Technological Literacy: A National Priority
Archived Information

Our country was built on a simple value that we have an obligation to pass better lives and better opportunities on to the next generation. Education is the way we make that promise real. Today, at the dawn of a new century, in the middle of an information and communications revolution, education depends upon computers. If we make an opportunity to every student, a fact in the world of modems and megabytes, we can go a long way toward making the American Dream a reality for every student. Not virtual reality -- reality for every student.

-- President Clinton


The march of human progress has been marked by milestones in science and technology. Gutenberg's creation of moveable type in the 15th century laid the foundation for universal literacy. Watts's invention of the steam engine in the 18th century launched the Industrial Revolution. The inventiveness of Bell and Marconi in the 19th and 20th centuries--creating the telephone and radio--helped bring a global village into being.

The United States and the world are now in the midst of an economic and social revolution every bit as sweeping as any that has gone before: computers and information technologies are transforming nearly every aspect of American life. They are changing the way Americans work and play, increasing productivity, and creating entirely new ways of doing things. Every major U.S. industry has begun to rely heavily on computers and telecommunications to do its work.

But so far, America's schools have been an exception to this information revolution.* Computers and information technologies are not part of the way most American students learn. Today's students spend an average of only a few minutes a day using computers for learning. Only 4 percent of schools have a computer for every five students--a ratio sufficient to allow regular use.1 Only 9 percent of classrooms have connections to the Internet.2

If classes aren't offered on how to use computers and technology to build skills and get jobs, it is a disgrace. Think of the future and all the skills our children will need.

-- Parent, Southeast Regional Forum

The Technology Literacy Challenge

As the nation responds to this technological revolution, it also faces a major educational challenge. Our economy is characterized by rapidly changing technologies and increasing international economic competition. And, our society is complex, diverse, and mobile. Success as a nation will depend substantially on our students' ability to acquire the skills and knowledge necessary for high-technology work and informed citizenship.

We know that all students can achieve far more than they have been asked to in the past. The experiences of researchers, teachers, and students make that point clear. This is why there is strong interest among states and communities around the nation in setting new, high standards for what students should know and be able to do in the core academic subjects. In Delaware, for example, parents now know that their children will have to master an understanding of DNA in 12th-grade science. Similarly, in Colorado, parents of 4th graders now have a clear idea of what their children are expected to be able to read.

Nonetheless, evidence from research and the experience of leading-edge schools shows that without the opportunities afforded by technology our children's future is jeopardized. Properly used, technology increases students' learning opportunities, motivation, and achievement; it helps students to acquire skills that are rapidly becoming essential in the workplace; and it breaks the barriers of time and place, enabling students in any community, no matter how remote or impoverished, to have access to high-quality instruction.

The American people understand these realities clearly and have embraced technological literacy as the "new basic" for today's world, along with reading, writing, and arithmetic. Technological literacy is not just knowing how to use technology for word processing, spreadsheets, and Internet access. Fundamentally, it is using the powerful learning opportunities afforded by technology to increase learning in academic subjects and increase students' skills. Recognizing the importance of technological literacy, 80 percent of Americans feel teaching computer skills is "absolutely essential."3 More than three-quarters have encouraged a child to use a computer, and 86 percent believe that a computer is the most beneficial and effective product they could buy to expand their children's opportunities.4

The Technology Goals

The president believes we must help America's learners be prepared to meet the challenges of the 21st century. In his State of the Union address in January 1996, he challenged the nation, saying "every classroom in America must be connected to the information superhighway with computers and good software and well-trained teachers."

To bring this about, he has set four goals for technology in schools designed to lead to technological literacy for students, based on what educators, business leaders, parents, and many others have identified as key priorities:

  • All teachers in the nation will have the training and support they need to help students learn using computers and the information superhighway;

  • All teachers and students will have modern multimedia computers in their classrooms;

  • Every classroom will be connected to the information superhighway; and

  • Effective software and on-line learning resources will be an integral part of every school's curriculum.
Achieving each of these goals, discussed in more detail later, will be essential to the future technological literacy of our nation's young people. Indeed, without trained and experienced teachers, we know that computer equipment sits idle in classrooms, unused. We know that without connections to the Internet, students cannot access on-line resources such as those provided by the Library of Congress. And we know that without high-quality software and well-trained teachers, computers alone do not help students meet challenging academic standards. Twenty-first-century schools will combine these elements to ensure that America's children meet the future with a wealth of opportunities.

Students who graduate in the next few years will go to work in businesses that use the global communications system. If they don't know how to use it, they will be at a severe disadvantage.

