Karen Cator on Department of Education's Next Course

By Betsy Corcoran     Nov 14, 2012

Karen Cator on Department of Education's Next Course

Last week, EdSurge invited Karen Cator, director ofeducation technology for the U.S. Department of Education, toshare her post-election thoughts with EdSurge readers here--and she'sbeen responding to those comments. This week, EdSurge's Betsy Corcoran putadditional questions to Cator, who joined the Obama administration in November2009. One revelation: Cator says she plans to leave the administration early inthe new year, once her replacement is squarely in place. Here are the details.

EdSurge: What will be the Department ofEducation's priorities during the second term of the Obama administration?You're not likely to have the kind of funding you had during the first term,right?

Cator: The way the Department of Education's budget works is that itis included in the President’s budget, which gets proposed to Congress. Ourcurrent proposal still includes Race To The Top (RTTT) money -- not thebillions in the Recovery Act, but money to continue our priority projects, RTTTand i3 for example. We're still committed to advancing reforms.

Last week, the proposals were submittedfor RTTT district program. It will be interesting to see what came in and whatthe process bubbles to the top. RTTT District focuses on personalizing learning.We're hoping to fund 15 to 20 exemplary projects around the country that we canall watch and learn from--and see how schools and districts leverage data andtechnology and provide a personalized learning environment for students.

We're know that in 2014, the newassessments associated with the Common Core will be designed to be conductedonline. But one important concern is the infrastructure required for thoseassessments.

We don't exactly know whatinfrastructure will be required or even what infrastructure is already in place.PARCC and Smarter Balanced  [the two consortia doing the design workon the assessments] are researching what's needed and what’s in place. It's acomplex issue but we need more data and more transparency. We're interested inthe work of EducationSuperhighway, which is conducting speed tests with schools and providingthe data back to them. Their test will provide better data and give everyonebetter sense of what's in place and where there are gaps.

Q: Is there a mismatch? I've heard thatthe Education Superhighway test is surprising some schools --suggesting thatthey have less bandwidth than they thought.

It's giving people information thatthey didn't have otherwise. Maybe a school had an old filter put in place yearsago. In some cases, schools are finding issues with their networks that theydidn't know existed.

Q: What role will the federalgovernment play in supporting this evolving infrastructure?   

We're thinking about it. We're thinkingabout the role of the federal government and how all resources can beleveraged, whether those resources are from the federal, state or local level.We're looking at the cost efficiencies: can we incentivize buying consortia, orsupport research and development. Building broadband infrastructure alsoinvolves agencies across the federal government. The Departments of Commerceand Agriculture and the Federal Communications Commission all have a role. Infact, there are many projects still being built with Recovery money--billionsof dollars that included building both the middle mile and last mile ofbroadband infrastructure.

Q: You talk about cornerstone effortsat the Department. What do you see as the cornerstone technology projects goingforward?

The LearningRegistry project is one example. It's focused on helping people find, useand reuse content and resources and making sure the associated data iscontinually improved.

Another is the Connected Educator project: This isfocused on improving research and understanding about teachers and leaderslearning together online--that we can use the social connections of theInternet to greatly expand the opportunities for professional educators tolearn together, learn on their own time, at their own pace. It's"personalizing learning" for educators.  

We spend $2.5 billion a year forprofessional development through federal programs and we want to see innovationand improvement in that space. Using technology–digital content, MOOCs andsocial networks for example--is one of the ways we can expand and improve theopportunity to learn for professional educators.

A third important area is the work thatwe're doing to expand the "evidence" framework. People want to dothings that have evidence behind them. We're just beginning to learn how to usemore and better data, to continuously improve technology-based solutions. We'reincredibly interested in new research on big data, strategies for data miningand advancing learning analytics. 

And a fourth area is oureducation data initiative. There are multiple parts--making sure the datawe have within the Department of Education is more publicly available, orthat others have appropriate access. And the "MyData"initiative has to do with promoting strategies that give people access to theirown data.

Q: Are people worried about implementingthe Common Core? I hear concerns, suchas in Kentucky, that students will wind up with "lower" scores.

There may be some concerns that thescores will come out lower--but that's information that people need to have.It's better to have accurate scores about evaluating skills people really careabout than higher scores of skills that aren't really helping students preparefor college or a career. So there's a relevance issue.

Q: Looking back over the first term at theDept. of Education, what are you proud of?

Across the department various peopleare proud of different things. People are extremely proud that we've increasedthe Pell grants, which support more students going to college. The fact that moststates have adopted higher level college and career ready standards--that'ssomething people are very, very proud of. The increased conversation and publicunderstanding about education reform, and how we get more students over ahigher bar, has been an accomplishment of the administration. The focus oninnovation and on coming up with new ideas to solve complex problems--that'salso been a focus. Personalized learning has been important.

