The future of federal funding for education technology purchases is uncertain, but there's still time to spend the money that's available.
Are federal dollars as elusive as the jackalope, the mythical creature of North American folklore whose origins can be traced to Douglas, Wyo.? Not if you ask John Gibson, technology director for the city's eight-school Converse County School District No. 1.
Like countless other educators around the country, Gibson stands at a crossroads in his search for funding to support technology purchases. It's been two years since Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) – a one-time infusion of $100 billion into the nation's public schools – but Gibson is fortunate. His district has benefitted from ARRA funding in tangible ways. Last year, the 1,694-student district in east-central Wyoming spent nearly $92,000 on technology, including more than 100 Lenovo ThinkPads, Epson projectors, HP printers, tablet computers and interactive whiteboards.
"We have a plan and ideas about where we want to go," Gibson says of Converse County's funding application strategy. "When the funding isn't there for an initiative with ongoing costs, by the time you end your initiative, the technology is obsolete. ARRA dollars helped us complete initiatives more quickly, so we didn't have to stretch it out over five years. It's helped us reach our goals much faster."
Lisa Weigel, the district's director of student support services, echoes those sentiments. "It's always exciting when we can enhance instruction and technology," she says. Over the past two years, the district increasingly has moved toward a "response-to-intervention" approach, using ARRA money to fund several research- and web-based interventions for reading, writing and math, as well as intense professional development for its teachers.
"We now have technology in the hands of kids," adds Brent Notman, principal of Douglas Primary School, one of five elementary schools in the district. "We're also seeing our teachers integrate technology in a more natural manner, where it's a part of their teaching regimen and worked in daily."
Notman says Douglas Primary students and teachers love the technologies ARRA funding has made possible, noting that the tools have "raised the level of student engagement." What's more, having reliable student notebooks in classrooms has relieved some of the headaches for the classroom teachers. "We've been very fortunate to have them," he adds.
Each year, the district applies for a consolidated grant, allowing it to go beyond normal district and state funds. Along the way, Weigel requires staff to complete technology evaluations to form a data trail of benefits, which drives upcoming purchasing decisions and helps in the application process. She meets regularly with staff, students and parents in each school to conduct needs assessments, calling the district's effort "a team approach."
Over the past six to eight months, Converse County has seen positive increases in student achievement. For example, results from the 2010 Proficiency Assessments for Wyoming Students show districtwide improvements of 8 percent in mathematics, 22 percent in reading and 24 percent in writing. "Our stimulus dollars have been a key factor in that," Weigel says.
Meanwhile, ARRA remains in a state of flux. Much has happened since President Obama signed the legislation into law on Feb. 17, 2009. As of May 14, 2010, roughly $84 billion in ED Recovery Act grants had been awarded to U.S. schools. According to a Sept. 30, 2010, ED Recovery Act Jobs Report (the most recent data available), $640.9 million had been awarded to educational technology programs. Those funds, available through the U.S. Department of Education's Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) program, must be dedicated to efforts to improve student achievement through the use of technology in elementary and secondary schools.
As noted in a report published last November by the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA), ARRA EETT funds are, in fact, "driving innovations in teaching and learning, targeting schools and populations most in need of intensive support, and scaling up state-developed innovations." But the publication, ominously titled ARRA Investments in Technology, Innovation and K-12 Reform: The Digital Education Funding Cliff, also warns that the program is in jeopardy because of budget cuts: "Sept. 30, 2011, appears to represent a very real and very steep digital education funding cliff for America's students and teachers."
Why Sept. 30? The DOE released ARRA EETT funding to the states on July 27, 2009, along with guidance that encouraged them to spend it quickly, but prudently, and by no later than Sept. 30, 2011. Notably, that date also is the last day of fiscal year 2011 for the federal government, which is considering steep budget cuts across the board in 2012 that will almost certainly affect education.
SETDA's observation is echoed in a report from the Center on Education Policy, which surveyed education leaders in 42 states and Washington, D.C., to gauge how ARRA has aided their reform efforts. Released in February, More to Do, But Less Capacity to Do It: States' Progress in Implementing the Recovery Act Education Reforms concludes that "the ambitious agenda of education reform attached to ARRA may hit a wall in 2012."
But we're not there yet. March 25, 2011, data from the DOE (the most recent available) shows that $3.02 billion in ARRA Title I funding remains available to schools. (The department updates these figures regularly at www2.ed.gov/policy/gen/leg/recovery/spending/program.xls.)
What this money has meant to schools over the past two years is becoming increasingly clear as more of it is spent and its benefits assessed. As Anne Wujcik, a senior education research analyst for the education marketing information firm Market Data Retrieval, explains, "States use the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund to supplement their ongoing budget, so it doesn't end up giving the schools extra money. It just keeps them from feeling the pain of more cuts." It's the Title I money that's really perceived as extra money, she adds.
Wujcik expects schools will spend the remaining money this spring and summer on products and services they want in place for the next school year. "The goal here is to cushion some of the very significant budget problems expected in 2011-2012," she says. "Schools are very concerned about being sure they get as much bang for the buck as possible" while they still can.
