The Layers of ESSA: Educational Technology in Title IV – 21st Century Schools, Part A

While most people surely love a good layer cake, the layers of provisions governing the new educational technology program in Title IV, Part A of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) are nothing if not overly complicated. The overall purpose of this program is to increase the capacity of states, districts, schools, and local communities to…”improve the use of technology in order to improve the academic achievement and digital literacy of all students.” Were it that simple….


This post – which summarizes and analyzes this new program – is the second in a series evaluating the federal role in U.S. K-12 educational technology policy. As much as anything else, these ESSA provisions set forth the current consensus view of members of Congress as to what the federal role for U.S. educational technology policy should be over the coming four years (when the law will next come due to be reauthorized). In so doing, it is important to note that for all intents and purposes, the new educational technology program described in ESSA represents a dramatic turnaround in direction for Congress, which last funded a federal educational technology program in 2010 at the request of former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the Obama White House.

In the following sections, I describe how the educational technology program will operate – including the roles for actors at the district, state, and federal levels – and my assessment of what the program says of the federal view of and role for technology in education. Note that while the law refers to LEAs and SEAs instead of the more colloquial school districts and state departments of education, I will use them synonymously in this discussion. There are some important differences and nuances between the terms (LEAs vs. school districts and SEAs vs. states/state departments of education), but for the purposes of this discussion I will treat them as one and the same. It is also important to acknowledge that there are (a few) other mentions of issues related to educational technology in ESSA beyond the educational technology program. I may touch upon some or all of these in a future post.

How ESSA Supports School Districts in Leveraging Technology for Education

Based on a comprehensive local needs assessment and successful application to a district’s state department of education (and presuming state acceptance of federal funds), every school district in the nation might expect to receive federal formula funds under Title IV of ESSA each year to support the effective use of technology and “improve the academic achievement, academic growth, and digital literacy of all students.” Within states, school districts may form consortia to pool resources and address regional needs. While not prescriptive in how program funds can be spent, ESSA suggests school districts (alone or in consortia) could:

  • provide educators and administrators with technology tools and resources;
  • improve school technology infrastructure and procure devices and content;
  • deliver technology-based or -enhanced courses and content to students;
  • implement blended learning projects;
  • provide professional development to educators in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, including computer science; and/or
  • provide students access to technology resources they may be lacking by virtue of being located in rural, remote or underserved areas.

While one might expect an educational technology program to be expressly designed to support the purchase of technology devices, tools and software, Congress mandates that not more than 15 percent of program funds may be used for “purchasing devices, equipment and software applications in order to address readiness shortfalls” or for the development of blended learning projects. (Note: I read some ambiguity in the legislative text both of how this 15 percent will be calculated and also what equipment, tools, software, and content might count toward that 15 percent cap and what might not. These regulatory decisions – frankly – will have a potentially significant effect on the educational technology market over the next four years, so this remains worth watching.)

The local needs assessment to be conducted by the school district is to be focused on identifying gaps in a school district’s “access to personalized learning experiences supported by technology and professional development for the effective use of data and technology” and is to be updated every three years.

To be eligible for funds, every school district or consortium of districts – in addition to conducting a local needs assessment – will prepare and submit an application to their respective state department of education that will (at a minimum) describe:

  • how funds will be used for activities related to “supporting the effective use of technology in schools;”
  • any partnerships the district(s) anticipates leveraging in conducting allowable activities; and
  • the objectives and intended outcomes for activities to be undertaken with federal program funds, including how the district(s) will “periodically evaluate the effectiveness of activities carried out under this section based on such objectives and outcomes.”

Congress mandates that district applications shall be developed in consultation with a wide variety of local stakeholders, including: parents; teachers; principals; other school leaders; specialized instructional support personnel; students; community-based organizations; local government representatives; Indian tribes or tribal organizations that may located in the region served by the district; charter school teachers, principals, and other school leaders (if the district(s) support charter schools); and “others with relevant and demonstrated expertise in the programs and activities designed to meet the purpose of this subpart.”

Moreover, in accepting funds under this program, a district or consortia of districts must provide assurances that they will:

  • prioritize funding for students and schools with the greatest needs within their district(s);
  • ensure eligible private school students and teachers located within the district(s) receive ‘equitable services’; and,
  • annually report to the state department of education how program funds are used and are contributing to progress in meeting district-determined objectives and outcomes.

Finally, school districts may retain up to 2 percent of the program allocation to offset administrative costs associated with its implementation.