-- Assistant Superintendent, Rancho Cordova, CA5

An Investment in the Future

A newly wired nation with powerful digital capabilities has arrived with startling speed. Just two generations ago, computers were physically imposing but had modest capabilities. They often took up entire rooms and cost a small fortune. In the single decade of the 1980s, millions of personal computers made their appearance on desks and laps everywhere--in factories, offices, homes, universities, airplanes, and schools--accompanied by the facsimile machine and the mobile telephone. In fact, today's average personal computer is faster and more powerful than the room-sized computers of the 1970s. At the same time, a national information infrastructure capable of fully supporting this wired nation is being put into place.

While the challenge to keep up with such change may seem daunting, now is the time to invest in the future of America's students. First, a growing body of research shows that use of technology in the classroom can increase student achievement significantly. Second, four decades of federal and private sector research and development have led to breakthroughs in hardware, network technology, and educational software design that make high-performance technology more accessible and affordable than ever before. And finally, those leading-edge communities that are now making massive investments in technology, infrastructure, software, and training for teachers are beginning to reap dramatic results, demonstrating the promise of bringing technology to all the nation's classrooms.

A concerted national effort will be required to meet this technology literacy challenge--an effort that will demand the determination and persistence of the entire nation. It is an enormous undertaking. As a part of its contribution, the Clinton administration has proposed to establish the Technology Literacy Challenge Fund, which would offer $2 billion over five years to help catalyze commitments from state governments, private companies, and community leaders. It has supported, and Congress has enacted, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which makes it possible for schools and libraries to have affordable access to advanced telecommunications services. And it has championed on-going federal investments in key activities such as distance learning, use of technology in math and science education, and research and development of new, effective educational technology.

Can schools afford the investment? The real question is, can they afford not to make the investment?

--District Superintendent, Northwest Regional Forum

While the federal government has important contributions to make in its leadership role, it is state governments and local communities that have the most to contribute and the most at stake. Consequently, this report does not lay out a single, prescriptive course of action. Rather, the report provides a national strategic framework that outlines the limited but important federal role as well as ideas for how states and local communities can develop their own plans to use technology to increase student achievement.

This national technology plan focuses on how schools, communities, and states can apply today's sophisticated information technology to raise student achievement, with the aim of attaining new standards of educational excellence set by states and local communities. The remaining chapters of this plan discuss in more detail what Americans need to know to go forward with a clear understanding of the Technology Literacy Challenge: the promise of technology, how far we have to go to meet the technology goals, what investments are needed, and how we all can get involved.

Information about how this plan was developed can be found in Appendix A.


Christopher Columbus Middle School
Union City, N.J.

Technology in Support of Reform

By the late 1980s, the Union City school district was on the verge of being taken over by the state. This densely populated, poor, urban school district with 60,000 residents packed within one square mile had difficulty meeting New Jersey state education goals. Student attendance and scores on standardized tests were below state averages, while dropout and transfer rates were far above the state norm.

All that began to change in the 1989-90 school year. A new district superintendent and a new executive director for academic programs were appointed, and, because of the district's poor academic track record, the state required Union City to develop a five-year restructuring plan.

At the same time district reforms were taking place, the school district extended feelers to business and industry in New Jersey, hoping to convince those communities to invest resources in the schools. Bell Atlantic--looking to test a communications system in an inner city, minority school district with a dense population--spotted the district's call for investment and decided that Union City was a match. The school district was renovating an old parochial school, Christopher Columbus, that it had recently purchased to house 7th- and 8th-graders from two elementary schools that were overcrowded. In 1992, Bell Atlantic approached the school district and offered to work with them to demonstrate how technology could be used to improve student performance. It was an offer the district could not refuse.

In the summer of 1993, Bell Atlantic installed in the school and homes of all 7th grade students and their teachers 486-level computers equipped with graphics and voice capabilities. Users can communicate between school and home and have basic software tools to carry out curriculum activities. Students and teachers are encouraged to keep the computers over the summer, and the computers supplied by Bell Atlantic now supplement the ones already purchased by the school district. In addition to each classroom having several computers, there are computers in the media resource room, the science laboratory, and the computer laboratory--all areas to which students have access--and the teachers' room, too.

The results of these reforms have been impressive. On New Jersey's Early Warning Test, test scores for Christopher Columbus students in reading, math, and writing are now more than 10 points above the statewide average across the board. Christopher Columbus also holds the district's best attendance record for both students and faculty. The transfer rate has dropped significantly at Christopher Columbus. Parents who could not speak English just two years ago are now actively involved with their children's use of the computers at home and frequently send messages to teachers and the school principal. Students are using the media resource room during lunch time and after school. They're actually eager to hand in their homework, neatly typed on the computer. And they're lining up before the formal school day begins so that they can get into the building.

* This report focuses on the uses of technology in elementary and secondary education in order to improve student achievement. It does not address the very important, but distinct, issues of technology use in adult literacy, job training, and higher education. The Department intends to do further work in these areas in the future.
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Last Modified: 08/23/2003