, as well. This leaves schools in a bit of a bind. Over the last few
years, a lot of hardware has flowed into California classrooms, but districts
continue to wrestle with uncomfortably high student-to- computer ratios.
Hardware aside, even the schools that have enjoyed the best infusions of
technology need money to keep the devices running, and to train teachers
to make the most of the opportunity they represent.

It's
good timing, then, for the federal government to be increasing funding
of educational technology. The No Child Left Behind program is a Bush administration
initiative that renewed and increased funding in a program that started
in 1965 as the Elementary and Secondary School Education Act of 1965. The
$22.5 billion Bush act represents an increase in funding of just over 25
percent from the previous year, and includes both educational technology
and professional development for teachers.

But
it doesn't come without strings. Accountability is the word that comes
up most often in connection with this act. Regular testing will assess
school performance, and schools that don't meet expectations may lose the
federal funding.

The
technology component of California's share of the NCLB funding comes to
$85 million, according to Nancy Sullivan, director of the data management
division of the state Department of Education.

"It
is very significant," she says. "Half is through formula funding, and half
is through competitive grants. The formula funding piece goes in proportion
to the share of Title 1 funding the district receives. At least 25 percent
must be spent on teacher training in technology.

"The
competitive portion is open to districts with a high percentage of students
living in poverty and underperforming schools as defined by the program,"she adds.

How
to Spend $85 million

As
of early September, the state hadn't figured out exactly what to do with
the money. The state Legislature was working on a bill that would govern
how the money is divvied out, within the rules set at the federal level.
Sullivan said she was hoping to see the legislation shape a program with
a vision beyond this fiscal year.

"Our
preference is to do multiyear grants," she says. While this year's $85
million would be disbursed this year, those schools receiving funds would
also get a commitment of additional funding in subsequent years. This,
she says, is important because both NCLB and the Education Enhancement
Through Technology program demand to see improvements in student performance
as a result of the funding. 

Sullivan
says technology will definitely improve classroom performance, but not
necessarily in the same year you provide the initial funding, and especially
not if the money is a one-time windfall. "You can't have student improvement
in standardized tests if you close out the program after a single year,"she says.

Her
office is also looking at making larger grants to fewer schools, rather
than spreading the money as widely as possible. The fear is that tiny grants
to every school won't do anyone any good, and if that's reflected in test
scores, future funding could be jeopardized. Better, she suggests, to put
the money into programs in which educational gains are likely to result.

"The
tradeoff is that you serve a smaller number of districts over time, but
our intent is to increase not only access to technology," she says. "Lengthier
commitments will allow schools to actually use that technology in ways
that make a difference in meeting education goals."

Hard
Times in the Golden State

While
California enjoyed massive budget surpluses, more money than ever went
into education technology. When the economy turned bad, tech money - which
was never built into the budget as a guaranteed funding item - got cut
faster than a 98-pound freshman trying out for varsity football.

"I
know we're in difficult times in terms of the state budget," says Ellis
Vance, CUE's new executive director and former director of CTAP. "I was
glad that funding for CTAP was not affected by the downturn, but certainly
a lot of grant programs have been affected. It has definitely affected
Digital High School and professional development funding."

"DHS
funding has really been decimated this year," Vance says. "We have the
connections and networking, but ongoing money for staff development and
tech support isn't there."

With
the federal money as the only game in town, district officials are looking
at what can be done with the NCLB funds.

"I
think there are tremendous needs that this could begin to address, but
the money is nowhere near what is needed," says George Nicholson, director
of educational technology of the Sacramento City Unified School District.
"Our district is in pretty good shape in terms of number of computers and
how new they are. But school districts like Sac City have tremendous needs
for staff development."

Bob Blackney, director of Technology and Instructional Support in the Chino Valley Unified School District, says the same holds true in his district, where a small trickle of hardware wouldn't necessarily make much difference. "I'd rather do staff development than buy one more computer forevery school."

"Greater
good can be done when we teach teachers how to integrate technology into
the curriculum," Nicholson says.

Blackney
agrees, adding, "Curriculum integration is the hardest piece."

Another
ongoing problem: keeping the computers running. Professional tech support
is very much needed, Nicholson says. Some schools have gotten creative
about the small problems, but ultimately, these networks aren't small.
"While student helpers can be useful, you can't rely on student help to
keep your computers up and running."

State
Secretary for Education Kerry Mazzoni points proudly to a number of accomplishments
in tech education in the past few years, but allows that funding mechanisms
need to be improved.

"The
state is committed to the integration of technology in all classrooms and
curriculums," Mazzoni says. "[But] we're going to have to look at new ways
to fund ongoing costs of technology. We're very good at funding the ongoing
costs of textbooks, but we're going to have to transition to funding the
ongoing cost of technology as well."

Is
the Federal Government Our Friend?

If the Bush administration is going to write checks, states are going to cash them, but that doesn't meaneveryone's in love with No Child Left Behind. A number of educational organizations nationwide have criticized, or flatly opposed the program, and the word that comes up most often, again, is accountability.

The
U.S. Constitution is pretty clear about where the responsibility for education
lies - with the states. Having the U.S. Department of Education require
schools to meet federally mandated performance goals to receive funding
strikes some as an encroachment on state educational authority. And given
the size and scope of the United States, some question whether one set
of guidelines can serve 50 states.

"We're
confident we can meet the requirements of NCLB, but it's tricky," says
Mazzoni. "The rules were written to apply to all states.

"When
the federal government gets involved, it needs to be flexible," Mazzoni
says. "California is very large and diverse, and has particular needs that
are very difficult to meet to the letter of federal law."

Which
raises another question, she adds. "If we can't meet them, are we not entitled
to our fair share of funding?" California taxpayers put their money into
the program, she observes. Shouldn't California taxpayers see their money
going into their schools?

The federal Department of Education defends the accountability issue by saying that resources should be focused on programs and efforts that work. "For the first time, the federal government will invest in successful public education instead of continuing to fund a failingsystem," U.S. Secretary of Education Ron Paige says on the NCLB Web site www.NoChildLeftBehind.gov.

That's
definitely a goal California is prioritizing as well, Nancy Sullivan says.
She wants to see a complete integration that puts curricular needs at the
heart of technology plans. "You have to be doing things in a way that wouldn't
be possible without technology," she says. And you have to make sure it's
working. "You have to evaluate and think hard about what you're trying
to accomplish, and what you can change to get there."

That
kind of monitoring and adjustment is more important than ever in these
lean budgetary times. "We don't have money," she says, "to fund things
that don't work." 

Brian
McDonough is a freelance writer in Oakland, Calif.