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We don't know yet whether computer games like Elmo Rhymes and Double the Donuts can transform learning, but it’s clear that America’s education deficit calls for serious innovation - and that many of our efforts to enhance learning through technology have been off target. The Federal Communications Commission’s E-Rate program is a case in point. Using money collected from telecom customers, the program has allowed US schools to buy billions of dollars worth of equipment at deeply discounted rates.
Yet the current technology shortage in schools is software, not hardware. Schools have Internet access, but lack a kit of properly evaluated tools that reliably promote student learning. So, even as computers have transformed our lives, the technology revolution hasn’t yet led to significant changes in how students are taught.
The FCC is now considering whether to use some E-Rate money on a new digital-literacy training initiative. But the agency should go further and retool the program to promote educational innovation by rewarding e-learning systems that demonstrably increase student skills, and encourage competition, by providing schools with vouchers to buy effective new technologies.
The E-Rate program grew out of the universal-service requirement of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. In order to achieve "universal service," the FCC determines how much money is needed to subsidize telecom in areas that wouldn’t otherwise be served. To raise that money, the agency adds a surcharge which shows up on your phone bill. In 2010, the total budget was $8.4 billion, of which about $2.3 billion went to the E-Rate program for schools and libraries. E-Rate then gives out grants to schools, which can use the money to buy from a list of approved, discounted products and services, including broadband Internet.
The subsidized rates, which vary from district to district based on poverty levels, clearly have an effect on how much technology school districts buy. Years before he became President Obama’s economic adviser, Austan Goolsbee found that, under the E-Rate program, Internet access increased more quickly in schools that received more generous subsidies. But Goolsbee found no positive impact on test scores. Critics of E-Rate wouldn’t find that surprising; they argue that this spending leads to waste and even fraud.
A subtler critique is that the E-Rate subsidy is really a backdoor boon to technology companies, enabling them to engage in what economists call price discrimination. Telecom companies keep the business of poorer customers, E-Rate critics argue, while charging higher prices to the rest of us.
The larger issue, though, is making sure E-Rate spending delivers value. In 2008, then-Education Secretary Margaret Spellings issued a report noting that $14 billion of E-Rate spending meant that "nearly 100 percent of schools and 94 percent of classrooms are now connected to the Internet." Yet the report cited the challenge of finding "a robust platform for personalizing instructional delivery." In other words, we still don’t know how to use technology to address each student’s needs.
As a member of a panel that advises the Gates Foundation on US educational issues, I’ve been exposed lately to a dizzying array of Internet-based teaching programs. My children and I have spent far too much of the week playing PEMDAS Blaster, which involves destroying robots by solving math problems, and Sundae Times, where multiplication builds ice cream towers. I certainly know my 14-times tables better, but I can’t assess these programs. A thorough scientific evaluation is vital to determining whether these tools are worth the money or not.
The E-Rate program could be a force for radical improvement, especially if spending is tied to performance. A small fraction of the money could be offered as multi-million dollar-prizes to software developers who produce programs that improve test scores in randomized trials. If a rigorous external evaluation finds test score gains, then the developer would be generously rewarded - in exchange for making the software freely available to schools.
The E-Rate funding could also be allocated as e-learning vouchers to disadvantaged students or schools, which could fund after-school technology programs that specialize in individualized learning. Again, progress would be rigorously evaluated and payment tied to performance.
We are already spending billions on school technology. But we should use that money to promote innovation and competition for our children.