Has NCLB’s technology funding helped or hurt schools?
No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has occupied a political hot seat since its passage in 2001, and the discussion about reauthorization continues to drag on in Washington, D.C. As politicians wrangle with possible changes, EdTech examines how the law has impacted tech investments and use in K–12 schools, and how a reauthorized bill might improve upon its predecessor.
NCLB passed in 2001 with a robust provision in the Title II D (Enhancing Education Through Technology, or EETT) component calling for technology literacy among students by the end of eighth grade, highly qualified teachers and tech integration across the curriculum. Optimists equated the language with tech leadership, says Don Knezek, CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). For its part, the government followed through with funds. In 2004, for example, $696 million was put toward the EETT component.
Districts across the country tapped into these funds to expand tech infrastructure, spur innovation and improve instruction. Take Baltimore County Public Schools: The district collaborated with other Maryland districts on several projects to inform and improve professional development, develop a statewide online-course consortium, and implement standards and assessment programs. “These would not have happened without EETT funding,” asserts Thea Jones, supervisor of the office of instructional technology for Baltimore County Public Schools.
Unfortunately, insiders noted some danger signals, particularly as the Department of Education selectively enforced Title II D requirements, says Knezek. What’s more, the department ignored modern digital instructional strategies in its definition of “highly qualified.”
Other impacts fly under the radar. Because of its heavy focus on standardized test scores and improvement, the law forces district leaders and classroom teachers to focus on basic skills, rather than those relevant to the 21st century. Even as schools integrated technology, NCLB affected their choices.
“The emphasis on test scores created a boomlet in instructional materials aimed at tested standards. There is no data to show whether or not these materials are effective,” says Bruce Hunter, associate executive director of American Association of School Administrators (AASA). There are limited tech funds, however, and some schools purchased drill-and-kill tech at the expense of deeper tech investments, he says. The focus on test results also discourages innovation and experimentation among teachers, he adds.
Adding to the problem, federal dollars continue to dwindle, and secondary sources are scarce. “EETT formula grants and the E-Rate program did create an influx of funds,” acknowledges Hunter, “but technology is not a one-time investment.” Tight state budgets exacerbate an already challenging situation; three-fourths of states report decreased or flat revenue this fiscal year, drying up another possible source of funding. Consequently, as the federal government reduces its commitment, schools cannot replace those funds. The initial FY 2008 budget proposal slashes EETT funds to $267.5 million, but the political battles continue with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi calling on Congress to fully fund EETT, while President Bush has targeted EETT funding for elimination.
Money, however, is not a panacea, according to Knezek. Funding should be combined with positive leadership at the federal level, with the Department of Education defining relevant educational technology standards and reconfiguring the assessment process to include mechanisms to measure and record student progress.
The Next Steps
Over the past decade, most schools have established a baseline infrastructure that weds hardware and connectivity. Reaching the next targets may be tough. “Schools need to transition from drill-and-kill programs to sophisticated digital implementations, and the cost of software and teacher training increases with this approach,” notes Hunter.
The Achievement Through Technology and Innovation bill (ATTAIN) represents a step in the right direction, Hunter says. Designed to encourage schools to invest in technology and use it as part of a complete overhaul of how content is presented to students, ATTAIN would revamp EETT. For example, a district might focus on building digital capabilities that nurture creativity and higher-order thinking skills. ATTAIN also would direct funds toward professional development, a critical requirement of deeper integration.
Another key element of the ideal NCLB reauthorization is connectedness. A single poverty-driven formula that factors in special circumstances, such as high proportions of English Language Learners (ELLs) or Native American students, is more efficient and cost-effective than scores of disjointed programs such as Head Start and child health programs, and it increases the probability of student learning, says Hunter.
NCLB has transformed the American education system. However, many experts say it requires an overhaul. The ideal reauthorization pairs full EETT funding with consistent national leadership, redefines highly qualified teachers to incorporate digital strategies, supports higher-level tech projects and provides a sound mechanism for professional development.
The Trickle-Down Effect
Five specific ways Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) has made a difference in classrooms across the country:
- In Alabama, Maine, Missouri, Nevada and Utah, the eMINTS program (enhancing Missouri’s Instructional Networked Teaching Strategies, which is used by more than just Missouri) provides schools and teachers with technology tools, curriculum and more than 200 hours of professional development to change how teachers teach and students learn. In schools that use eMINTS in some classes but not in others, students in eMINTS classes regularly outperform their peers by as much as 10 percent on standardized tests.
- In West Virginia, students receiving access to online foreign-language courses performed at least as well as those in “regular” face-to-face classes. The online classes provided comparable high-quality instruction for those in rural areas who otherwise would not have access to such courses.
- In Michigan’s Freedom to Learn technology program, eighth-grade math achievement increased from 31 percent in 2004 to 63 percent in 2005 at one middle school, and science achievement increased from 68 percent of students proficient in 2003 to 80 percent in 2004.
- Texas’ Technology Immersion Pilot, implemented in middle schools, demonstrated that discipline referrals went down by more than half with the changes in teaching and learning. In one school, standardized math scores improved across various grades: sixth grade by 5 percent, seventh grade by 42 percent and eighth grade by 24 percent.
- In Iowa, after connecting teachers with sustainable professional development and technology-based curriculum interventions, student scores increased by 14 points in eighth-grade math, 16 points in fourth-grade math and 12 points in fourth-grade reading, compared with control groups.