Using Technology to Transform Schools—Remarks by Secretary Arne Duncan at the Association of American Publishers Annual Meeting

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This is an extraordinary time for all of us in the field of education. One year ago, schools throughout the country were facing an education catastrophe. One estimate said that 600,000 jobs were at risk. Working together, the President and Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act with $100 billion for education.

With that money, we helped avert that catastrophe … for now. I realize that we're not out of the woods yet—that state and local budgets are still facing significant shortfalls. This fact increases the urgency of our conversation today.

Rahm Emanuel, the President's chief of staff, says you should never waste a good crisis. In education, through these difficult budget times, we are promoting reforms—and states are responding. Forty-eight states are working together to create a common set of academic standards that will define what it means for our students to be truly ready for college and careers. Many states are redesigning their teacher evaluation systems. Others are removing barriers to charter schools and other innovative practices.

We have the opportunity to completely reform our nation's schools. We're not talking about tinkering around the edges here. We're talking about a fundamental re-thinking of how our schools function—and placing a focus on teaching and learning like never before.

As providers of educational products and services, you have a huge impact on—and share a huge stake in—the success of America's students. So, I ask you to join the great endeavor to not just reform education but to transform it. I challenge you to put your talent and ingenuity to work to equip 21st century students with 21st century skills.

As research gives us new insights into how today's students learn, and technology enables us to respond as never before, you can help lead the way in providing a model for 21st century learning.

This week, our Department of Education is releasing a draft of the National Educational Technology Plan: "Transforming American Education: Learning Powered by Technology."

This plan was prepared for the Office of Educational Technology by leading researchers and practitioners. It represents their best ideas about how we can bring forward our schools—making them centers of learning designed to close the gap between the technology-rich and exciting experiences that dominate students' lives outside of school while preparing them for success in today's competitive global marketplace.

In keeping with our Open Government Initiative, we will be publishing a draft on the Department's Web site. You can find it at, and I invite you all to review it, comment on it, and help us to refine it. Specifically, I am interested in hearing your thoughts about ways to accelerate the development and adoption of tools and resources that merge education and technology. What incentives can we provide to help spark innovation, scaling of the most effective products, and continuous improvement?

There's not a moment to waste in our drive to reform an American education system that, today, too often fails to meet expectations. You know the data. The nation's dropout rate is too high. We lose 1.2 million students each year to the streets. Our students aren't keeping up on international tests. We have an unacceptably large achievement gap. Only about 40 percent of students earn a two-year or four-year college degree. And, enrollment rates are unequal: 61 percent of qualified white high school graduates enter 4-year colleges, compared to roughly 44 percent of comparable Latino students, and some 29 percent of African American students.

We must move decisively to address this crisis, and we are; but the President has asked that we do more. He has set a clear and ambitious goal for all of us:

By 2020, the United States once again will lead the world in college completion. That means we have to raise the proportion of our population that has a college degree from 40 percent to 60 percent. Simply put, he is convinced we must educate our way to a better economy.

Now, we know the best ideas and the real work of education reform don't come from Washington. They will always be rooted in states and districts and colleges—with elected officials, educators, parents, community leaders and others working in the best interest of children.

To support their work, I am committed to transforming the U.S. Department of Education from a compliance-driven machine into an engine for innovation.

We'll do that through the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—you know it as the No Child Left Behind Act.

We are working with members of Congress on a bipartisan basis to reauthorize this act. Our proposal is built around three themes.

  • First, encourage high standards that prepare students for success in college and careers.
  • Second, focus on goals and outcomes, not inputs.
  • And third, reward excellence.

We will offer states incentives to adopt standards that prepare students for success in college and careers.

We're going to be tight on goals and loose on how you get there. We'll set a goal of improving student achievement, but we will not offer a prescription for how states, districts, and schools will achieve that goal.

We will reward excellence, especially for schools serving high-poverty populations that are making significant increases in student achievement. I'm much more interested in growth and gain than I am in absolute test scores. We will expand the Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation funds and create new competitive funds, rewarding states, districts, and nonprofits with the best ideas for improving teaching and learning.

At the same time, in order for students to meet these new standards and for teachers and schools to reach higher levels of performance, they will need to be smart and strategic in how they use technology.

