Richard Culatta, former Obama Education Official, Pushes Technology in the Classroom

By Emily Wilkins

Richard Culatta isn’t concerned that schools don’t have enough technology. He is concerned about how teachers are being trained to use it.

Culatta, the former head of the Education Department’s Office of Educational Technology during the Obama administration, believes that digital tools have the potential to tackle some of education’s biggest issues, such as closing the opportunity gap between students at low-income and wealthy schools. Promoting their use became his primary goal in May, when he became head of the International Society for Technology in Education, a nonprofit with a membership of about 100,000 educators.

(Tom Williams / CQ Roll Call)

Getting those educators additional training could become more difficult soon. Both the Trump administration and House appropriators have proposed cuts of more than $2 billion from teacher-training programs. While the House has proposed an additional $100 million to a block grant program that can be used by schools to support technology in classrooms, states have wide discretion in how they use that funding and could use it for other programs.

“When teachers have the preparation they need, and learn how to use the technology to close those gaps, amazing things start to happen,” Culatta says. “The challenge though, frankly, is it’s an area we really struggle with. Teacher prep programs right now generally don’t do a very effective job of preparing teachers to use technology.”

Sitting in a room adjacent to his new office, he gushes about  technology’s potential. He recounts how students in Chattanooga, Tenn., who went online to control a microscope at the University of Southern California.

But he also recalled the frustration he felt earlier in his career, as a Spanish teacher, of needing to move on to the next lesson even though he knew some students were struggling with what they just learned. If teachers used programs that analyzed each student’s comprehension of a subject and suggested individualized activities to help them in areas they found difficult, it would be easier for students to learn at their own pace, he said.

Before he came to International Society for Technology in Education, Culatta served as Rhode Island’s first chief innovation officer, during which time he worked to expand computer science programs in public schools and get public colleges to use more free online textbooks.

Technology use in classrooms has boomed in recent years, thanks in part to a multibillion-dollar federal program ensuring schools and libraries have an internet connection. In 2016, 88 percent of classrooms had adequate access, up from 30 percent only three years before.

Meanwhile only 61 percent of students had teachers in 2015 who had received training in how to integrate technology into their classrooms, a number that barely budged from the 64 percent of students whose teachers received training in 2009, according to federal data compiled by Education Weekly.

“My worry is we’ve done half the work and then we’re going to sit back and say ‘Great, let’s reap the benefits,’” Culatta says. “If we don’t do the other half, which is really making sure that teachers are prepared, we won’t see the value of the increased connectivity.”

Culatta agrees with some lawmakers that many teacher training programs aren’t as effective as they could be. But cutting resources won’t lead to a better solution, he says, especially as more complex forms of technology become available.

“We’re hearing from a lot of districts that are frankly a bit frustrated,” he says. “They’re finding that they’re having to do a lot of professional development for teachers, even new teachers, to help them learn how to use technology effectively in their teaching.”

Even a tech-savvy teacher who understands social media and has a good feel for learning new programs might not be aware of how to use technology most effectively in classrooms, Culatta says. For example, a teacher might continue to use the same assignments and teaching methods, only now with digital books and online tests. Culatta calls that “passive learning” as opposed to active learning where students use technology to do things they couldn’t do otherwise, such as filming a video, chatting with experts remotely or working on a project with students on the other side of the world.

Another concern of Culatta’s is that teachers won’t take the steps to ensure students’ privacy will be respected before requiring they use a website or program.

Why new teachers aren’t being schooled in digital classrooms is a complex issue that doesn’t rely on funding alone, Culatta says. Part of the problem is that teacher preparations programs  haven’t chosen to focus on technology, something lawmakers want to change, Culatta said: “Policymakers have said we want to make sure, in this world where we have increasing access to technology, that teachers are familiar with a clear, thoughtful set of standards for how technology is used in ways that are really beneficial for students.”

In response, the International Society for Technology in Education developed a set of standards for what educators should know before they enter the classroom.

The standards encourage teachers to continue to learn about new types of technology and be familiar with research showing how technology can help students, as well as hurt them.

They also emphasize that students should be learning how to scrutinize what they read online and identify misleading news.

The standards are gaining traction in statehouses. In June, Texas lawmakers passed legislation requiring that programs preparing teachers for the classroom include a digital literacy component that includes the standards.

Other states, including North Carolina, West Virginia and California, also saw state lawmakers introduce legislation this year to integrate the standards into all teacher preparation courses.

While the standards are still relatively new, Culatta says that without teachers who understand how to best use technology to teach, all the money schools have invested in everything from computers to internet access could go to waste.

“The focus now needs to be making sure that teachers know how to use the great resource that has been provided. If we don’t do that we’re not going to be ahead of where we started, and maybe even a step behind,” Culatta says. “We just need to keep our eye on the ball and make sure teachers know how to use these really powerful tools that are now available to them.”