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Open Wide, Gift Horse March 27, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Funding, Online Tools.
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katrina   Last week, the news announced that Mrs. Barbara Bush, mother of the current president, was supporting victims of hurricane Katrina by giving money to the Houston area schools to spend on an educational product marketed and sold by her son, Neil. Without trying to cast aspersion on Mrs. Bush’s largess, she appears to have found an excellent way of transferring some of her estate to her son, indirectly of course. I know my colleagues will ask me about this because of my position as Director of Technology and a doctorate on this very topic, the purchase of software by school districts. From an ethical point of view, I suppose my answer will not make some people happy with me. Mrs. Bush is a private citizen and as such is free to give her money to whomever she wishes with whatever stipulation she desires. The Houston Independent School District is also free to turn that same money down if it disagrees with stipulations set by the donor.

The act of rejecting such a gift might have negative fallout. However, one solution to what could be construed as a sticky situation would be for the school district to accept or purchase several sets of software and test it on a few select classes then make a decision to purchase it district wide or to recommend it for purchase by other districts by providing testimony to its effectiveness.

The sticky part of this situation is that the district had already accepted 15 of the programs two years earlier, and wrestled over conflict of interest concerns at that time. If the district accepts the software donation, they are explicitly endorsing the software and providing entrée for it into one of the two major educational markets in the United States. The state of Texas as a market for textbooks drives textbook adoption policies across the entire country. Texas and California followed closely by New York are the three largest textbook markets. Textbook publishers ignore them at their peril.

The same goes for publishers of educational software. Acceptance into these markets means a dominant place in the panoply of educational software publishers and access to many other business opportunities. Mrs. Bush is also an educational beneficiary in a number of universities example she has sponsored the Barbara Bush chair in reading at a Texas University. She has made a very canny business decision to support her son and has wisely avoided contributing to the Bush-Clinton Katrina relief fund, choosing instead to donate to the Bush-Clinton Houston Hurricane Relief Fund; her request was that victims of hurricane Katrina use this educational software.

It might be difficult to assure the former first lady that victims of Katrina would actually receive the software since it is a tool used with an entire class of students. Such a software package is not content-poor software, such as a word processing program or spreadsheet program. It is content-rich software and, as a result, can dictate the direction curriculum in schools adopting it will take.

School district officials should do the right thing and attempt to retain their integrity and independence when it comes to curriculum. Acceptance of such gifts with strings could quite easily lead to pressure from fringe groups to accept their curricular tools into the schools. Pick your boogeyman, Intelligent Design or Secular Humanism; the door is open to either.

Sometimes it is perfectly acceptable to look a gift horse in the mouth, especially if you have some doubt that the four-legged creature in front of you is a horse in the first place. 

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Congress Cuts Again February 8, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Funding.
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congress   Many thanks to Andy Carvin for pointing out some of the effects of the 2007 federal budget will have on educational technology.

Education Technology State Grants were funded at $279 million but next year have been allocated zero dollars. Since the No Child Left Behind Act changed the way money gets distributed, handing out blocks to money to states, the money has withered from 500 million to less than 300 million to zero. One of the rationales behind the shift was that teachers have had plenty of time to figure out how to use technology in the classroom. In Andy Carvin’s words, “Edtech advocates, quite understandably, are furious.?

21st Century Community Learning Centers had funding cut by ten million but their focus is now on preparing students to succeed at NCLB-mandated standardized tests rather than technology education in general. Assistive Technology for disabled students will be cut by eight million dollars and Vocational education will be cut by 500 million dollars.

These moves will guarantee the flight of many Edtech advocates to Washington, again, to lobby, beg, and push for more money to fund programs designed to help teachers become better at using technology, to bridge the digital divide, and to improve the health of schools in general.

Technology’s Effects December 28, 2005

Posted by Michael McVey in Assessment, Funding.
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assessment   Recently, another study was released suggesting no significant difference on test scores from the influence of the technology. The study looked at the impact of the E-Rate federal program, which has spent almost two billion a year since 1998 to bridge the “digital divide” between schools in rich and poor districts.

While the research confirmed that the number of poor schools going online increased dramatically, the fact that more students had access to the Internet had zero impact on each school’s performance on the Stanford Achievement Test, which has been administered in California since 1997.

“We didn’t find any evidence that increased access to the Internet led to improved test scores,” Jonathan Guryan, associate professor of economics at the university’s Graduate School of Business, said.

As to why Internet access didn’t boost student learning, Guryan said it was possible the schools did not know how to make effective use of the Web, or it’s just not an effective way to boost test scores.

Actually, it is somewhat reassuring to me that scores on these tests have not plummeted with students spending so much time on the Internet. Perhaps the real issue is that we are making a smooth transition to a completely different way of intereacting with information in the world.

This all begs the question about the efficacy of the Stanford Acheivement Test and what it was designed to test and how it is designed to test it. Again, if scores have not dropped over the years despite increased access to the Internet it may be an indicator that the tests have not kept pace with new assessment techniques.

So it should come as no surprise that one state is considering legislating computerized examinations for elementary and middle schools. The biggest drawback with standardized tests, aside from their extremely limited scope, is that it took too long for results to get back into the hands of teachers so they could effect change in the classroom. Advocated of standardized tests have often cited the feedback the tests provide as a rationalization for their existence but in reality this is far from the truth.

Interestingly, some states have decided that technology in the classroom is worth spending money on. Soon all seventh grade students in Illinois will receive laptop computers. Results of studies conducted in Henrico County in Virginia were encouraging enough to warrant such an expense. In Henrico County, students recorded the highest ever scores on the SAT, both verbal and math, in four years on the program.

Coal from Congress December 23, 2005

Posted by Michael McVey in Funding.
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congress Last night the federal budget passed out of the Senate and earlier in the week the defense budget was passed. The National School Boards Association President, Joan Schmidt, wrote:

The nation’s defense bill, which includes funding for our troops during a time of war, should never have been used as a cover to enact bad legislation for our public schools. But that is precisely what Congress has done. The House voted this week in the middle of the night to cut education funding and simultaneously enact a private school voucher program under the guise of hurricane relief. And now the Senate has followed suit and prepared to head home for the year, leaving behind broken promises to America’s schoolchildren.

I am all for an open and robust debate about the merits of one funding system over another, but to feel that the only way to get the legislation on charter schools through was by embedding it in other funding bills then I am appalled. It gets worse though when you read the analysis of the federal budget that was just passed:

The massive, $602 billion spending package . . . slashes funding for several ed-tech related programs, including $221 million less for the Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) state block-grant program, the primary source of federal funding for educational technology . . .a sobering reality for proponents of educational technology nationwide, many of whom had hoped to persuade Congress to restore funds to EETT and other technology-related initiatives after House lawmakers rejected an earlier version of the bill in November.

You can read the article from eSchool News for more details. One point the article makes is that many school districts had relied on that money to support the demands of No Child Left Behind. In Arizona the threat of lost funding money has broken up many technology training programs.