How to spend (and not spend) an enormous influx of ESSER funding.
GUEST COLUMN | by Troy Wheeler
We’re back to school after one of the most challenging years in education. There’s no doubt a laundry list of priorities are on every state and district’s radar – implementing health and safety measures, addressing learning loss, offering new teacher trainings, closing the digital equity gap, the list goes on.
Underpinning it all, however, is the pressure to create a plan for spending an enormous influx in funding. The federal government’s aid for schools under the three Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds adds up to about $190 billion, which districts must allocate in the next two to three years. To help put that number in perspective – it’s over 40 times more funding than the Department of Education’s historical Race to the Top program in 2009.
Our students need support more than ever, and the decisions we make now about how to spend these funds will shape their futures.
‘Our students need support more than ever, and the decisions we make now about how to spend these funds will shape their futures.’
This is an opportunity for school leaders to modernize their technology infrastructure and lay the groundwork for greater student success in the place, space, and at the pace that’s best for every student — a long-overdue education transformation.
Avoid Quick Cures
With an unprecedented influx of money to spend and a relatively short timeline to spend it in, states and districts might be tempted to make ‘silver bullet’ technology purchases. My biggest piece of advice for education leaders is this: Do not make knee-jerk decisions.
Adding on new technology without a longer-term plan for data strategy, IT support, teacher training, and parent engagement is a waste of valuable funding. It leads to tool abandonment down the road, which means teachers and students spend time and energy learning new technologies without reaping their full benefits. How many dead dashboard or device projects litter your districts’ halls?
Of course, increasing student access to Wi-Fi and computers is vitally important, and there is a lot of progress being made on this front. Many districts will jump at the opportunity to direct relief funding toward reducing the digital divide. But for technology to truly help every student succeed — which it absolutely can — schools must have a plan for how they’re going to use and manage the information those technologies create. Digital devices that aren’t providing teachers with real insight will not fill learning gaps effectively, and neither will the latest suite of “district wide” dashboards or one-off software panacias.
Rethink Technology’s Role, Then Build a Roadmap to Reflect Its Future
A great teacher is the number one predictor of student success. To create the best possible outcomes for our students, we should approach technology as a key support to help every teacher achieve greatness. As my former Superintendent would say, “It took 20 years for the overhead projector to move out of the bowling alley and into the classroom. Let’s not let it take another 20 years for every teacher and student to have access to devices and data-driven insights.”
So, how do we create better long-term plans for technology investment? Leaders must reimagine their view of technology from improving the way we’ve always approached education to transforming the way we approach it.
Consider the greater purpose of technology that can serve students and teachers just beyond broadband access and devices. Those are foundational for sure, but a comprehensive plan must understand that every student using a laptop, teacher using an LMS, or administrator using a Student Information System creates data that most often sits dark, disconnected, and unused in schools.
That information is invaluable for understanding individual student progress. When data is thoughtfully and securely leveraged, as a core part of a comprehensive technology plan, we can equip every educator with real-time insight on where a student is in their learning journey, where they need to go, and how to help get them there.
To paint this crisp, comprehensive picture of every student, we must be able to connect information from across devices and systems. This is only possible with thoughtful technology investment and planning.
Support Tech Investments with Proper Staff, Training, and Policies
As districts buy technology with relief funding, they must also allocate the necessary resources to support those purchases. In other words, the decision shouldn’t happen in a vacuum. Hint: if you don’t have a seasoned technologist as a respected and valued member of your cabinet, you’re already behind on this one.
One of the biggest considerations to make when investing in technology is staff support and structure. Create your own “Dynamic Duo” by pairing instructional leaders, who have a deep understanding of how to improve student learning, with senior technology leaders, who are keenly aware of data structures and how technologies can work together to help teachers and learners. A close partnership here will help districts avoid investing in systems and tools that can’t speak the same language or be used together.
‘Create your own “Dynamic Duo” by pairing instructional leaders, who have a deep understanding of how to improve student learning, with senior technology leaders, who are keenly aware of data structures and how technologies can work together to help teachers and learners.’
Second, think about training. Using new technologies and making data-driven decisions won’t come easily to every teacher and administrator – but they’ll need those skills to be successful in the future of education. Investing in ongoing training and change management will be key.
And third, consider what district policies are needed to get the most value out of your technology investment? These might include data governance, data security, parent involvement, and best practices for teachers on how to analyze and use data to help individual students.
A Positive Ripple Effect
Technology will continue to play a major role in education, but we won’t ever have an opportunity like this to completely rethink our approach. We must move IT out of the backroom to build a comprehensive approach to learning. One that is built as a foundation today that will benefit our students long-term. Relief funding has the potential to spur this change and alter the course of education for the better – as long as we use it wisely.
To take steps toward solving big data and technology challenges in education, start by exploring these resources:
- Interoperability 101 from Project Unicorn – Interoperability Crash Course
- Starter Kits for School Districts – Data Can Be Your District’s Most Valuable Resource
- Webinar for State Education Agencies – Modernize your IT Infrastructure with Ed-Fi: Tech Dive
Troy Wheeler serves as the President of the Ed-Fi Alliance where he spearheads the adoption of data-driven education at scale. He began his work with Ed-Fi in 2012 as the Vice President of Strategic Market Development, helping to evolve Ed-Fi from a nascent project to a widely-known standards and edtech organization. Under his leadership, the Ed-Fi Data Standard has been adopted by 28 states and powers data interoperability for more than two thousand school districts.