Supported by the National Education TechnologyPlan, we've advanced the articulation of what it means to be 21stcentury learner, and what the role of technology is in supporting learning andteaching. The plan served us well in the first term and will continue to guidethe work going forward.

One overarching goal of the first fouryears has been to move the Department of Education from focusing on complianceto being an engine of innovation, recognizing there are various means togetting to high goals and that continuous improvement is key.

Q: What does that mean--to changefrom 'compliance' focused to innovation focused?  

We want to be clear about what thegoals are--but more open to a variety of strategies for getting there. It's adifferent kind of interaction with grantees.

In RTTT for example, every RTTT statedoesn't have the same plan. So rather than having a grant program that says 'Here'swhat you're must to do and how to do it,' we try to establish goals but not themeans. We're tight on goals, loose on means. It means more flexibility on howstrategies play out. When you're undertaking big changes, you need flexibility.We're aiming for continuous improvement and continuous thinking about how toimprove.

Q: And how about communicating that to therest of the country? How important is it? How do you do it?

It's extremely important. Clear communicationsand transparency. This is something that has been a hallmark of theadministration, pushing for open government, and increased transparency.

And, this communication isn’t just aone way--from government to the people. It is also importantly aboutparticipation. The distribution power of the Internet, along with newpublishing paradigms, and social media and interactions and the use of video, have all advanced greatly in the last four years. All this helps people sharetheir ideas, build on other’s ideas, solve problems together and extendunderstanding. And, communities that publish like Edutopia, the TeachingChannel, YouTubeEDU, EdSurge and the work of numerous other organizations will extendthe ability for us to actually see and share the tremendous progress going on inpockets across the country.

Q: Sec. Arne Duncan has said he'sstaying for a second term. How about the rest of the team?

There will be some transitions. Somepeople will leave. But, there's an incredible commitment to continuity, tomaking sure that as jobs are vacated that there's another person ready to takeit on. We should see continuity in the work and programs. Eight years is a longtime for people to serve in a government position.  

Q: And what about you? Will you be staying fora second term in Washington?

I am planning on transitioning back toCalifornia. I'll do so in a manner that will provide as much continuity aspossible for my office. It has been a phenomenal experience. I've been inWashington for over three years and my home and family is in California. Idon't have plans on what I’ll do next but I'm excited to continue the work froma different vantage point. I don't have a time frame yet.

Karen Cator on Department of Education's Next Course

By Betsy Corcoran     Nov 14, 2012

Karen Cator on Department of Education's Next Course

Last week, EdSurge invited Karen Cator, director ofeducation technology for the U.S. Department of Education, toshare her post-election thoughts with EdSurge readers here--and she'sbeen responding to those comments. This week, EdSurge's Betsy Corcoran putadditional questions to Cator, who joined the Obama administration in November2009. One revelation: Cator says she plans to leave the administration early inthe new year, once her replacement is squarely in place. Here are the details.

EdSurge: What will be the Department ofEducation's priorities during the second term of the Obama administration?You're not likely to have the kind of funding you had during the first term,right?

Cator: The way the Department of Education's budget works is that itis included in the President’s budget, which gets proposed to Congress. Ourcurrent proposal still includes Race To The Top (RTTT) money -- not thebillions in the Recovery Act, but money to continue our priority projects, RTTTand i3 for example. We're still committed to advancing reforms.

Last week, the proposals were submittedfor RTTT district program. It will be interesting to see what came in and whatthe process bubbles to the top. RTTT District focuses on personalizing learning.We're hoping to fund 15 to 20 exemplary projects around the country that we canall watch and learn from--and see how schools and districts leverage data andtechnology and provide a personalized learning environment for students.

We're know that in 2014, the newassessments associated with the Common Core will be designed to be conductedonline. But one important concern is the infrastructure required for thoseassessments.

We don't exactly know whatinfrastructure will be required or even what infrastructure is already in place.PARCC and Smarter Balanced  [the two consortia doing the design workon the assessments] are researching what's needed and what’s in place. It's acomplex issue but we need more data and more transparency. We're interested inthe work of EducationSuperhighway, which is conducting speed tests with schools and providingthe data back to them. Their test will provide better data and give everyonebetter sense of what's in place and where there are gaps.

Q: Is there a mismatch? I've heard thatthe Education Superhighway test is surprising some schools --suggesting thatthey have less bandwidth than they thought.

It's giving people information thatthey didn't have otherwise. Maybe a school had an old filter put in place yearsago. In some cases, schools are finding issues with their networks that theydidn't know existed.

Q: What role will the federalgovernment play in supporting this evolving infrastructure?   