The State Role in Advancing Education Through Technology in ESSA

Upon submission of an acceptable plan to the U.S. Department of Education, every state department of education in the nation might expect to receive federal funds under Title IV, Part A of ESSA via formula each year. While 95 percent of all funds received by a state from the federal government are required to be distributed to school districts with state-approved applications via formula (see above), a state department of education can spend up to 1 percent on administrative costs (including public – not federal – reporting on how federal program dollars were spent and have contributed to progress in meeting district-determined objectives and outcomes) and the remaining 4 percent on a range of suggested (not prescriptive), allowable activities to advance the goals of the program, including: (1) providing monitoring of, and training, technical assistance and capacity building to districts; (2) identifying and eliminating state barriers to the coordination and integration of programs, initiatives, and funding streams; and (3), supporting districts in providing programs or activities that “increase access to personalized, rigorous learning experiences supported by technology.” These program-related activities may include:

  • providing technical assistance to districts to improve districts’ ability to (a) identify and address technology readiness needs; (b) use technology to meet the needs of all students consistent with the principles of universal design; and (c) build the capacity of teachers to use data and technology to improve instruction and personalize learning;
  • expanding access to high-quality digital learning opportunities in rural and remote areas;
  • developing or using strategies (whether evidence-based or innovative) for the delivery of rigorous courses or curricula through the use of technology, including for the acquisition of postsecondary or workforce credentials;
  • disseminating promising practices related to technology instruction, data security, and/or the acquisition and implementation of educational technology;
  • providing educators with the knowledge and skills to use technology effectively, which could include coordination with educator preparation programs; and/or
  • making instructional resources widely available via open educational resources (OER), which may include supporting school districts in using OER.

To be eligible for funds, every state will prepare and submit an application to the U.S. Department of Education, which shall include only the following:

  • a description of how the state will use allowable funds for state-level administrative and technical assistance activities (not more than 5 percent of the program funds allocated to the state);
  • a description of how the state will ensure awards to districts are consistent with ESSA and the Title IV program; and
  • assurances that the state will (a) coordinate any new plans or programs resulting from Title IV with existing state resources and programs; (b) monitor the implementation of activities under this program and provide technical assistance to districts; and (c) provide equitable access for all students to the activities supported by this program.

The Role of the U.S. Department of Education

The primary role granted to the U.S. Department of Education – beyond the annual allocation of funds via formula to states – is to certify that state plans are in fact consistent with the requirements for those plans as described by Congress. To carry out these activities, the U.S. Department of Education can reserve 2 percent of overall program funds (prior to distribution to states and districts) for “technical assistance and capacity building,” although the legislative text is silent on what this might entail.

Caveats Upon Caveats

The above description of the ESSA Title IV educational technology program is accurate except for the parts that are not accurate. It is not that I’ve deliberately misrepresented the structure and operations of the program as envisioned by Congress, I have merely not (yet) told the whole truth.

Here’s the (not so) fine legislative print I’ve glossed over:

The Title IV, Part A program is made up of layers – and (unlike Shrek’s onion), these layers divide the program along two different dimensions. The first dimension of complexity is that districts must consider their desire for focusing on educational technology against two other priorities:

(1) providing all students with access to a well-rounded education, which includes initiatives that promote STEM and computer science education, education in music and the arts, the teaching and learning of foreign languages, accelerated learning programs (think AP and IB and the costs of associated testing fees), civics education, and environmental education; and,

(2) fostering safe, healthy, supportive and drug-free environments, which includes initiatives that focus on: discipline policies and practices, violence prevention, mental health services and school counseling, and other health and safety initiatives (including those involving athletic programs).

In fact, Title IV will require most school districts to devote not less than 20 percent of program resources to each of these other worthy priorities – and to devote a corresponding amount of effort in all required needs assessment, planning, and application processes. While this means that school districts could devote up to 60 percent of federal program funds to the educational technology program, in reality it is a zero-sum trade-off. Every federal dollar spent on technology, can’t be spent on arts or school counseling.

I can conceive of no substantive policy or practical reason for combining these three disparate and worthy education policy priorities in this way (other than allowing interested parties cover to claim some semblance of a victory via inclusion of their pet priority in the bill). And, as an aside, lest some feel the desire to blame Congress alone for this ragbag of a program, one only has to read the March 2010 legislative priorities of the Obama Administration, which similarly argued for a dramatic (and not entirely coherent) consolidation of federal education programs.

The second dimension of complexity is that Title IV, Part A contains a special rule that allows districts receiving less than $30,000 to opt out of most all of the program rules I have heretofore described, including the requirement to conduct a local needs assessment or to allocate spending across policy priority areas. That is, a district receiving a formula allocation less than $30,000 is largely free to spend that money on any allowable activity related to well-rounded education initiatives, safety/welfare programs, or educational technology needs (although, the 15 percent cap on infrastructure, device, and software spending appears to remain in place).

I have run some (simplified) simulations of program funding (from the federal government to states to districts) to attempt to determine the rough magnitude of districts that can anticipate falling beneath this $30,000 threshold. In the main and assuming full funding of the program at the maximum allowable level:

  • No large city school district will fall beneath this threshold, nor will most districts in states with small numbers of districts relative to their student population (such as Florida, Hawaii, Maryland, and Nevada).
  • Every other state can expect to have some significant proportion of districts under this threshold.
  • The following states with large numbers of districts relative to their student population can expect to have the greatest number of districts – a clear majority – under this funding threshold: Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, and Vermont.
  • Given my understanding that charter schools are often treated as LEAs by states in these scenarios, almost all charters are likely to fall beneath the funding threshold.

