Building Capacity for the Effective Use of Technology: New Guidance on Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants (SSAE)

We are making rapid progress across the country in bringing broadband to our nation’s classrooms. Thanks to the many participants in the President’s ConnectED Initiative, 20 million more students have access to broadband at school than just three years ago. It is fair to say that we have vastly increased our technical capacity to enable high-quality digital learning in our schools. However, technology alone has never been enough to address our student’s learning needs. To make full use of these new capabilities, we need to provide educators and leaders with the professional learning opportunities and support they need to transform learning inside and outside of the classroom. Unfortunately, many teachers and leaders say they lack the training that would allow them to use technology more effectively.

Photo by University of the Fraser Valley licensed under CC BY 2.0

Today, the U.S. Department of Education released Non-Regulatory Guidance: Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants. In this guidance, we highlight some of the ways that SSAE funds can be used to meet the following goals for improving the effective use of technology:

  1. Supporting high-quality professional development for educators, school leaders, and administrators to personalize learning and improve academic achievement
  2. Building technological capacity and infrastructure
  3. Carrying out innovative blended learning projects
  4. Providing students in rural, remote and underserved areas with the resources to benefit from high quality digital learning opportunities
  5. Delivering specialized or rigorous academic courses and curricula using technology, including digital learning technologies and assistive technology

While all of these areas are addressed in the guidance in more detail, here we will focus on three overall themes: how funds can be used to build state capacity, build educator capacity, and build infrastructure to support professional learning and to jumpstart blended and personalized learning for students.

Increasing State Capacity

Over the last few years, many states lacked dedicated funding sources for educational technology at the state level, causing them to reluctantly cut back leadership roles focused on helping school districts use technology effectively. Fortunately up to 5% of these SSAE funds may be set aside to support LEA activities and programs designed to meet the purpose of the program, which, depending on state needs, might, include funding state-level positions such as educational technology directors. According to the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA), leaders in these roles can support cross-program collaborations to integrate technology meaningfully, encourage instructional quality and educator effectiveness, promote the effective use of data, ensure equitable opportunities to use technology to develop skills valued in the workplace and society, protect student privacy, encourage interoperability across systems, and provide access to quality instructional resources, devices and robust broadband connectivity. We hope that states will take the critical step of restoring these positions where they have been eliminated and expand state-level capacity where these positions do exist, while remaining mindful of SSAE’s supplement not supplant requirement, which is explained in detail in the SSAE guidance document.

Increasing Educator Capacity

At least 85% of funds for the effective use of technology in SSAE are specifically set aside for professional development for educators, school leaders, and administrators. To take full advantage of the transformative potential of technology to expand access to high-quality resources and expertise, shrink long-standing equity and accessibility gaps, and support teachers in adapting learning experiences to meet the needs of all learners, Congress recognized that the people leading the change in our schools need more training. In fact, in a national survey, 48% of teachers say that lack of training is one of the biggest barriers to incorporating technology into their teaching.¹

To help support leaders’ move toward creating the technical infrastructure and human capacity necessary to fully implement this vision for transformative learning enabled by technology, the U.S. Department of Education partnered with the Alliance for Excellent Education and more than 50 other partner organizations to launch Future Ready in November 2014. Since then, more than 2,400 superintendents across the country have signed the Future Ready District Pledge to transform teaching and learning in their districts. In addition, 22 Future Ready States have committed to developing a statewide program to support district leaders who’ve signed the pledge.

A review of the research literature identifying the characteristics of effective Future Ready leaders found that in addition to collaborative leadership, personalized student learning and a robust infrastructure, successful leaders need to implement personalized professional development for educators. The statute, and the newly issued Department of Education guidance, also emphasizes that professional development should be “sustained, (not stand-alone, one-day, or short term workshops), intensive, collaborative, job-embedded, data driven and classroom-focused.”

Dr. Patricia DeKlotz, Superintendent of Kettle Moraine School District, discusses the district’s use of micro-credentialing for professional learning.

