Bowling Green City Schools’ Beth Krolak recommends including the technophobes on technology committees because they often ask useful, probing questions.

Oct 31 2006

Focusing In On Tech Literacy

NCLB requires every student be tech literate by eighth grade. Here's a primer on how educators in four states plan to meet that mandate.

NCLB requires every student be tech literate by eighth grade. Here’s a primer on how educators in four states plan to meet that mandate.

Last year, Arizona educational technology director Cathy Poplin wanted proof that her state’s technology investments in schools were making a difference. Little did she know the federal government was thinking the same thing.

Like every state, Arizona doles out federal technology grants to its school districts to help them meet the No Child Left Behind goal of having every student become tech literate by the time they graduate from eighth grade.

Poplin felt it was important to track how effectively Arizona was teaching technology to students even though testing wasn’t required at the time. Educators had always assumed tech literacy was on the rise and reported improvement in the state’s annual NCLB report. Last year, Poplin organized an effort to assess tech literacy among fifth-and eighth-graders and this spring the state tested students for the first time.

“Kids dabble in technology all the time, but do they really know what they’re doing? They use iPods and cell phones, but how literate are they really?” she asks. “For our own accountability, we needed to find out how our students are doing.”

A Head Start

Poplin’s proactive effort is proving fortu­itous. In the five years since NCLB became law, the federal government has pumped an estimated $2.85 billion into the nation’s schools to get students ready for the digital age — and now wants its first progress report on whether the program is working.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Education Department told every state to assess eighth-grade students and determine their technology proficiency by the end of the 2006–2007 school year. The new requirement stems from the U.S. Office of Management and Budget’s failed effort to review the effectiveness of the federal technology grants because there was no hard data available. The funding, called Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT), is given to states to help their school districts bolster technology in their curricula and to provide tech training to teachers.

Many school districts and state education departments are racing to meet the deadline for tech literacy assessments. In a survey conducted in 2005, 33 states had adopted student technology standards, but only seven had tests to assess those standards, according to the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA).

“Many states have explored how to best assess their students, but this is a big challenge for the states that have not formalized a process,” says SETDA Executive Director Mary Ann Wolf. “It’s very challenging when a reporting requirement comes into place five years into it, and it’s complicated by the fact that funding is not provided to assess tech literacy.”

When NCLB became effective in 2002, state education departments didn’t have to include specific data on eighth-grade tech literacy in their NCLB state performance reports. But they were told that if the federal government ever needed specifics, that states should be ready to respond, educators say.

States can use their EETT funding to help pay for assessments, but the federal government has dramatically reduced its tech grants to states. Annual EETT funding dropped from $700 million in 2002 to an estimated $272.3 million in 2006. President Bush’s proposed 2007 budget cuts EETT funding to zero.

Many school districts and state education departments have spent years working to comply with the eighth-grade tech literacy requirement, and some states such as Arizona and Michigan are already assessing students, while other states such as Ohio have drawn up plans to do so.

The tech component of NCLB doesn’t provide detailed instructions on how to make students tech literate, so states and school districts can meet the tech goals any way they choose.

Educators suggest a two-pronged strategy to ensure success: States and school districts must create technology committees to develop detailed technology curriculum requirements for each grade and then develop a method to assess eighth-grade students on their tech literacy. Schools must also continually invest in classroom technology and professional development for faculty.

Getting Started

For students to become tech literate, educators must first define what that means. Create a technology committee made up of stakeholders — such as instructional technologists and teachers — to develop technology curriculum requirements, says Beth Krolak, technology coordinator for Bowling Green City Schools in Ohio. Don’t forget to include technophobes because they can bring caution to the proceedings, she says.

“You need to have teachers throw out a couple of reality checks,” she says. “They ask good, legitimate questions like, ‘Why would we do this?’ and ‘Why is this important?’”

In the early stages, don’t start from scratch. School districts should take advantage of materials from other educational institutions, says Melissa White, supervisor of media and technology at the Regional Education Media Center 13, which provides instructional technology services to schools in three Michigan counties.

For example, many states have modeled their technology standards after the National Educational Technology Standards (NETS) created by the nonprofit International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE).

NETS focuses on six areas, which include social, ethical and human issues — such as understanding the dangers of online communications; the use of productivity, communications and technology research tools, such as PowerPoint, e-mail and search engines; and the use of problem-solving and decision-making tools, such as databases and spreadsheets.

Maryland’s Efforts

“It doesn’t matter deciding what kids need to know if you don’t have a way to measure it.”

— Melissa Woods of Montgomery County, Md., Public Schools

Photo Credit: JAMES KEGLEY

Since 2003, representatives from Maryland’s 24 school districts have joined to develop a statewide plan to meet the tech literacy requirement.

Backed by $1.5 million in EETT funds spread across four years, the districts set out to establish statewide tech standards, create professional development courses and develop student-monitoring tools to track student progress. The Maryland Student Technology Literacy Consortium, made up of teachers, curriculum specialists and IT and educational technology directors, also gave away $10,000 in annual EETT grants to each school district for professional development.

The consortium’s tech standards committee modeled itself after the NETS standards and held focus group meetings with the community. The committee initially created tech requirements that needed to be reached in three-year intervals — by the second, fifth and eighth grades, says Kalani Smith, co-director of the consortium. But then the group realized that put an unfair burden on the teachers in those grades.

“Our feeling was that the teacher at the end would get stuck with everything,” recalls Melissa Woods, consortium co-director and director of technology management and support for Montgomery County Public Schools.

Ahead of the Curve

Maryland also held community focus groups to gather feedback, says Kalani Smith of the state’s tech literacy consortium.

