In March 2021, Congress approved $122 billion in stimulus relief for K-12 schools. According to the U.S. News & World Report, the Chair of the House Education Committee warned big-city school districts that they should use the coming relief funds in a way that leaves no doubt that the funding drove improvements. Education Next, a journal on education policies and research, pointed out that with federal relief dollars on the way, district leaders face more pressure on how best to use school funding in ways that do the most good for students.
Short-term Solutions or Long-term Strategies?
When it comes to school budgets, education leaders are often challenged with making spending choices and being judged on how school dollars are spent. Researchers estimate that the latest round of funding can make per-pupil spending reach an average of $2,450 per student, although the amounts vary widely by state and school district. Researchers also suggest that the spending options for a district aiming to spend a portion of its money to alleviate unfinished student learning may include reducing class sizes, extending the school year, providing students with a year’s intensive tutoring, offering learning camps in summer, and giving principals the money to decide what makes the most sense in their schools.
While the suggested spending may help students to catch up on the learning they lost in 2020, all the solutions come with tradeoffs. Reducing class sizes may not add more instructional time for students who have only received a partial education during the pandemic. Extending a school year for all students is a one-size-fits-all approach, which may not lead to efficient spending on the students who need the most support. If the participation rate in intensive-learning summer camps is low, school leaders may be blamed for wasting the taxpayers’ money.
“Now is the time for public schools to transform learning for each student,” according to the School Transformation Now! Campaign launched by the National School Boards Association (NSBA). As a long-term strategy, school transformation means to provide a more student-centered and personalized learning approach that better promotes real world and twenty-first century learning skills. The COVID-19 crisis has accelerated the need for school transformation.
Why Do Students Need Technology-Enabled Public Schools?
COVID-19 changed teaching and learning; almost all schools in the U.S. have become somewhat technology-enabled schools. Data from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) show that at the beginning of the pandemic, only 19% of school districts offered asynchronous instruction, namely, teachers posting materials and/or recordings online and monitoring students’ self-teaching progress. However, in May 2020, within two months, 75% of school districts reported offering students asynchronous learning.
One of the digital leapfrogs during the pandemic is synchronous instruction. This virtual learning enables students and teachers to meet live online, either the whole class or in smaller groups. Data demonstrates that at the beginning of the pandemic, only 1% of school districts could offer synchronous instruction, but within three months, 37% of districts reported providing students with such online learning.
The experience and skills related to online learning that teachers and students accumulated and acquired during the pandemic is valuable. The capacity of providing students with synchronous and asynchronous instruction is an important function of successful, technology-enabled K-12 schools. More importantly, technology-enabled schools aim to engage students in ways that work best for them, based on students’ diverse preferences, needs, and capabilities. Researchers (Milam, Stewart, & Morrison-Reed, 2020) identified at least three characteristics for technology-enabled school models.
- Teachers can personalize their students’ learning experience by customizing content and progressing at a pace suitable to each student.
- Schools can have immediate access to data that helps teachers understand the progress each student is making, intervene as needed, and adjust in real time.
- And as with any major innovation in teaching and learning, the goal is to obtain and retain a substantial improvement in student outcomes.
In Which Areas Should Schools Invest to Build Technology-Enabled Models?
Researchers studied data about the resource allocation plans for 11 districts, 110 schools, 850 classrooms, and 36,000 students as of fiscal year 2019, and found that school districts spent more than 50% on “people” costs (i.e., personnel and professional development) for their technology-enabled school models (Figure 1). While it is important to invest in IT infrastructure, devices, and software, the leaders of technology-enabled schools believe that their most effective investments have been in engaging, developing, and supporting teachers and other staff to lead transformed classrooms.
Figure 1. Financial Investment Areas in Technology-Enabled School Models
Source: Bridging the Technological Divide (for Good): How Public Education Leaders Can Successfully Integrate Technology, Without Breaking the Bank. (Milam, Stewart, & Morrison-Reed, 2020, p. 115)
How Can Federal Funding Boost Technology-Enabled School Models?
Not every district can receive competitive grants to build technology-enabled schools. Many high poverty schools depend on federal funding ― particularly Title I, extra money for schools serving children from low-income families ― to support disadvantaged students. The most recent federal budget allocated $16.5 billion to the Title I program, which was described as “a tiny fraction of the several hundreds of billions spent on education annually” by Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news organization committed to covering stories about education equity.