For example, the draft technology plan highlights how one district has built an online one-stop shop to connect teaching resources, assessments, and system-wide data. In Virginia's Fairfax County Public Schools, teachers use a Web-based system called the Electronic Curriculum Resource Assessment Tool to create and access lesson plans, worksheets, assessment tools, and other resources tied to district-approved standards.

Students take assessments online or on paper, and the results help link teachers to resources that will help address specific students' needs.

Or consider Manor New Tech High School in Manor, Texas, as a model for reaching underserved youth. The school is part of a fast-growing district with a diverse population—60 percent Hispanic, 30 percent African American, 30 percent English Language Learners. Fully 80 percent of its student population qualifies for the free and reduced lunch program.

When Manor New Tech High School opened, 50 percent of its teachers had taught for less than a year. Yet within its first year, 2008, Manor students out-performed the state average by 16 percent in science. In its 3rd year, the gains continue, with a dropout rate of virtually zero and a 97 percent attendance rate. The class of 2010 will be the first graduating class, and all students are going on to postsecondary education. Manor's leaders credit their success to project-based learning and to full and integrated use of technology.

In the 21st century, schools can't be throw-backs to the state of education fifty, twenty, or even ten years ago. The instructional content they provide, the learning experiences they offer, the teaching methods they employ, and the assessments they use, must all keep pace with this century.

In the 21st century, students must be fully engaged. This requires the use of technology tools and resources, involvement with interesting and relevant projects, and learning environments—including online environments—that are supportive and safe.

In the 21st century, educators must be given and be prepared to use technology tools; they must be collaborators in learning—constantly seeking knowledge and acquiring new skills along with their students.

Most young people can't remember a time without the Internet. But right now, many students' learning experiences in school don't match the reality outside of school. We need to bridge this gap. We need to make school more relevant and engaging. We must make the on-demand, personalized tech applications that are part of students' daily lives, a more strategic part of their academic lives.

If we fail to do this for all our students, we'll fail to prepare them for the future that awaits them, and the skills the world will require of them.

What key technology trends can help us transform education? The first is mobility and accessibility: many kids today have access to information and resources 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year on devices that are increasingly powerful and yet inexpensive. And, the number of kids with this access is increasing every day.

The second trend is the rise of digital content. Today, 60 percent of students report publishing their own material online. They, along with a growing number of teachers, are active producers—not just passive consumers—of digital content. And, digital content is not just user-generated. Much is professionally produced, and can be used to meet the needs of learners of all ages.

To support technological innovation in online learning, the president has proposed investing $500 million over ten years in an Online Skills Initiative designed to produce open and free high-quality courses that contribute to post-secondary access and success. These courses can and will be used by students, institutions and self-learners and will also be freely available to commercial firms.

One of our key objectives is to make sure all motivated students in this country have access to high-quality courses. We have to tell the truth: the uneven quality of instruction is a problem in this country—one that holds back too many motivated students. Given what technology now makes possible, no student should be denied the opportunity for a high-quality, career-building higher education experience simply because they live in a neighborhood that does not offer a path to those opportunities. We can—and we will—do better than that.

Our commitment to Open Educational Resources includes a commitment to you: that they will be fully open, including open to commercial producers of learning materials who want to add value to these resources and sell enhanced, proprietary versions.

We see this step as both an investment in our students and an opportunity for your industry.

This initiative will create new demand from colleges and universities for online courses. It will open a new market for supplementary materials—one that you are uniquely positioned to fill. Our online skills program will create new opportunities for you as publishers and software developers—and will deliver the best possible education for students in the 21st century.

The third trend is the rise of online social networks for information, collaboration and learning. The opportunities to learn and share ideas today are nearly limitless, borderless, and instantaneous. We can draw on these trends of mobility, digital content and online social networks to create more effective learning experiences; more customized curricula; more powerful assessments; and more interactive, connected communities of teachers.

Each goal in the draft technology plan includes recommendations for federal, state, district, and other partners, as well as key research questions that could be funded and coordinated at a national level. Let's take them one by one.

  • The first goal is learning—creating more effective and engaging learning experiences for all students. The content and skills students need to learn—as well as what we know about how, when and where they learn best—have changed. With technology, we can personalize learning, increasing relevance and the opportunity to achieve. Technology can help disadvantaged learners or learners with special needs to excel—from low-income early learners, to English Learners, to learners with disabilities.

