Iowa – Better information

[This is Post 5 for my guest blogging stint at The Des Moines Register.]

Archimedes said “Give me a lever long enough and I can move the world.” This week I am blogging about 5 key levers that I think are necessary to move Iowa schools forward and help our graduates survive and thrive in this new digital, global age in which we now live. Earlier I discussed the need for 21st century curricula, a robust system of online learning, providing a computer for every student, and investing in leadership. Today’s post concerns the need for better information.

Although the Iowa Department of Education does not collect school district technology plans as many other states do, it does have other mechanisms for collecting some information about technology in K-12 schools. Much of that is reported out in the annual Iowa Condition of Education report. For example, the most recent report tells us that back in 1997–1998 Iowa school districts used to spend nearly $100 per pupil on computer software and hardware. By 2006–2007, that figure had dropped to an average of only $77. Adjusted for inflation, that figure is only $61 ($1.00 in 1998 had the same buying power as $1.27 in 2007).

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In other words, our world is becoming increasingly technological but our expenditures on technology in Iowa schools have decreased substantially. Iowa public schools spent $37.3 million on technology last year. It would take a 27% increase – another $9.9 million – to get us back to the spending rates of a decade ago. Adjusted for the reduced buying power of the 2007 dollar, those figures are 48% and $17.8 million respectively.

The Iowa Condition of Education also contains other useful information, such as the state average number of pupils per computer (supposedly at 3.2) and the percentage of high schools (87%), middle schools (81%), and elementary schools (71%) that reportedly have wireless networks. The Iowa Department of Education has all of this information in its database by school and district. But as useful as these data are, there is a lot of information that the Department doesn’t collect. As a result, there are a number of questions that have no useful answers.

Here are some questions that we should be asking in Iowa:

  • What percentage of Iowa schools and districts have a technology plan? For those that do, what do those plans cover?
  • What percentage of Iowa schools and districts have technology teams that advise the organization on technology-related concerns? Who’s on those teams?
  • What are schools purchasing with their hardware and software money? What proportion of expenditures goes to teacher-centric technologies versus student-centric technologies? What proportion goes to software that provides powerful learning opportunities for students versus software that simply focuses on drill-and-kill remediation?
  • How new are the computers in Iowa schools? What percentage of Iowa hardware and software is more than 2 years old?
  • How many Iowa school districts have a student information system? a data warehouse system? electronic gradebook software? electronic student assessment systems? financial, human resources, food service, special education, or other management systems?
  • On average, how much time per week do students get to use digital technologies as part of their classroom learning? What proportion of that time is spent using office productivity software, doing basic Internet research, engaging in online social media environments, or utilizing other technologies?
  • How many districts have a technology coordinator? Is that person also doing other jobs?
  • What is the average number of technology support personnel per teacher? per student? per building or district?
  • What is the average number of technology integrationists per teacher? per building or district?
  • What percentage of Iowa classrooms (not buildings) have wireless access?
  • What percentage of Iowa classrooms have LCD screens or projectors large enough to display a computer screen image that the entire class can see easily? speakers so that the entire class can hear audio or video easily?
  • What percentage of Iowa teachers have a webcam?
  • What percentage of Iowa students have ever taken an online class? For those that have, what are they taking? How many wish that they had better access to online learning opportunities? What about the same set of questions for teachers?
  • What percentage of Iowa students are involved in 1:1 laptop programs?
  • What percentage of Iowa schools have the Internet bandwidth and other supports to effectively implement a 1:1 laptop program?
  • How do Iowa students think and feel about technology integration in their classrooms? How about teachers, administrators, parents, or school board members?
  • On average, how much time per year do Iowa teachers spend in technology-related professional development activities? How do they spend that time?
  • What are the technology-related training needs of Iowa teachers and administrators? the technology support needs?
  • What does Internet filtering look like in Iowa schools?
  • What percentage of Iowa students’ families have Internet access at home? For those that do, is it dial-up or broadband?
  • What percentage of Iowa students have computers at home? cell phones? digital cameras? portable music players? video game consoles? other devices? What percentage of teachers or administrators?
  • How often do students use the Internet at home and for what do they use it? How about teachers or administrators?
  • and so on…

These are all questions for which I’m pretty sure we don’t have much data. Yet the answers to every one of these would be highly informative to how we think about K-12 technology policy, funding, and implementation. So we have a disconnect. And because of that disconnect, we are making purchasing, staffing, funding, and other decisions without the necessary data to inform ourselves. 

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Who would collect this information? Well, the Iowa Department of Education could take on more of this. Or perhaps the Iowa State Education Association, the School Administrators of Iowa, and/or the Iowa Association of School Boards. Or even a university research center like CASTLE. But the will and the funding for this has to come from somewhere.

So, like everything else, there is a cost involved. But the bigger cost is that we’re navigating blindly because we don’t have the critical information that we need to adequately and appropriately make instructional, operational, and policy decisions. Some money and effort expended now on gathering better information could save a lot of money and effort later on…

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