American Geological Institute

Government Affairs Program

Report to the President on the Use of Technology to Strengthen K-12 Education in the United States

The President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) Panel on Education recently released a report entitled "Use of Technology to Strengthen K-12 Education in t he United States." The following section is from the report's executive summary. The full report can be accessed on the PCAST website

Executive Summary
In an era of increasing international economic competition, the quality of America's elementary and secondary schools could determine whether our children hold highly compensated, high-skill jobs that add significant value within the integrated global economy of the twenty-first century or compete with workers in developing countries for the provision of commodity products and low-value-added services at wage rates comparable to those received by third world laborers. Moreover, it is widely believed that workers in the next century will require not just a larger set of facts or a larger repertoire of specific skills, but the capacity to readily acquire new knowledge, to solve new problems, and to employ creativity and critical thinking in the design of new approaches to existing problems.

While a number of different approaches have been suggested for the improvement of K-12 education in the United States, one common element of many such plans has been the more extensive and more effective utilization of computer, networking, and other technologies in support of a broad program of systemic and curricular reform. During a period in which technology has fundamentally transformed America's offices, factories, and retail establishments, however, its impact within our nation's classrooms has generally been quite modest.

The Panel on Educational Technology was organized in April 1995 under the auspices of the President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) to provide independent advice to the President on matters related to the application of various technologies (and in particular, interactive computer- and network-based technologies) to K-12 education in the United States. Its findings and recommendations are based on a (non-exhaustive) review of the research literature and on written submissions and private White House briefings from a number of academic and industrial researchers, practicing educators, software developers, governmental agencies, and professional and industry organizations involved in various ways with the application of technology to education. A substantial number of relatively specific recommendations related to various aspects of the use of technology within America's elementary and secondary schools are offered at various points within the body of this report. The list that appears below summarizes those high-level strategic recommendations that the Panel believes to be most important:

  1. Focus on learning with technology, not about technology. Although both are worthy of attention, it is important to distinguish between technology as a subject area and the use of technology to facilitate learning about any subject area. While computer-related skills will unquestionably be quite important in the twenty-first century, and while such skills are clearly best taught through the actual use of computers, it is important that technology be integrated throughout the K-12 curriculum, and not simply used to impart technology-related knowledge and skills. Although universal technological literacy is a laudable national goal, the Panel believes the Administration should work toward the use of computing and networking technologies to improve the quality of education in all subject areas.
  2. Emphasize content and pedagogy, and not just hardware. While the widespread availability of modern computing and networking hardware will indeed be necessary if technology is to realize its promise, the development and utilization of useful educational software and information resources, and the adaptation of curricula to make effective use of technology, are likely to represent more formidable challenges. Particular attention should be given to the potential role of technology in achieving the goals of current educational reform efforts through the use of new pedagogic methods focusing on the development of higher-order reasoning and problem-solving skills. While obsolete and inaccessible computer systems, suboptimal student/computer ratios, and a lack of appropriate building infrastructure and network connectivity will all need to be addressed, it is important that we not allow these problems to divert attention from the ways in which technology should actually be used within an educational context.
  3. Give special attention to professional development. The substantial investment in hardware, infrastructure, software and content that is recommended in this report will be largely wasted if K-12 teachers are not provided with the preparation and support they will need to effectively integrate information technologies into their teaching. Only about 15 percent of the typical educational technology budget is currently devoted to professional development; this figure should be increased to at least 30 percent. Teachers should be provided with ongoing mentoring and consultative support, and with the time required to familiarize themselves with available software and content, to incorporate technology into their lesson plans, and to discuss technology use with other teachers. Finally, both presidential leadership and federal funding should be mobilized to help our nation's schools of education to incorporate technology within their curricula so they are capable of preparing the next generation of American teachers to make effective use of technology.
  4. Engage in realistic budgeting. The Panel believes that at least five percent of all public K-12 educational spending in the United States (or approximately $13 billion annually in constant 1996 dollars) should be earmarked for technology-related expenditures a significant increase over the current level of approximately 1.3 percent. Because the amortization of initial acquisition costs will account for only a minority of these recommended expenditures, schools will have to provide for increased technology spending within their ongoing operating budgets rather than relying solely on one-time bond issues and capital campaigns.

    While voluntarism and corporate equipment donations may be of both direct and indirect benefit under certain circumstances, White House policy should be based on a realistic assessment of the relatively limited direct economic contribution such efforts can be expected to make overall. The Administration should continue to make the case for educational technology as an unusually high-return investment (in both economic and social terms) in America's future, while seeking to enhance the return on that investment by promoting federally sponsored research aimed at improving the cost-effectiveness of technology use within our nation's elementary and secondary schools.

  5. Ensure equitable, universal access. Access to knowledge-building and communication tools based on computing and networking technologies should be made available to all of our nation's students, regardless of socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, gender, or geographical factors, and special attention should be given to the use of technology by students with special needs. Title I spending for technology-related investments on behalf of economically disadvantaged students should be maintained at no less than its current level, with ongoing adjustments for inflation, expanding U.S. school enrollment, and projected increases in overall national spending for K-12 educational technology. Because much of the educational use of computers now takes place within the home, and because the rate of home computer ownership diverges widely for students of different racial and ethnic groups and socioeconomic status, consideration should also be given to certain public policy measures that might help to reduce disparities in student access to information technologies outside of school.
  6. Initiate a major program of experimental research. The Panel believes that a large-scale program of rigorous, systematic research on education in general and educational technology in particular will ultimately prove necessary to ensure both the efficacy and cost-effectiveness of technology use within our nation's schools. Funding levels for educational research, however, have thus far been alarmingly low. By way of illustration, whereas some 23 percent of all U.S. expenditures for prescription and non-prescription medications were applied toward pharmaceutical research in 1995, less than 0.1 percent of our nation's expenditures for elementary and secondary education in the same year were invested to determine which educational techniques actually work, and to find ways to improve them.

    The Panel strongly recommends that this figure be increased to at least 0.5 percent (or about $1.5 billion annually at current expenditure levels) on an ongoing basis. Because no one state, municipality, or private firm could hope to capture more than a small fraction of the benefits associated with a significant advance in our understanding of how best to educate K-12 students, this funding will have to be provided largely at the federal level in order to avoid a systematic underinvestment (attributable to a classical form of economic externality) relative to the level that would be optimal for the nation as a whole.

    To ensure high standards of scientific excellence, intellectual integrity, and independence from political influence, this research program should be planned and overseen by a distinguished independent board of outside experts appointed by the President, and should encompass (a) basic research in various learning-related disciplines and on various educationally relevant technologies; (b) early-stage research aimed at developing new forms of educational software, content, and technology-enabled pedagogy; and (c) rigorous, well-controlled, peer-reviewed, large-scale empirical studies designed to determine which educational approaches are in fact most effective in practice. The Panel does not, however, recommend that the deployment of technology within America's schools be deferred pending the completion of such research.

Finally, it should be noted that the Panel strongly supports the programs encompassed by the President's Educational Technology Initiative, which aim to provide our nation's schools with the modern computer hardware, local- and wide-area network connectivity, high quality educational content, and appropriate teacher preparation that will be necessary if information technologies are to be effectively utilized to enhance learning. In the area of research and evaluation, however, the Panel believes that much remains to be done. While a scientific research program of the sort envisioned by the Panel will require substantial funding on a sustained basis, such a program could well prove critical to the economic security of future generations of Americans, and should thus be assigned a high priority in spite of current budgetary pressures.

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program at

Contributed by Kasey Shewey, AGI Government Affairs
Last updated January 5, 1998

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