Zeroing in on the Achievement Gap

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In the final post of the series of interviews, Department of Education's Karen Cator discusses how the National Education Technology Plan addresses the achievement gap and how the plan squares with Race to the Top.

- How is the achievement gap addressed in the National Education Technology Plan? How can technology bring the best education for students of all races and cultures?

I believe learning technologies can be designed and developed to increase the opportunity for every student to learn. We can create a much more productive system so that every student is doing what’s much more productive for them on any given day. There’s a lot of research about learning that has to do with ensuring that content is personalized, that it takes into consideration prior experience and development of languages, for example. There are a lot of things we can do if we're able to leverage digital technologies to personalize the learning environment.

Also, there is an overwhelming need to make sure that we do fully believe that all students can learn and deserve the best possible opportunity. We’ve been focusing on that opportunity for people of all ages. There are something like 93 million under-educated adults. So if we think of building out that opportunity to learn for people of all ages, some of the tools and resources might be the same for a 33 year-old wanting to be retrained to be a medical technician, some of those tools might be the same as what they missed in high school, so they can be available to students of all ages to learn.

And we must also understand the importance of early learning. The Department of Education just funded the Ready to Learn grant, focused on taking to scale the use of media and trans-media and providing scaled opportunities for young children to develop language, a sense of story, skills of early literacy and early math. We know early learning is really important for addressing that achievement gap as well.


We need to leverage learning technologies that will help us leapfrog where we are today to vastly improve the opportunity to learn.

- Do the guidelines that go along with Race to the Top align with the NETP?

Bottom-line priorities for Race to the Top are to improve opportunities to learn for teachers and for students. So they’re very aligned. Race to the Top talks about highly effective teachers and highly effective leaders, and the technology plan has an entire chapter on how technology can improve opportunities for teachers to be highly effective by making sure they have all the resources they need, the data they need, access to experts and expertise.

The best example of how they fit together is the allocation of funds set aside for assessment. There’s a whole section in the Technology Plan on assessments. And there's $350 million that Race to the Top awarded to two consortia to develop new assessments that will be entirely technology-based. So they have the opportunity to leverage technology to make sure they’re using the best of adaptive tools, best embedded assessment, best ways of making sure that assessment turns into really good information to help students, teachers, schools, and systems get better and better.

And that’s totally aligned with the plan. Though they weren’t done in tandem, these two things definitely come together, and the NETP definitely supports Race to the Top.

- With all the work that's been done on the grassroots level to push for many of the guidelines in the NETP, why do you think now is the time for it to come to pass?

I’m not a historian, but I really do think that now is the time. The new data about how we’re doing, the new PISA data, the assessment data that gets published, the growing understanding that we have an economic crisis in our country ... Secretary Duncan likes to say we need to educate our way out of the economic crisis. It’s a matter of social justice, of national security. The importance of education is one part of it.

The second part of it is the convergence of technologies. For one, it's better, faster, cheaper, more mobile. The second thing is the proliferation of digital content, like the Khan Academy, very low-tech lessons, as well as the highly produced digital content that’s freely available online. And the third is the proliferation of social networks, people learning from each other online. Plus, you have the opportunity for new assessments.

These are the kinds of things, you put all this together and you have a huge opportunity.  We have a tremendous need to create a more productive education system and to improve the opportunity for people of all ages, starting from early learning all the way to job and career training, for everyone. And the only way to scale is going digital.

[Read the first three posts here.]