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If technology's the future, why don't Missouri classroms have more?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 29, 2008 - If Congress balks at approving his "change agenda," Barack Obama hopes to use his BlackBerry to fire off an email. Or he might settle for an FDR-like fireside chat via YouTube. Either way, he's likely to engage voters like never before, just as he harnessed the power of the Internet to win friends and a presidential election. 

Some educators hope the nation's first computer-savvy president will take the technology in new directions by applying it to classrooms to improve Johnny's reading and math skills. At the very least, some educators hope the Obama administration will promote more federal spending for technology in schools at a time when state money is drying up.

"In some ways, we're being optimistic that (President-elect) Obama understands that technology is important to schools and that there are recurring costs," says Deborah Sutton, director of instructional technology for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. She is hopeful, but remains cautious about how much he will be able to do, saying, "We're fully aware that many other issues will be vying for the same dollars."

She is cautious because she has been down the road of high promise and dashed hopes in state technology funding. In 1993, Missouri took its first step toward incorporating computer technology in its schools. The Carnahan administration and state lawmakers agreed to support the Outstanding Schools Act, which included $5 million for technology grants. By 1996, Missouri was spending more than $50 million a year on these grants and undertook a separate state initiative to give schools access to other resources, such as reference library material on the Internet.

Missouri Once A Pacesetter

When Missouri had good funding, the state was a frontrunner in multimedia. Now it ranks in the third quintile among states. Education Week gave Missouri a C+ in school technology leadership this year. Illinois got the same grade. Three other border states – Arkansas, Kansas and Oklahoma – each earned a B-, while Iowa, Nebraska and Tennessee all earned grades of C.



Technology spending slowed down following the recession after 9/11. The state handed out $14 million in funding in the 2003 fiscal year, down from more than $21 million in 1998. In addition, a grant program for interactive distance learning was cut from $2.6 million during fiscal 2001 to $116,000 in 2002. Finally, a grant program that paid for video equipment in schools, authorized at $4 million in 2000, was eliminated in 2004.

Sutton is concerned that reduced funding will hurt poor and minority students in the inner cities and some rural districts. Though Missouri now enjoys an overall ratio of 2½ students a computer, the ratio of students per computer in the classroom is 4.35 to 1. That's quite high -- especially because the state recommends high schools should have a 1-to-1 student-computer ratio. Computers give these students ready access to research materials, not to mention their other academic purposes.

"Missouri needs to have state funding dedicated for technology," she says. She adds that some people look at the amount of money already spent and argue that "we were getting a bunch of money and didn't need more."

But tech-savvy people "realize that technology isn't something you buy one time and it's over. There's a continuing cost, including maintenance and upgrades that require additional resources."

Vision and Leadership

Still, Sutton isn't suggesting that all schools are suffering. Some districts, such as Lindbergh and Rockwood, "through vision and leadership" are finding the money to increase technology spending and are "at the top of the game." In other districts, she says, technology doesn't seem to be a priority. 

Meanwhile, Internet access in some St. Louis city school buildings continues to be restricted because the buildings are old and difficult to wire to enable students to get on the web.

The big push on the national level, she says, involves a focus on accountability and data management, which requires both hardware and software. Having immediate access to the data is useful because it allows teachers to gauge student progress and to pinpoint weaknesses in what's being stressed in classrooms.

Better types of data tracking is one area where Obama has promised to help. He says all schools need better systems to track student progress and measure readiness for college and the workplace. This initiative is part of his larger education promise, one that reportedly will cost $10 billion. That number doesn't come from Obama but from Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford professor who has been speaking about education on behalf of the transition team.

$30 Billion Price Tag?

Education Week quotes Darling-Hammond as saying the Obama administration would propose spending $30 billion on education, including $10 billion for pre-school programs and tuition tax credits to lure more teachers. Finding better equipped teachers is a priority given how many now teach courses outside their majors. In Missouri, only 49 percent of 7th through 12th grade math teachers majored in math, compared to 61 percent nationwide. But 81 percent of 7th through 12th grade science teachers majored in science. The national average is 77 percent. Part of the problem, of course, is the shortage of teachers in science and math. Nationally two-thirds of schools have problems filling vacancies in biology, physical sciences and math.

While the $30 billion sounds like a hefty sum, Education Week quotes Darling-Hammond as saying the amount "is decimal dust in the federal budget."

In spite of pushing for more technology into classrooms, Sutton of the state education department says schools can also succeed without it. "When you have a dynamic teacher who knows how to interact with students and get them engaged, technology isn't necessary," she says. "A teacher can make a difference."

But maybe a dynamic teacher, with a well-equipped classroom, can make an even bigger difference.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.

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