'A Test of Leadership': Arne Duncan Says the Stimulus Money Earmarked for Education Technology Provides Local School Districts with the Resources for Reform. It's on Them to Carry It Through

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WE BELIEVE TECHNOLOGY is at the core of education reform, so we are giving you money and flexibility, but it is up to you to make it happen and then tell us what works.

That was the clear message I took from recent forays to Washington, DC, where I intended to find out what the Obama administration has in mind for advancing the use of technology in public education. During my visits, I interviewed Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Jim Shelton, the assistant secretary for innovation and improvement; attended a forum on emerging technologies held by the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA; www.setda.org), where Shelton and Aneesh Chopra, White House chief technology officer, held forth in a lively question-and-answer session; and participated in a private gathering for SETDA members with Department of Education (ED) staff responsible for the operation of Title II-D, the federal Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) program.

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"Technology is essential to the strategies we are using to reform education," Shelton said at one point during the Q&A at the emerging technologies forum. Speaking directly to SETDA members, he said, "People are about to figure out how important you are to accomplishing education reform in this country."

He cited the four assurances that are at the core of the education funding created by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009: college- and career-ready standards, preK-to-college career and data systems, improvements in teacher effectiveness, and intensive support for low-performing schools. And he said that it is impossible to make good on any of the four without technology, particularly the providing of help to students in low-performing schools. "The question is," Shelton asked, "what do we do to actually excel, not just meet basic standards?"

Duncan and Chopra believe that technology can play its most important role in education by tracking student progress to help teachers realize when instruction is working and when it is not. Chopra explained how large retail stores can adjust sale items in response to all sorts of varied data points, such as weather, the score of an NFL game, and the day of the week, while teachers wishing to adjust instruction to make decisions that are right for students are struggling with disconnected analog inputs from curriculum, textbooks, and test scores.

"Data and analytics are the key," Chopra said emphatically. Duncan agreed, saying there was no longer any reason for teachers to have to rely on "just a guess or an assumption or a hunch--and all that is driven by technology."

According to Duncan, the administration is putting an unprecedented amount of money into education and technology, and wants the recipients of the funding to try innovative ways of applying it. He has concerns about ARRA funds being flowed through established programs. "What we really want to do is have folks rethink existing resources," Duncan said, rather than put their attention only on the stimulus dollars. His department is making an effort to cite best practices and provide the funds with as few strings as possible, but it is up to the local school districts to implement.

"When I was in Chicago," he joked, "I used to think that all the good ideas could not come out of Washington, and now that I am here, I know all the good ideas don't come from here.

"This is a test of leadership. We want to empower local leadership."

Readying a New Tech Plan

As for EETT funding, Duncan said that the cut in the program for the proposed 2010-2011 budget--from the current $267 million down to $100 million--should not be taken as a signal about how the Obama administration regards technology. "Not at all," he said with a firm shake of his head, and then looked to Shelton.

"Through the stimulus, we have an unprecedented $650 million [for EETT]," Shelton said, picking up from his boss. …