As acting group leader for school support and technology programs at the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, Enid Marshall oversees ARRA EETT evaluations. She says the Obama administration would like more integration of technology with other programs – Title I, for example.
To secure funding, Marshall encourages school administrators to work collaboratively with their curriculum specialists and with federal program directors to develop strategies that are targeted to the greatest need and to use technology across those programs. "Technology isn't something that by itself is going to reform schools," she says. "It's a tool that should be used across the curriculum as an integral part of instruction."
A Team Effort
Stanton Middle School, one of seven schools in Ohio's Kent City School District, is a model of the strategy to which the DOE's Marshall is referring. The school's assistant principal, Kathy Scott, cowrote a stimulus grant application that helped Stanton gain sustained, collaborative and job-embedded professional development and to explore new teaching and learning models and strategies.
When the funds became available, Scott had to find team-oriented teachers who would commit to a year of strategic technology planning and school change. "Transforming the school and focusing on 21st century skills are the major focuses of the grant, with technology being the way to provide these goals," she says.
The district was lucky to have a dedicated technology coordinator and teacher coach, Courtney Baliman, who could spearhead the effort. "Courtney took the lead in grant writing and submitting for the team," Scott explains. All team members took a 10-week online summer course to learn how to incorporate technology into the classroom. They then developed an action plan, goals and a budget and began ordering the technology to support the plan, which was heavy on project-based learning.
With the $225,000 in funding the school received, Scott ordered 30 notebooks, 30 tablets, and a slew of document cameras, charging stations, interactive whiteboards and Flip Video camcorders. A quarter of the award amount was set aside for professional development.
Excitement builds each day as the new tools arrive. In many cases, Scott says, students are teaching teachers how to use them. Both internal and external evaluators will conduct reviews of the process in the near future, Scott adds, and she can't wait to share the results with school stakeholders and the community at large.
Technology for Good Health
When it comes to federal funding, every little bit helps, says Amanda Bodell, a living arts and health education teacher at Mount Abraham Union Middle/High School in Bristol, Vt. In 2009, Bodell wrote a grant proposal that netted $4,725 in ARRA funding. "Health curricula tend to be skills-based, so we wanted to provide students an opportunity to show what they've learned in problem-solving, negotiation and resolving conflict," she explains.
With that money, Bodell and fellow health education teacher Ann Pollender purchased Flip Video camcorders, digital voice recorders and MP3 players. Today, students use the tools to develop skits that help them master health concepts. Bodell says the acquisitions have made a big difference in the classroom. "Students love them. They're fun, easy – and I can use them," she laughs. "It's immediate, and the format is so simple."
To educators in a similar position, Bodell offers these tips: "Work with your educational technologist to really learn what's out there," she says. "Get easy-to-use equipment that doesn't require much support. And become familiar with your options because they change quickly."
One-to-One Notebook Success
Asheville City Schools was one of 12 districts in North Carolina to receive ARRA EETT grants in 2009. With that money, the School of Inquiry and Life Sciences at Asheville (SILSA), one of 10 schools in the district, launched the first phase of its one-to-one computing initiative in fall 2010.
Because of budget cuts, the school had no money to dedicate to professional development. But the stimulus funds SILSA received included line items for professional development, as well as for contracts, equipment and workshop expenses. "These funds allowed our teachers to continue to grow in pedagogy and to become comfortable using technology in the classroom," says Shannon Baggett, a lead teacher and technology facilitator at SILSA. She advises educators seeking funds and those who have already won them to take the same approach and make professional development a priority.
"In order for students to be successful, we had to give our teachers an opportunity to learn how to use Web 2.0 tools and various applications," she explains. "Many veteran teachers also needed the opportunity to transition their teaching styles from a traditional approach to a more tech-savvy approach." Thanks to ARRA, that was possible.
Analysts expect American Recovery and Reinvestment Act spending to continue through Sept. 30, 2011. According to the U.S. Department of Education, Enhancing Education Through Technology funds made available through ARRA must be used to improve:
- Teaching effectiveness and school improvement practices: Approved applications include implementing software for formative student assessments and curriculum-based measurements to personalize learning; using school-based technology coordinators and coaches; and tracking the impact of research-based professional development.
- Data and learning management systems: Approved applications include acquiring systems to collect and manage data to inform teaching; developing online formative assessment systems; implementing learning management systems; and creating or expanding statewide longitudinal data systems.
- 21st century college and career-ready standards: Approved applications include using project-based learning; making innovative use of computing and communication technologies; developing activities to promote the use of emerging technologies, such as digital media, video podcasting and online collaborative tools; and providing students with courseware, especially for math and science.
- Effective interventions and intensive support: Approved applications include developing performance measurement systems; strategically integrating technology; acquiring technology that is accessible to all students; acquiring and training teachers to use instructional software, interactive whiteboards and other technologies; and providing students with access to quality, free courseware and activities in core subjects.
For more information, download www2.ed.gov/programs/edtech/guidance-arra.doc.