School CTOs eager to tap ESSA funds for tech, teacher training

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As states attempt to grasp the new comprehensive education law that updates No Child Left Behind, school district technology leaders are eager to train teachers on new digital platforms and spend more dollars on technology.

The bill, called the Every Student Succeeds Act, referred to as ESSA, offers states more control and discretion over how they spend federal money – which means they can use it for innovative professional development for teachers and personalized learning programs for students.

For the first time, there is more than $2 billion allocated for teachers’ professional development – a win for dozens of advocates across the country who say that introducing new tech-focused programs in schools can’t be done without re-training the teaching force on how to use the products and software.

School districts can use the money to train teachers to implement blended learning projects, and inform them about how to keep student data safe.

“It’s important for the technology community, because it makes clear these resources can be used for professional development focused on data privacy issues that have become so prevalent,” said Reg Leichty, founder of Foresight Law + Policy, a legal and communications firm that advocates for educational technology and student privacy.

Leichty spoke to school technology leaders about the new law during a webinar put on by CoSN.

Sheryl Abshire, CTO of Calcasieu Parish Public Schools in Louisiana, said the extra funding is huge for tech directors who are also planning and completing massive infrastructure projects with money procured through the Federal Communication Commission’s E-rate program.

“You can have the most fabulous infrastructure that you want in the school district, but if you’ve got people in classrooms that cannot realize the power and potential of a broadband connection and access to vast resources of digital content that’s out there, and how to use it in a structured, engaged way with students … then it’s like we’ve got half the cow,” she said in an interview with EdScoop. “Now, districts can map out and use [the money] to help teachers employ technology in very strategic ways. Now we’ve got the missing puzzle piece.”

The law, however, did not extend a provision called Enhancing Education Through Technology, which would have offered teachers and principals a more direct pipeline to acquire and use technology in classrooms. It was last funded in 2010.

“I think there
are a lot of challenges around funding,” said Abshire. “We needed to get the reauthorization
done; we didn’t get everything, but we have a reauthorization that speaks more
intelligently and realistically to assessment and testing.”

ESSA also authorized $1.65 billion in block grants starting in fiscal year 2017 – but not more than 15 percent of the funds can be used for hardware like laptops, Chromebooks and iPads. States need to come up with a plan for how the funds will be used.

“There was a concern in Congress that all the money would go to devices, so there is a cap,” said Leichty. “They want most of the money to be used for professional development.”

Blended learning advocacy organizations have been pushing their message that districts should use the grants to change how students learn through nontraditional methods.

“It is important that federal grants prioritize personalized, competency-based learning,” Susan Gentz wrote in a blog post published Thursday on iNACOL’s website. “Student-centered learning should start with the schools and districts planning, designing and implementing powerful, personalized learning models to respond to each student’s needs.”

The law also directs the Institute of Education Sciences to study the educational impact of students who do not have access to broadband, which is frequently referred to as the “homework gap.”

The Department of Education is holding public hearings on Monday and Tuesday to collect feedback on the transition to the new law.

Reach the reporter at corinne.lestch@edscoop.com or follow her on Twitter @clestch and @edscoop_news.

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