As Future Ready districts have begun to transform teaching and learning through the use of technology, they recognize the critical need for professional development. For example, Kettle Moraine School District in Wisconsin used micro-credentials² to provide opportunities for teachers to engage in rigorous, self-paced, job-embedded professional learning that is aligned to district goals and connected to the daily skills they need in their classrooms. Teachers submit learning plans with measurable benchmarks, accomplish that learning in a manner that best fits their learning needs, apply the learning in their classrooms, submit artifacts, and then receive compensation based on the learning they demonstrated, as well as a micro-credential. After the initial successful pilot with 49 teachers, an additional 151 faculty members elected to earn a micro-credential on personalized learning.

Building on openly licensed resources, the Williamsfield School District leveraged education technology to save families and taxpayers money while providing unique, targeted learning opportunities for each student.

Similarly, another small rural Illinois Future Ready district with approximately 300 students — Williamsfield Community School District — redirected textbook funds to provide personalized professional learning opportunities for teachers, librarians, and administrators to create, curate, share and use digital openly licensed educational resources tailored to meet the needs of their community. Collectively, these activities supported the creation of a cutting edge STEM program that would not have been possible with traditional resources. Participating students continue to win awards at state-level STEM competitions.

Another Future Ready district, Highline Public Schools, located outside of Seattle with over 20,000 students, also recognized the need for professional development when they implemented personalized learning with the goal to create more equitable opportunities for all of their students. Federal funds were used to support a district task force and school-based personalized learning leadership teams that worked together to create personalized, standards-based goals based on learner strengths, needs, language, culture and aspirations. Students and teachers select tools purposefully for learners to explore ideas, develop skills and knowledge, design solutions to problems, and create artifacts that demonstrate learning. Through personalized learning pathways, learners use self-assessment and formative feedback to monitor growth, reflect on their learning and challenge themselves to reach more rigorous goals.

Other Future Ready districts have also provided ongoing opportunities that include access to digital professional learning resources, a collaborative community of practice, and/or in-person or virtual coaching.

SSAE funds may also be used for ongoing professional development on how to implement blended learning and personalized learning projects and to support planning activities. A state or district, for example, may use funds to provide initial professional learning for educators on effective blended learning model instruction, ongoing educator collaborative planning time, and ongoing, job-embedded professional learning opportunities to improve educator practice.

Additionally, funds may be used to support professional learning for STEM. Educators, for example, could participate in virtual, blended, or face-to-face courses and workshops designed to increase their capacity to offer high-quality STEM courses, such as computer science, engineering, game design and/or other STEM-related courses. Opportunities to learn how to embed STEM elements, such as engineering design principles, computational thinking, and app design, within other learning experiences could also be included.

Funds may also be used to provide rural, remote, and underserved areas with resources to take advantage of high-quality digital learning experiences, digital resources, and access to online courses taught by effective educators. Separate from the funds, including online courses, (i.e., up to 15 percent of the funds to be spent for effective use of technology), other technology funds may be used to train educators on how to implement these online courses. Funds could also be used to expand professional learning for educators in rural, remote or underserved areas through the use of virtual coaching models.

For additional examples, review the Future Ready Leaders video series which include virtual site visits that highlight effective professional learning for the effective use of technology to transform teaching and learning.

Building Infrastructure Capacity for Professional Development and for Blended and Personalized Learning

Recognizing the possible need to build technological capacity and infrastructure to support professional development activities and to jumpstart blended and personalized learning where there are readiness shortfalls, up to 15% of the funds to be spent for effective use of technology may be used to purchase technology devices, equipment and software applications. For example, an LEA may purchase a professional development platform that supports virtual or collaborative coaching or provides on-demand training resources. These funds may also be used to purchase or create a system that improves the procurement and evaluation process for identifying educational technology solutions and implementations that match the context of the SEA or LEA. Our office, in collaboration with IES and Mathematica, is developing one such free, openly-licensed platform designed to help district and school leaders make more informed and evidence-based decisions about implemented technology; The Educational Technology Rapid Cycle Evaluation Coach.

