Vol. 15 : No. 6
Editors Note: People at all levels of government and education devote their lives to improvement of teaching and learning. Frank Withrow is a key player in Federal support for education, beginning with Captioned Films for the Deaf and appropriate education for all children with disabilities, and continuing as a champion of universal access to educational resources via the Internet. He was program manager for 54 educational television series that were bilingual or multi-lingual, ranging from Sesame Street to Voyages of the Mimi. His vision to strengthen teaching and learning through interactive media technologies has been broadly implemented with very significant results. Through successive political administrations, he has been advocate for an Assistant Secretary for Technology in the Department of Education to ensure continuity of support to teachers and students.
A Brief History of Technology at the Federal Level
Frank B. Withrow
The Tenth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution left to the states those things not covered in The U. S. Constitution. Therefore, it was left to the states to create the authority for public education. Public education through formal schools was not a high priority in colonial times. Schools and apprenticeships were the common practice as well as home based schooling. Higher education faired better and was often supported by religious groups. Thomas Jefferson was the one founding father who was passionate about education. He believed that his founding of the University of Virginia was the most important accomplishment of his life. While he was proud of the university, his real drive was for universal education for at least four years for every child. He believed that unless the population learned to read, write and calculate they would not be able to participate in democratic government. He was disappointed that he did not achieve this in the Commonwealth of Virginia. In this context he can be considered the first "Education President."
The foundations for public education in the United States of America can be found in the State Constitutions. The only thing that the federal government has traditionally done is insist that public education be fair and equal.
In 1836 Amos Kendall, the Post Master General of the United States, gave Kendall Green to the federal government to create an elementary school for deaf children. Kendall Green now houses Gallaudet University. In the 1860s Gallaudet College was created on the green. In the 1860s the American Printing House for the Blind (APHB) and Howard University were created. These are Special Education Institutions in the federal budget. They remain semi-private agencies that are funded by the federal government. In the 1880s the Merrill Act created the land grant colleges across the nation. The federal government has been in the business of making the playing ground level for all learners. By World War I the rural areas were loosing their tax base and schools were inadequately funded. The federal government passed what is today the Vocational Education Act, which was designed to provide monies for schools in rural areas. In 1958 the Captioned Film for the Deaf Act was passed to provide equal access to filmed materials to deaf people. In 1965 the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was passed to redress the inequities with respect to tax revenues that plagued inner cities. Since 1965 we have seen a series of legislative actions that have been designed to bring all learners into the mainstream of American education, i.e., the poor, the disabled, the non English speakers and others. Research has shown that the more education a person has the higher the probability that they will be contributors to society rather than dependent upon society. Horace Mann in the late 1800s established that everyone could be taxed to support public education because public education was a social benefit.
The American Printing House for the Blind and the Captioned Films for the Deaf programs were the forerunners of learning technology programs at the federal level. The underlying principle is that all learners should have equal access to learning resources. The federal government stepped in to be the mediating force, that is, to make the resources usable by all learners. Many aspects of technology are best served by economies of scale and consequently require extensive and strong federal leadership. For example, it is unreasonable to assume that individual school districts and state agencies can muster the size and scope of funding to create delivery systems that can compete with commercial satellites or other telecommunication distribution systems. Consequently, Congress in its wisdom created the E-rate that allows for economies of scale required, but uses the installed telecommunications infrastructures. Moreover the E-rate balanced the need for flexibility and allowed the state and local school systems to negotiate with telecommunications providers for the needed services dictated by the local educational needs and priorities. Economies of scale would indicate that state and regional pacts for services from telecommunication suppliers would be effective. South Dakota's Governor William J. Janklow's negotiated a statewide system that should be viewed as a viable pattern for other areas. The FCC can and should modify some of the operational aspects of the E-rate program, but it would be disruptive to place this program in a block grant program. Such a move would be destructive to the quality of telecommunications services needed by American learners. Every learner everywhere should be facilitated by the federal government to have access to Internet.
It is efficient, economical and entirely consistent with the bipartisan efforts that instituted this program to leave E-rate's administration at the Federal Communications Commission.
