States and districts are planning how to invest their share of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). While the $130 billion can be flexibly spent to meet local needs and challenges, these are a one-time investment from Congress. Therefore, leaders must carefully weigh how to leverage these funds in ways that have the most impact.
At a ISTELive 21 session, ISTE invited Chris Rush, senior advisor for innovation and director of educational technology at the U.S. Department of Education, Dustin Loehr, director of arts education and Title IV-A at the Arizona Department of Education, and Aaron Dworkin, CEO of the National Summer Learning Association to discuss how leaders may best use this opportunity to spark innovative learning in the next school year and beyond. Speakers converged on three strategies captured below:
1. Be bold and experimental in the years to come
Rush says educators shouldn’t shy away from different learning models simply because some remote learning experiences during the past year may not have been optimal. By focusing on how technology can provide opportunities for social-emotional development and learning acceleration, schools can become much more engaging and supportive environments.
Loehr spoke about how Arizona’s education agency is leading from a systems perspective to push for new ways of using technology. For example, the state will be adopting a new set of educational technology standards by grounding the language in the ISTE Standards. Furthermore, the state encourages districts to mobilize teachers (through stipends and other incentives funded through ESSER) to become ambassadors of effective technology use.
2. Bring together partners in a genuine partnership.
In the past year, many schools and partners from a variety of sectors worked together to ensure that learning would continue as effectively as possible. Rush encourages leaders to sustain this spirit going forward. “One of the muscles we started to flex during this pandemic period was actually partnering rather than having vendor relations.”
As an example, Loehr spoke about how his state partnered with the Arizona Virtual Teacher Institute to provide a free professional development series, which resulted in 11,000 trained educators. Arizona districts also partnered with organizations like Act One to leverage virtual reality technology and bring arts experiences to remote communities, including schools in Native American reservations.
Dworkin suggests creating partnerships with organizations not typically thought of as education institutions (libraries, parks, local businesses and organizations) to connect learning to students’ own communities. In support, his organization recently developed a website, where families and educators can find those types of innovative opportunities near them.
3. Continuously engage communities beyond the classroom
Community engagement has been at the core of Arizona’s strategy since the pandemic began. For example, state Superintendent Kathy Hoffman convened a statewide technology task force, composed of education leaders, higher education institutions, the business community and other partners, to share innovative solutions to address digital equity. Loehr recommends that districts taking a similar approach and ensure that diverse perspectives are represented in guiding how technology can be best leveraged for learning.
Both Rush and Dworkin encourage educators to leverage technology to bolster relationships with some of the most important members of the school community — parents and caregivers. During the pandemic, they have stepped up as co-educators and engaged in conversations with teachers about student support more than ever before. How can we ensure that this relationship continues to be nurtured so that so learning continues outside the bounds of the school grounds?
Ji Soo Song is a senior policy advisor at ISTE. He leads research, analysis and communication of federal, state and local policy issues related to digital learning standards, educator credentialing systems and professional development funding streams.