It’s important to note that the modernization of the Federal Communications Commission’s E-rate program has significantly increased access to funding for building a robust infrastructure to support learning enabled by technology and that other federal funds authorized under ESSA may be used to purchase technology if the purpose of the technology aligns with and supports the goals of the funds set out in the law.

Howard Winneshiek Community Superintendent John Carver discusses how to bring a rural district to a place of connectivity district-wide.

In our newly released guidance, we remind the public that coordination of Federal program support can help maximize the impact of available resources. For example, a school incorporating digital learning in a Title I schoolwide program might use Title I funds to purchase devices and digital learning resources, Title II funds to help teachers improve instruction through effective blended-learning practices, and Title III funds to provide access to technology specifically for English Learners. Supplemental funds awarded to rural communities through the Small, Rural School Achievement Program (SRSA) and the Rural, Low-income School Program (RLIS) may additionally be used to support technology instruction in schools. More information can be found in our Federal Funding for Technology Dear Colleague Letter.

Needs Assessment

Conducting a needs assessment is an important and required aspect of applying for SSAE funds for districts receiving at least $30K and is recommended for all LEAs. The needs assessment must be comprehensive and examine areas for improvement related to students’ access to well-rounded educational opportunities, learning conditions that cultivate a safe and healthy environment for students, and effective use of technology. Many free Future Ready resources, including the Planning Dashboard and Hub, may be helpful in conducting a needs assessment, designing a comprehensive plan and implementing strategies and other activities to support the effective use of technology.

Current Budget Allocations

In the Every Student Succeeds Act Congress authorized $1.65 billion to be appropriated for the program in fiscal year (FY) 2017 and $1.6 billion for each of FYs 2018 through 2020. Congress has not yet appropriated funds for FY 2017; thus, a final funding level for FY 2017 has not been established.

The SSAE program grant includes funding for activities to support Well Rounded Educational Opportunities and to support Safe and Healthy Students, in addition to the Effective Use of Technology. If an LEA receives more than $30K of SSAE funds, then at least 20% must be allocated to the Safe and Healthy Students content area and at least 20% to Well Rounded Opportunities content area. A district must spend a portion of its SSAE award on the Effective Use of Educational Technology content area and could allocate up to 60% for this area based on the LEA needs assessment. If districts receive less than $30K, the LEA could prioritize the use of funds in schools for only one (or more) of the three content areas in the SSAE program.

2016 National Education Technology Plan

In addition to the newly released guidance, we encourage SEAs and LEAs to review the 2016 National Education Technology Plan: Future Ready Learning: Reimagining the Role of Technology in Education for additional guidance and examples for implementing technology effectively. In this flagship educational technology policy document, we articulate a vision of equity, active use and collaborative leadership to make everywhere, all-the-time learning possible. While acknowledging the continuing need to provide greater equity of access to technology itself, the plan goes further to call upon all involved in American education to ensure equity of access to transformational learning experiences enabled by technology. SSAE funds can be one source of funding to support these activities.

Additional Resources

In the new guidance, we share a number of resources that may be helpful as districts and states conduct needs assessments, prepare their state and district plans and implement federal funds:

Katrina Stevens is the Deputy Director in the Office of Educational Technologyat the U.S. Department of Education.

Joseph South is Director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education.


1 The Gates Foundation’s Technology and Effective Teaching in the U.S. (February 2012)

2 Micro-credentials, often referred to as badges, focus on mastery of a singular competency and are more focused and granular than diplomas, degrees, or certificates. The earning and awarding of micro credentials typically is supported by a technology-based system that enables students and evaluators to be located anywhere and for these activities to take place everywhere and all the time. Micro-credentials also allow for the portability of evidence of mastery. Information about the student’s work that earned a badge can be embedded in the metadata, as can the standards the work reflects and information about the awarder of the badge. As with other data systems, a key goal for the next generation of micro-credentialing platforms is interoperability with other educational information systems. (NETP16).