  • The second goal is assessment—measuring what matters in ways that add to rather than detract from the learning experience. Our plan draws on the latest research to show new and better ways to measure what matters, and to diagnose students' strengths and weaknesses in the course of learning, so that immediate feedback can improve performance. Data from technology-based assessments can hone in on individual needs, while also driving continuous improvement across the system.

  • Third, teaching—connecting teachers to the tools, resources, experts and peers they need to be highly effective and feel supported. Nothing is more important than getting a great teacher into every classroom and supporting their growth and development. Technology can help us build the capacity of teachers and improve their effectiveness, by enabling more connected teaching. Teachers all too often feel isolated. That must fundamentally change. Online communities allow teachers to collaborate with peers and reach out to world-class experts. And, in this model, teachers have real-time access to data about student learning and analytical, curricular and instructional tools that help teachers act on this information.

  • The fourth goal has to do with infrastructure. It also calls for broadband connectivity for all students, everywhere—in schools, throughout the community, and in students' homes, and we look forward to the release of the FCC Broadband Plan to support this effort. The FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski is a passionate about education.

  • The fifth and final goal in the technology plan is productivity. This goal is about improving learning outcomes while managing costs. We have to invest if we expect to transform education, but tight budgets and fiscal responsibility require us to get the most out of every dollar. Technology can help us increase efficiency during the learning process and it can give decision-makers an accurate view of our education system's financial performance.

For one more glimpse of what 21st century learning can look like, and how technology can help us meet our reform goals, let's take the New York City school system's 2009 summer pilot. They call it the School of One. The program, launched at Middle School 131, focused on a single subject—math—and a single grade level—sixth grade. Instead of organizing 80 kids into classes with a teacher assigned to each class, the School of One used flexible combinations of students and teachers and a large menu of options to teach students the 77 math skills required for mastery of 6th grade math.

The School of One lesson database included more than 1,000 lessons covering those 77 skills. Rather than putting every student through the same course, the School of One used data from prior assessments to identify which skills each student should work on. Teachers and students helped pinpoint how each student learned best (for example, "likes to learn through games" or "likes to learn alone"). A computer algorithm used information about each student's demonstrated math skills and his or her learning preferences to generate individual "playlists" of appropriate learning activities.

Despite the fact that this is a pilot, the New York City Department of Education feels the School of One model is promising enough to propose expanding it to three middle schools by the spring of 2010, and to 20 schools by 2012.

We're energized by the potential of this National Educational Technology Plan to lay the groundwork for a wave of innovation to improve teaching and learning.

Now, I know that there is specific concern in this audience about some of the consolidations in the proposed FY11 budget. The EETT—specific ed tech funding—was incorporated into bigger funding streams, most notably i3—the innovation fund—as well as the new funds for literacy, STEM, and the rest of the subjects. We believe that now is the time to truly incorporate technology into the core practices and strategies of our programs and schools. There are also funds for ensuring teachers and principals are as effective as possible, ensuring students have choices, and ensuring our schools are part of neighborhoods that are safe and healthy and supportive of our students. The goals of each of these programs can benefit from the best technologies of the day. We encourage all of you to work with us to ensure we get this right.

With the first decade of the 21st century now history, we've committed to securing the vitality of our nation by transforming the way we teach our students.

We aim to build a public education system that helps all students set goals, stay in school, earn a high school diploma, and secure college and career success.

But our mission is even greater. We want to raise creative, resourceful thinkers. We want to nurture informed citizens, effective problem-solvers, ground-breaking pioneers and visionary leaders—to develop life-long learners who are masters of today's information, tools and technologies.

So today, on behalf of the President, I want to appeal to you to help lead this movement for education transformation. I know this is hard work. But we are asking you to update your products and your business models for the 21st century so that our children receive the modern education they desperately need and deserve.

The urgency has never been greater. Our children and our future are at risk, so let us together do the difficult but necessary things our schools demand. We have a moral and economic imperative that requires us to act.

I thank you for all you have done and all you will do to make education America's highest priority and greatest legacy.

Thank you.