We're thinking about it. We're thinkingabout the role of the federal government and how all resources can beleveraged, whether those resources are from the federal, state or local level.We're looking at the cost efficiencies: can we incentivize buying consortia, orsupport research and development. Building broadband infrastructure alsoinvolves agencies across the federal government. The Departments of Commerceand Agriculture and the Federal Communications Commission all have a role. Infact, there are many projects still being built with Recovery money--billionsof dollars that included building both the middle mile and last mile ofbroadband infrastructure.

Q: You talk about cornerstone effortsat the Department. What do you see as the cornerstone technology projects goingforward?

The LearningRegistry project is one example. It's focused on helping people find, useand reuse content and resources and making sure the associated data iscontinually improved.

Another is the Connected Educator project: This isfocused on improving research and understanding about teachers and leaderslearning together online--that we can use the social connections of theInternet to greatly expand the opportunities for professional educators tolearn together, learn on their own time, at their own pace. It's"personalizing learning" for educators.  

We spend $2.5 billion a year forprofessional development through federal programs and we want to see innovationand improvement in that space. Using technology–digital content, MOOCs andsocial networks for example--is one of the ways we can expand and improve theopportunity to learn for professional educators.

A third important area is the work thatwe're doing to expand the "evidence" framework. People want to dothings that have evidence behind them. We're just beginning to learn how to usemore and better data, to continuously improve technology-based solutions. We'reincredibly interested in new research on big data, strategies for data miningand advancing learning analytics. 

And a fourth area is oureducation data initiative. There are multiple parts--making sure the datawe have within the Department of Education is more publicly available, orthat others have appropriate access. And the "MyData"initiative has to do with promoting strategies that give people access to theirown data.

Q: Are people worried about implementingthe Common Core? I hear concerns, suchas in Kentucky, that students will wind up with "lower" scores.

There may be some concerns that thescores will come out lower--but that's information that people need to have.It's better to have accurate scores about evaluating skills people really careabout than higher scores of skills that aren't really helping students preparefor college or a career. So there's a relevance issue.

Q: Looking back over the first term at theDept. of Education, what are you proud of?

Across the department various peopleare proud of different things. People are extremely proud that we've increasedthe Pell grants, which support more students going to college. The fact that moststates have adopted higher level college and career ready standards--that'ssomething people are very, very proud of. The increased conversation and publicunderstanding about education reform, and how we get more students over ahigher bar, has been an accomplishment of the administration. The focus oninnovation and on coming up with new ideas to solve complex problems--that'salso been a focus. Personalized learning has been important.

Supported by the National Education TechnologyPlan, we've advanced the articulation of what it means to be 21stcentury learner, and what the role of technology is in supporting learning andteaching. The plan served us well in the first term and will continue to guidethe work going forward.

One overarching goal of the first fouryears has been to move the Department of Education from focusing on complianceto being an engine of innovation, recognizing there are various means togetting to high goals and that continuous improvement is key.

Q: What does that mean--to changefrom 'compliance' focused to innovation focused?  

We want to be clear about what thegoals are--but more open to a variety of strategies for getting there. It's adifferent kind of interaction with grantees.

In RTTT for example, every RTTT statedoesn't have the same plan. So rather than having a grant program that says 'Here'swhat you're must to do and how to do it,' we try to establish goals but not themeans. We're tight on goals, loose on means. It means more flexibility on howstrategies play out. When you're undertaking big changes, you need flexibility.We're aiming for continuous improvement and continuous thinking about how toimprove.

Q: And how about communicating that to therest of the country? How important is it? How do you do it?

It's extremely important. Clear communicationsand transparency. This is something that has been a hallmark of theadministration, pushing for open government, and increased transparency.

And, this communication isn’t just aone way--from government to the people. It is also importantly aboutparticipation. The distribution power of the Internet, along with newpublishing paradigms, and social media and interactions and the use of video, have all advanced greatly in the last four years. All this helps people sharetheir ideas, build on other’s ideas, solve problems together and extendunderstanding. And, communities that publish like Edutopia, the TeachingChannel, YouTubeEDU, EdSurge and the work of numerous other organizations will extendthe ability for us to actually see and share the tremendous progress going on inpockets across the country.

Q: Sec. Arne Duncan has said he'sstaying for a second term. How about the rest of the team?

There will be some transitions. Somepeople will leave. But, there's an incredible commitment to continuity, tomaking sure that as jobs are vacated that there's another person ready to takeit on. We should see continuity in the work and programs. Eight years is a longtime for people to serve in a government position.  

Q: And what about you? Will you be staying fora second term in Washington?

I am planning on transitioning back toCalifornia. I'll do so in a manner that will provide as much continuity aspossible for my office. It has been a phenomenal experience. I've been inWashington for over three years and my home and family is in California. Idon't have plans on what I’ll do next but I'm excited to continue the work froma different vantage point. I don't have a time frame yet.

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