Karen Cator on Department of Education's Next Course

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Karen Cator on Department of Education's Next Course

Cator describes the priorities for the federal government -- and her new direction

By Betsy Corcoran (Columnist)     Nov 14, 2012

Karen Cator on Department of Education's Next Course

Last week, EdSurge invited Karen Cator, director of education technology for the U.S. Department of Education, to share her post-election thoughts with EdSurge readers here--and she's been responding to those comments. This week, EdSurge's Betsy Corcoran put additional questions to Cator, who joined the Obama administration in November 2009. One revelation: Cator says she plans to leave the administration early in the new year, once her replacement is squarely in place. Here are the details.

EdSurge: What will be the Department of Education'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 it is included in the President’s budget, which gets proposed to Congress. Our current proposal still includes Race To The Top (RTTT) money -- not the billions in the Recovery Act, but money to continue our priority projects, RTTT and i3 for example. We're still committed to advancing reforms.

Last week, the proposals were submitted for RTTT district program. It will be interesting to see what came in and what the 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 can all watch and learn from--and see how schools and districts leverage data and technology and provide a personalized learning environment for students.

We're know that in 2014, the new assessments associated with the Common Core will be designed to be conducted online. But one important concern is the infrastructure required for those assessments.

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

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

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

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

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

Q: You talk about cornerstone efforts at the Department. What do you see as the cornerstone technology projects going forward?

The Learning Registry project is one example. It's focused on helping people find, use and reuse content and resources and making sure the associated data is continually improved.

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

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

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

And a fourth area is our education data initiative. There are multiple parts--making sure the data we have within the Department of Education is more publicly available, or that others have appropriate access. And the "MyData" initiative has to do with promoting strategies that give people access to their own data.

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

There may be some concerns that the scores 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 care about than higher scores of skills that aren't really helping students prepare for college or a career. So there's a relevance issue.

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

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

Supported by the National Education Technology Plan, we've advanced the articulation of what it means to be 21st century learner, and what the role of technology is in supporting learning and teaching. The plan served us well in the first term and will continue to guide the work going forward.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, this communication isn’t just a one way--from government to the people. It is also importantly about participation. The distribution power of the Internet, along with new publishing paradigms, and social media and interactions and the use of video, have all advanced greatly in the last four years. All this helps people share their ideas, build on other’s ideas, solve problems together and extend understanding. And, communities that publish like Edutopia, the Teaching Channel, YouTubeEDU, EdSurge and the work of numerous other organizations will extend the ability for us to actually see and share the tremendous progress going on in pockets across the country.

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

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

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

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

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