Should program funding fall below the maximum authorized level, larger numbers of districts will also fall beneath this threshold. By my estimates, a decrease to 75 percent funding (a $1.2 billion appropriation) would push a majority of districts in Kansas, North Dakota, and Wisconsin also under the $30,000 threshold. As such, by treating all districts across states as if they were equal, Congress has created a program that will operate dramatically differently across states. And, for the record, I am not the only one to make this observation (as Education Week’s Andrew Ujifusa reports):

The total value of the authorized programs in the block grant is $1.6 billion a year, but some of the programs haven’t been funded for some time. The actual appropriations for programs that make up the block grant total add up to less than $200 million, according to Joel Packer, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a lobbying group. So he’s not clear where the rest of the money would come from.

What’s more, the new law specifies that districts that get $30,000 or more under the block grant program must spend 20 percent on at least one activity that helps students be more well-rounded, and another 20 percent on something that helps improve health and safety. But Packer is betting that—since the program is likely to be very small and go out to districts through a predetermined method—few districts will hit those levels.

That could “undermine the way the block grant was constructed,” Packer said. “It’s going to be very interesting.”

Further regulation by ED may attempt to increase the federal role in the program (e.g., by introducing new state planning requirements or reporting requirements), could help clarify reporting and evaluation requirements of states and districts (which hardly seem feasible given administrative funding levels), and might help clarify some ambiguous language around the 15 percent maximum technology equipment, device, and software purchasing cap.

What to Make of the ESSA Educational Technology Program

Based on the legislative text of the new educational technology program in Title IV, Part A of ESSA, I think it is reasonable to conclude:

Congress believes that there is a role for the federal government to support districts and states in advancing education through technology. Given that the prior position of Congress was that no federal program was necessary, this is not insignificant. (Digital learning advocates, cue Sally Field!) However, Congress sees this role as exactly like the role the federal government should or could play with respect to a whole lot of other education policy issues. That is, it is the consensus of Congress that there is nothing to be gained from a more directive, muscular, federally- or even nationally-coordinated approach.

Congress believes that local communities are best positioned to decide their own priorities with respect to improving student learning via technology. School districts are granted great freedom in using program dollars to address their educational technology needs, although not by supporting the purchase of, well, technology (which is limited to 15 percent of program expenditures). This means, of course, that the Title IV, Part A educational technology program is the single most restrictive funding stream in ESSA in terms of purchasing technology.

While states may have unique priorities, a history of prior investments, or have placed big bets on technology for education, Congress believes their role should be primarily advisory to districts. At the same time, Congress does grant states leeway in pursuing a range of educational technology leadership strategies with administrative funds, stopping short of allowing states to direct district purchases and plans.

For its part, Congress foresees the U.S. Department of Education playing no role other than distributing funds and conducting the bureaucratic duties required by OMB and others to fulfill their legal duties.

Yet, Congress does not trust school district leadership alone to determine local needs and priorities for technology. The process for determining local needs for educational technology and other program priorities is the single most prescriptive part of this program, with literally dozens of stakeholders (in and out of the school community) that must be consulted in making these plans by federal law. As such, Congress seems more than willing to risk school district attempts at coherence in mandating the development of plans by committee.

By employing a complex funding distribution mechanism designed to ensure every district receives some funds for dozens of policy priorities, including educational technology, many districts will receive small amounts of money. The introduction of a funding threshold below which districts are freed from many program requirements seems likely to introduce unintended consequences. Whether completely understood or not by Congress (or advocates) when the program was designed, Title IV, Part A creates a two-tier system of states and districts that will shortchange small and rural districts and states that have relatively large numbers of districts compared to their student populations. In fact, I’d not be surprised if some districts refuse these federal dollars – especially those above, but near the $30,000 threshold – because the cost of carrying out the administrative mandates will exceed the value of the program funds that can be used for administrative purposes.

In sum, in launching a new educational technology program, Congress appears to desire to seed the proverbial thousand flowers in schools across the nation. Whether these flowers take root and lift up other school improvement efforts or end up being overtaken by weeds will be the work of district and state educational technology leaders over the coming four years.

The lack of support in the program for collaboration across districts within a state and (to a lesser degree) across states – as well as the absolute indifference to research-based approaches and solutions in the program – has me particularly concerned. Given that cost savings are generated by activities at scale – and information about the costs and quality of educational technologies are not readily available – the program as designed might foster inefficiency or wasteful purchasing (or worse).

Notwithstanding the result, I strongly suspect that Congress will have much to ponder the next time Members choose to revisit the question of the best federal role with respect to technology in education.