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National Education Technology Plan

The U.S. Department of Education released its National Education Technology Plan (NETP) this year -- the draft of the plan in March and the final version in November. The NETP argues that technology should be embraced in the classroom in order to help accelerate learning, improve assessment, deliver personalized education, and build 21st-century competencies. The plan calls, in part, for schools to adopt open-content and mobile learning and says that broadband should be accessible for teachers and students alike, both at home and at school.

While there's much in the plan to praise, but there remains a gulf between "the plan" and action and it's not clear there is either the political willpower or the federal dollars to enact much of the NETP. Indeed, education technology funding has been a mixed bag in 2010. President Obama sought to eliminate the federal Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) program, wrapping ed-tech dollars into a larger education reform initiative instead. But in September, for the first time in its 13-year history, the E-rate program was adjusted for inflation, providing more dollars to subsidize schools' investment in technology.

Race to the Top

"Education reform" -- with or without technology -- was the subject of intense debate this year. The federal Race to the Top(RTTT) initiative was but one example. The competition was designed to reward states that adopted strict education reform policies. Ten states were announced as winners of their share of the $4.35 billion fund in August. The Administration claims those winners have "adopted rigorous common, college- and career-ready standards in reading and math, created pipelines and incentives to put the most effective teachers in high-need schools, and all have alternative pathways to teacher and principal certification."

However, some have questioned the program and the idea of making states compete for funding dollars. Others have challenged the federal government's demands for compliance to their curriculum and assessments standards (not all 50 states applied for RTTT funds in the first place). And some have questioned some of the requirements surrounding "accountability" that translate into tying teacher assessment to student test scores.

"Value-Added" Analysis

Using test scores to evaluate teacher performance was the subject of one of the most controversial education news stories of the year, an LA Times investigation into the effectiveness of teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Using a process called "value-added," the newspaper created a metric for evaluating a teacher's effectiveness based on whether students' standardized test scores met expectations, based on their previous performance. In other words, the difference between a projected test score and an actual score revealed the "value" that a teacher added -- or subtracted.

Many teachers both inside and outside LAUSD balked at the article "Who's teaching LA's kids?" and its "naming of names" of the teachers it deemed poor via its "value-added" analysis. And some challenged the premise of the "value added" analysis, arguing that teachers should be judged on more than just how their students perform on standardized math and writing exams.

Waiting for Superman

Of course, we have been decrying failing schools and falling test scores for years, but 2010 marked education becoming not just an issue for political candidates, for local newspapers, or for parents with school-age children. The political and personal debates about education hit the big screen.

There have been a number of documentaries recently about U.S. schools, but the plight of the country's education system was documented by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Davis Guggenheim and no surprise, his film Waiting for Superman was released this fall to much buzz and acclaim, particularly from the education reformers whose political mission Guggenheim highlighted via the film. The film depicts some of the problems in public education, and in doing so pits "reform" versus "the status quo," with former Washington DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee representing the latter and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, representing the forces resistant to change.

The film argues that improvements in American education will not come simply by giving schools more money. It contends they will come through more rigorous testing, with the expansion of charter schools, with alternative teacher accreditation, and with an end to teachers' unions.

 

New Voices for Education/Technology

Even prior to her appearance in Waiting for Superman, Michelle Rhee had become one of the leading public figures advocating for education reform. However, DC Mayor Adrian Fenty lost his re-election bid in November -- something hard not to read in part as an indictment for Rhee's policies -- and so Rhee stepped down as chancellor. Also "moving on" was a fellow signatory of an ed-reform manifesto, Joel Klein, the chancellor of the New York Public Schools who has since taken a position as an education technology advisor to Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, which recently made its first ed-tech acquisition, the data systems and analysis company Wireless Generation.

Mayor Bloomberg has named former Heart Magazines executive Cathie Black to replace Klein as the NYC Public Schools chancellor, an appointment that has raised some eyebrows as Hearst has no experience in education administration.

But the act seems in line with a trend in 2010 towards people outside rather than within the education system being deemed the "experts" on reform efforts. Bill Gates, for example, continues to be a powerful force in education, with the Gates Foundation announcing in October a $20 million fund for education technology aimed at improving college graduate rates. Even Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg threw his hat in the ed reform ring with the establishment of an educational foundation and a $100 million donation to aid New Jersey schools.

Even Education Secretary Arne Duncan seemed to question teachers' knowledge and expertise when it comes to reshaping and improving education, challenging in a speech in November the pay bonuses for teachers pursuing graduate education arguing that there's no evidence it helps teachers improve "student achievement scores."

Contrary to these themes of "teachers are to blame" and "teachers resist change" that have filled much of the mainstream media and administration rhetoric, many educators are deeply involved in critically examining the teaching profession and the education system. Thanks to the Internet, they have a voice and a network -- in blogs, on Twitter, on Nings, via Skype, via webinars.

And thanks to the Internet and to other technologies, there have been a number of more encouraging developments in education technology this year, which I'll review in the subsequent posts in this end-of-year series.

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Audrey Watters


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