Photo Credit: JAMES KEGLEY

As a result, the group made tech re­­quirements specific to each grade level. In the meantime, the rest of the consortium developed five professional development courses and a teacher checklist to help monitor student progress. Now in its fourth year, the consortium awaits approval from the state’s board of education, which should come by January.

“It’s been a good partnership,” Woods says. “We just thought through what needed to be done. If you don’t have professional development, it doesn’t do you any good. And it doesn’t matter deciding what kids need to know if you don’t have a way to measure it.”

Baltimore County Public Schools and Bowling Green City Schools won’t have a hard time adapting to their states’ new tech standards. Both districts invested heavily in tech literacy even before NCLB.

Baltimore, which developed a tech curriculum in 1993, has invested about $30 million the past four years on technology and teacher training. The majority of the tech funding comes from the district’s own coffers, says Baltimore County Superintendent Joe A. Hairston.

“Technology isn’t just a piece of equipment sitting in the corner,” he says. “Our young people are exposed to it. We use it. It becomes a normal part of our daily operations.”

The district’s professional development classes include tech skills workshops and training to incorporate technology into classroom activities, says Thea Jones, supervisor of the district’s Office of Instructional Technology. With the help of EETT funding, the district also developed a Web site that features technology lessons and class activities that teachers can use.

Once Maryland’s education board approves the new state tech standards, Baltimore will create a committee to review and possibly update its own tech standards. Hairston doesn’t foresee big changes. “It’s unlikely that our curriculum is too far out of line with the state,” he says.

Bowling Green, which developed its tech curriculum in 2000, was in a similar situation last year. Ohio developed state technology standards, forcing the district to update its tech curriculum. Both the state and district’s standards were based on NETS, so they were similar.

“We just spent two half-days revising and enhancing,” Krolak says.

Ohio’s standards require accountability, so this year the district will mail progress reports to parents each quarter, showing whether students are meeting the requirements. The district will also use a free test developed by Microsoft and ISTE to assess eighth-graders.

Put to the Test

Arizona used a portion of its EETT funding to pay for an online test from a software maker. Michigan’s education department, meanwhile, has given school districts three ways to evaluate their students — through formal testing, teachers’ classroom observations or by analyzing students’ portfolios of work.

Michigan educator Sherry McVay figures the best way to test the technology literacy of students is with technology itself. This past spring, the technology director for DeWitt Public Schools created an online multiple-choice test for eighth-graders using the Blackboard course management system.

McVay added video to make the test interactive. In an exercise on ethics, one student tells another student that he’s figured out how to circumvent the firewall, so they can go to banned Web sites. After the video, the students discuss what they should do.

School districts that have already assessed their students have seen benefits. In Arizona, the fifth-graders scored 27 percent, and eighth-graders scored 37 percent. The scores were low, but it gives the state’s educators a baseline to compare against this year’s scores, Poplin says. The state, which will pay for half the cost of the testing because of reduced EETT funding, will test in the fall and again in the spring to see if there are improvements.

“We have a huge opportunity to use this data to drive initiatives in districts,” Arizona’s Poplin says. “Many school districts are seeing they need to do more. They are going to the school board, getting this information out to parents and revisiting their tech plans to make sure they take the measures to be successful.”

NCLB’s Future

NCLB, a bipartisan initiative, is up for reauthorization by Congress in 2007. A commission is currently taking testimony and will make recommendations on changes.

Although it’s unclear if the tech literacy requirement will be affected, educators say it’s critical.

“Given outsourcing and other industrialized nations that have skilled workers who can produce the same volume of work at the same or higher quality, it gives us some indication of how competitive we must be to maintain and contribute to our economy,” says Baltimore’s Hairston. “Absent technology, I don’t think our workers will have the foundation and skills to be competitive.”

Tech Literacy Abroad

The United States isn’t alone in its quest to prepare students for the digital age. China, India and the United Kingdom are all investing in national programs to ensure that their children are competitive in the global economy.

China is spending heavily on its tech infrastructure and has made it a goal to connect more than 90 percent of the nation’s elementary schools to the Internet by 2010, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

China faces many hurdles, including a digital divide between schools in larger cities and those in rural villages, according to UNESCO. In 2003, the government invested $100 million in infrastructure equipment, so rural schools can use distance education to share resources with schools in developed areas.
India also faces the issue of haves and have-nots between students in large cities and rural areas.

Most school tech projects are funded through partnerships with the private sector, says Ravi Gupta, editor of India’s Digital Learning magazine. In the state of Uttaranchal, for example, the government is providing technology, teacher training and curriculum development with the help of Intel and Microsoft, Gupta says.

The government’s Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan program, or Universal Education Project, provides funds for computer-aided education to elementary schools, while its Information and Communication Technologies in Schools effort funds technology in the country’s secondary schools.

The United Kingdom’s Education and Skills Department has spent £37 million ($68.7 million) to ensure that every school has broadband Internet access by this year. In 2005, the department announced a new technology strategy for education. Goals include providing more online learning opportunities for students, access to student records and class information to parents, and improved online curriculum training and materials for teachers.

— Wylie Wong

A Look Back at Other Ambitious U.S. Education Initiatives

1968 Congress approves bilingual education as part of Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Bilingual education allows recent immigrants to receive an education in their native language.

1965 Congress passes ESEA, a major educational funding initiative that exists today under the name No Child Left Behind. The act was part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, providing funds to address the needs of low-income students.

1958 In response to the former Soviet Union’s launch of the first satellite to orbit Earth, Congress passes the National Defense Education Act to ensure that America can compete with its rival. NDEA improves science, math and foreign language instruction in K–12 schools.