School districts, particularly those serving disadvantaged students, need funding to invest in both infrastructure (e.g., devices, software) and people (e.g., personnel, professional development). Repurposing general funds is the most common way to use federal money for school transformation. The practices include purchasing technology with money previously used to buy instructional materials, and redeploying professional development budgets in ways that support the technology integration in daily teaching and learning. The following are some examples of how to use federal funding to support technology-enabled school models:
Title I-A funds can be used to ―
- Purchase devices for students to access digital learning materials and collaborate with peers and educators.
- Acquire devices (tablets, laptops, etc.) in addition to curriculum and professional development. (To receive such grants, school districts need to have a comprehensive plan to address how the devices support evidence-based instructional strategies and assessments. This may include transitioning to schoolwide blended learning or personalized learning models.)
Title II-A funds from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act provides more than $2 billion per year in funding to states and districts to support effective instruction through the preparation, recruitment, and training of educators. The funds can be used to ―
- Hire coaches to tailor professional learning to the needs of individual educators and assist in effectively integrating technology into curricula and instruction. (Specifically, coaches can help educators learn how to use selected devices, platforms, online assessments, or digital materials, or to implement technology-supported, content-specific instructional practice.)
- Provide teachers with professional development in using technology. (Only 10% of the districts using this funding source as a strategy for technology-enabled professional development.)
- Provide principals with professional development on topics about developing and managing the school’s workforce. (Only 28% of school districts used the funds for this topic.)
- Recruit and retain effective educators, often with supports like individualized professional development and mentoring, or tailoring professional development to the individual needs of teachers or leaders.
Title III-A funds for English learners (ELs) can be used to ―
- Acquire and upgrade curricula and programs, use digital learning software, including materials in languages other than English.
- Support supplemental activities such as online professional development activities, virtual communities of practice, and sharing of digital materials to support efforts to improve instruction for ELs.
Title IV-A funds can be used to ―
- Purchase software and devices that are an essential component of a district’s plan to facilitate collaboration between schools and practicing scientists or engineers, and to increase access to STEM courses.
- Build technological capacity and infrastructure by purchasing devices, equipment, and software applications to address readiness shortfalls.
- Help educators better discover, use, and share digital content. (This might include training for educators to find and adapt relevant Open Educational Resources.)
IDEA funds for students with disabilities can be used to ―
- Expand the use of technology in the individualized education program (IEP), process for children, parents, and teachers, and to improve the use of technology in the classroom by students with disabilities to enhance learning.
- Support technology with universal design principles and assistive technology devices to maximize accessibility to the general education curriculum for students with disabilities.
- Encourage and support the training of both special education and general education teachers and administrators to effectively use and integrate technology into curricula and instruction to improve teaching, decision making, school improvement efforts, and accountability.
- Improve communication with parents of students with disabilities.
Implementing technology-enabled school models requires time, space, and funding to allow for transformation to take place. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) in North Carolina and Miami-Dade County Public Schools (M-DCPS) in Florida are examples of how time and funding are needed for the success in transforming schools into technology-enabled models. Both districts have been ranked top in student academic performance among large urban districts on the Nation’s Report Card, also known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).
CMS started planning and implementing technology and blended learning in 2013. For years, the CMS financial policies have supported infrastructure, devices for teachers/students, professional development, online learning, and learning outcomes. The CMS transformation includes using data collected through technology to make decisions, shifting cultures as its schools move toward significant technology integration, changing the way to teach and learn, and preparing students for success beyond high school graduation.
Also, in 2013, M-DCPS received federal funds ― $30 million in the Race to the Top-District grant ― to transform math instruction at 49 middle schools into iPrep Math learning centers where learning is personalized for students. According to a district official, this federal funding allowed school leaders to do “something really meaningful across the district” and address an area in need of reform — middle school mathematics. Before this transformation, M-DCPS students performed below the national average level of large city schools on the NAEP eighth grade math, but in 2019, students of this district performed above the national level. Becoming technology-enabled schools has translated into substantial improvement of student achievement.
In summary, federal funding matters for school transformation beyond 2020. Advocating for more federal resources to support technology-enabled schools is crucial, but local school leaders are called to make meaningful spending choices to support such transformation.