The glasses have been raised. The speeches made, and press releases issued. It’s now time to get down to brass tacks and figure out how the implementation of the Every Students Succeeds Act (ESSA) can best be leveraged by state and local officials to improve educational outcomes for children and youth. To that end, I recently had the pleasure of addressing a cross-section of state board of education members from across the nation – working together under the umbrella of the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE) – on the opportunities and challenges that ESSA provides with respect to digital learning and technology for states. This post summarizes my current thoughts on the issue in the hope that it may be useful to others in – or who work with – State Departments of Education.

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While opportunities to advance technology-enabled or -enhanced school reform and improvement efforts appear throughout ESSA (and are in no way precluded as a strategy anywhere in the bill), it is Title IV that presents the most direct opportunity for state leadership. Now, Title IV is a complex, layered program and marks a significant departure in structure and operation from past federal edtech investments. Of greatest importance from a state perspective is that in every state, some LEAs/districts (i.e., those slated to receive less than $30,000 in formula funding annually under the program) will be operating under different rules than others (and which districts operate under which rules will shift over time with federal funding levels). Even at full funding of Title IV, this means that every state will need to think through a dual strategy for implementing Title IV and providing technical assistance to districts.

For those districts above the $30,000 annual formula funding threshold (that also desire to apply for and accept the federal funds), ESSA Title IV provides states with two primary leverage points for activities that can be contribute to coherence and scale in their digital learning ambitions: (1) the state-designed local plan development and approval process and (2) the requirement for reporting of district expenditures and program outcomes to states. These leverage points notwithstanding, states are explicitly precluded from directing district funding under Title IV toward any particular approach or solution or – in fact – to direct districts to devote any program funds toward educational technology needs whatsoever. As such, states can expect to support a great variety of approaches to educational technology in their districts under the program, from those that spend some smaller portion of funds on activities to fill in the gaps in local efforts to those that devote the maximum allowable funds to ambitious personalized learning implementations.

States would do well to run simulations of Title IV formula funding allocations to LEAs sooner rather than later to better understand the magnitude of the administrative challenges they may be facing and to plan and staff appropriately.

With that being said, I think there are five strategies that every state should consider pursuing now (if they are not already) to increase the odds that the new federal investments in technology authorized under ESSA have the greatest impact on their students, educators, and schools:

  1. Adopt an updated state educational technology/digital learning plan that reflects the consensus view of state and local leaders of the most important needs that technology can help address over the next five years that would benefit from a coordinated, coherent inter-district/statewide approach. Go easy on the inspirational, aspirational statements; go deep on data to support the needs assessments and recommendations.
  2. Be explicit with districts about expectations for access to technology in schools and classrooms. If your state is among the majority that tests students online (or plans to), the fact of the matter is that you have such technology requirements already in place. Consider also digital and online learning opportunities afforded students and teachers in which the state has invested. These also speak to implicit expectations for technology availability. Encouraging a shift to digital textbooks? Offering online learning? Etc. It should not be controversial in 2016 that there is a baseline expectation of access to technology in schools, just as there are baseline expectations for access to textbooks and desks.
  3. Be sure to consider the alignment of your strategy and expectations to the broadband internet infrastructure needed to support it. Especially important is a strategy to align digital learning plans to participation in the E-rate program and any state programs designed to meet similar ends (including those beyond K-12 education that support broadband build out to universities, hospitals, libraries, or public safety institutions).
  4. Alongside any state investments, make a plan to leverage state administrative funds under Title IV (which will be modest in some states and more significant in others). In addition to providing technical assistance to districts through their planning and application phases, consider statewide activities that will help all school districts, such as those focused on: (a)  reducing costs and streamlining procurement by aggregating demand and pursuing open source and open educational resource (OER) strategies; (b) helping districts make determinations about the quality and cost-effectiveness of educational technology products and services; (c) identifying and sharing information about promising practices and instructional strategies (particularly those that are research-based); and (d) helping districts to develop sustainable strategies to make long-term decisions about how best to leverage technology in their schools, including strategies related to budgeting, technical support, information security, privacy, and interoperability.
  5. Consider whether and how your state will encourage districts to form consortia to pool resources to address identified needs and priorities. In some situations, it could be particularly beneficial for districts to work in regional partnerships to increase the impact of limited federal dollars.

If executed thoughtfully, each of these strategies will be of benefit to every school district in states that pursue them and each offers implications for how the state should consider crafting its Title IV application and review process for districts (and ultimately the reporting of results).

None of the existing, off-the-shelf digital learning planning tools and assessments of which I am aware are likely to fulfill the unique needs of states in assisting their districts in leveraging Title IV educational technology investments. If states are serious about driving positive change via federal educational technology investments in ESSA, it will require a commitment to proactive and visionary leadership. Local control of education does not and should not abdicate states of their responsibility to foster a coherent, aligned system of schools that is best positioned to offer all students a chance at success in the 21st century. In 2016, this includes a statewide strategy for technology in K-12 education.