In the 1960s, the U. S. Office of Education funded demonstration projects using mainframe computers. The National Science Foundation funded the development of major science courses. By 1966 the USOE, under the leadership of Harold Howe, funded experimental children's television programs. The first series funded was "Sesame Street." This was before the creation of the Public Broadcasting Services. In the last year of the Johnson administration, the U. S. Office of Education funded the Academy for Educational Development to study the possible impact of technology on learning and teaching. The Nixon Administration buried that report but Congress released it as a congressional report. In the 1970s NASA experimented with ATS‑6 and had the cooperation from the U. S. Office of Education in developing content. Under Ed David, President Nixon's Science Advisor, a report called for digital educational libraries. OMB buried that report as being too expensive. The NTIA programs were originally a part of the Office of Libraries and Learning Technologies at the old U.S. Office of Education. When the Department of Education was created these programs were transferred to Commerce with the expectation that they would be eliminated. These programs since the early 1970s had supplied the equipment for public television stations. In 1982 the Reagan Administration folded all the technology programs, i.e., library programs, television programs, basic skills computer programs and museum programs into the Education Consolidation and Improvement Act on the assumption that states would continue this development. Secretary T. H. Bell used his discretionary funds and funded some planning and demonstration technology programs. Project SLATE was designed to foster statewide planning for the use of computers and Project BEST was designed to demonstrate effective uses of technology in learning and teaching. The 1982 legislation effectively consolidated all technology programs into a block grant. The result was to end development of another "Sesame Street" or other high quality technology programs because this was beyond the resources of state and local agencies.
It was not until 1988 that the Star School Program began once again to build a place in the U. S. Department of Education for technology. Unfortunately, from 1982 until 1988 there were few learning technology programs supported by the Department of Education. This was a critical time for the development of such programs. The lack of national leadership severely curtailed the development of (1) school library programs and (2) technology programs.
The passage of Title III of ESEA and the Telecommunication Act with E-rate gave the school children of America a new lease on the advantages that technology can offer. The Department of Education desperately needs an Assistant Secretary for Technology to provide national leadership to make these resources available to all children. All of Title III needs to be modified and fully funded. It is a balance of national programs and provides for the flexibility and freedom needed by state and local agencies. The national section of Title III has never been funded for digital libraries.
In the last forty years, consolidation of educational programs has always meant a disaster for library and technology programs. Libraries and digital technologies are essential to a well-developed school system. Their cost requires economies of scale that only the federal government can afford.
Those who fail to learn from past mistakes are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. Shall we deny the learners and teachers of America this greatest resource since the printing press? Not since Gutenberg's invention of the printing press has a technology been developed that has the potential for radically changing the nature of learning and teaching. As a nation we eventually adopted the Jeffersonian concept of universal education for all. Our universal education system has dominated the world in educational concepts irrespective of International achievement tests. We are the nation that believed that every child could achieve to their fullest ability and in doing so enriched our society. The G.I. Bill of Rights extended that promise to higher education for an entire generation.
We must extend the vision of education for anyone, anyplace and at anytime through the Internet to every learner in America. It requires a strong and committed leadership at the federal level. There must be an Assistant Secretary for Technology in the U. S. Department of Education. Whether the program emerges as a block grant or a balanced program, it requires this level of leadership.
About the Author:
Dr. Withrow was a Battelle Memorial Fellow studying the influence of technology on child growth and development. He served for thirty years as Senior Learning Technologist for the U.S. Department of Education. He worked as a Technology Policy Specialist for the Council of Chief State School Officers and as the Director of Education Programs for the NASA Classroom of the Future. He represented the United States at a number of international meetings. He has more than 200 film and television credits, has written, and edited numerous articles and books on education and technology. His latest book Preparing Schools and School Systems for the 21st Century was the featured book for the American Association of School Administrators at their February 1999 conference.
Dr. Withrow has received a number of awards including the Leadership in Advocacy for Distance Learning Award from the United States Distance Learning Association.