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State of the E-ducation Union

On the eve of President Obama’s state of the union address, I would like to offer my thoughts on the state of education in the United States today, and one very simple thing that a federal agency can do today to improve it.

I should point out first – lest there be any confusion – that I am not a teacher. I am not the Secretary of Education. Nor am I a district superintendent, a school principal or a member of the PTA. I am not any of those things. But… I have seen the impact of education first hand. I am a dad of three grade school children, and I, myself, am the product of many educators who invested in me from pre-kindergarten to college graduation.

I am married to a professional educator. I serve on the board of an organization that helps school districts transform themselves. And I have spent more than 15 years working with schools of all shapes, sizes, and locations as they bring technology and Internet access into students’ lives to impact education. Through all of this, I have come to appreciate the overwhelming goodness of a quality education.

  • Do you want to help the economy? Education!
  • Want to lower crime rates? Education!
  • Want to increase standards of living? Education!
  • Want to improve health care? Education!
  • Strengthen families? Lower the federal debt? Protect our country’s future? Education, education, education!

It is hard to ignore, get past or overstate the importance of education. It impacts everything.

Which brings me to the state of education in the United States. I think that something very unique and exciting is beginning to take place in education. Change is coming (and I am not talking about traditional schools versus charter schools. That debate is for someone else.) There is an increasing capability and willingness to impact student education by leveraging technology. Things like e-textbooks, interactive whiteboards, virtual fieldtrips, personalized learning systems, virtual tutors, and distance learning are being brought to bear in classrooms. No longer are these technologies being dreamt of or hypothesized. They exist and they are being used effectively.

Modern teachers are being equipped with tools to help them monitor student learning and to intervene before the test (rather than after the fact). These resources can allow teachers to spend more time individually guiding students and providing customized educational experiences regardless of learning styles and grade level. Students and parents can monitor progress. Online access to homework assignments, grades, and digital textbooks are extending the reach of educational materials and, in the process, fostering more and better communication among parents, teachers and students.

Does this all sound too good to be true? Have I just copied a sales brochure for Education Technology Company, Inc.? Thankfully, the answer is no. All of this exists. It is real. And it is beginning to make a real difference. The information technology society has finally begun to arrive in America’s classrooms. I, for one, could not be more excited.

  • Is the technology fully developed and understood? No.
  • Will it be misapplied or misused? From time to time of course.  It’s inevitable.
  • Is technology a silver bullet for all that needs to be addressed in education? Absolutely not.
  • Are we about to eliminate teaching positions and replace them all with bright shiny computer robots? No**.

**Interestingly, I believe that the digital world we are entering increases our need for teachers. We are moving out of the industrialized one-size-fits-all education production line. Rote memorization and the “7th grade math book” are moving aside. They are being replaced with lifelong learning that meets students where they actually are and brings them forward on a continuum of learning. In this new paradigm, more than ever, we need professional educators to guide students in their learning and to help promote digitally literate, lifelong learning adults.

Because this golden age of computer integration is upon us, does this mean we can sit back and simply watch it unfold before our eyes? Like a crystal forming in a science lab, will information technology spontaneously create a framework for student learning and achievement? Sadly, the answer is no. Much work remains.

Which brings me to the final point of my state of the education union comments. What is holding back technology integration in our schools today? The greatest limiter is no longer technology. It has finally arrived, it’s dressed to the nines, and it is getting better and better looking every day.  Nor is it the teachers. The days of debating whether or not teachers wanted to have e-mail or a telephone in their classroom are essentially over. Not even the public acceptance of technology is much of a hindrance these days. Yes, there are a few anti-technology segments out there, but for the most part, the public accepts and wants technology in our schools. They recognize the educational necessity, as well as the many other advantages that technology brings, such as easier teacher communication, improved school security, and even notification if a child skips class.

The biggest barrier limiting the impact of technology on student lives is the computer infrastructure in our nation’s schools. For over 15 years, I have watched demand for Internet access and related technologies sky rocket. Our students and teachers are clamoring to use the Internet. Yet, over that same time period, I have watched most educational technology funding evaporate. To the point that today there is really only one federal program (the “E-rate”) supporting K-12 Internet connectivity.  And this program remains funded near the same level it was in 1997 when schools still used dial-up Internet access!

The E-rate program provides about $2.25 billion each year to help schools connect our students to the Internet. This equates to about $3.56 per student each month. We know from data provided by schools that they need E-rate support averaging $8.23 per student each month. This shortfall of $4.66 per month is negatively impacting our schools and our students and it could be addressed today. The E-rate program has been in place since 1997. It has a long track record of helping schools. It has also gotten better over time. By increasing the E-rate program, the folks in Washington, DC, can quickly and efficiently impact nearly every student in America. There is no need to create a new agency or bureaucracy. There is no need for Congress to pass new legislation or for the President to sign a new Executive Order. The power and authority to increase the E-rate program rests entirely with the Federal Communications Commission. This is why I am calling on the FCC today to increase funding for the E-rate program.

For about $5 per student each month – less than the cost of a Starbucks® coffee and a cookie — the FCC can provide our schools with the Internet access that is needed to help educate and prepare our nation’s students. We are talking about $3.5 billion a year — a large sum of money to be sure, but absolutely miniscule relative to how much other federal programs cost.  And we know that this one works!  Or compare it to what the private sector spends.   George Lucas, for example, just sold Star Wars® to Disney® for $4 billion. Surely, as a nation, we can provide an additional $5 per student each month to help transform our educational system and give our students the future that we want for them and that they deserve.

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