2016 May Test the Government’s Commitment to Learning Games

Arne Duncan, pictured here, along with the Director of Educational Technology are set to leave the Department of Education at the end of 2015.

Arne Duncan, pictured here, and the Director of Educational Technology are set to leave the Department of Education at the end of 2015.

As 2015 comes to a close there are a series of developments that offered both powerful optimism that the U.S. Department of Education was getting serious about using games in the classroom and some worries that things may be in limbo this coming year. Even as technology plans and new legislation come into effect, the departure of edtech leaders at the Department and the approaching election could spell real uncertainty about the federal government’s plans.

First, the good news.

In one of the politically most unexpected bits of news out of Washington, Republicans and Democrats worked together and with the White House to pass a major overhaul of the federal education law in December 2015. The bill, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act, generally gave more control over policy decisions to the local school district and de-emphasized standardized testing.

In signing the law in mid-December, the president hailed the new education plan as a bipartisan achievement that would scale back the era of testing that had marked its predecessor, No Child Left Behind. But even as he declared the new law “an early Christmas present,” Obama also noted that some of the hard work was only just beginning.

“Laws are only as good as the implementation,” President Obama said. “And that means that we’re going to have to be engaging with the schools and communities all across the country, educators, school leaders, families, students, elected officials, community leaders, philanthropies — all to make the promise of this law reality.”

And this is where the bipartisan nature of the law will really be tested and where changes in the senior team at the Department of Education may become more of a factor.

Right now, school districts are hailing the easing of federal reporting requirements under the new law. A quick survey of public comments find state and local school officials offering supportive words for the new policy. One Michigan superintendent, Tom TenBrink, told MLive.com, “In addition to a standardized test score, factors such as student engagement, teacher engagement, and student success in advance work are now part of the overall picture of measuring the effectiveness of educational institutions. I believe that the Every Student Succeeds Act will significantly help to improve K-12 education all across America because of the autonomy and flexibility that is being returned to local control.”

But much of this early optimism is dependent on efficient and effective implementation of the new law. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said last week, “We know there’s a lot to be figured out as the nation moves to implement this new law, and we will continue to provide support and guidance throughout the transition.”

Except “We” will not be Duncan nor the director of Education Technology Richard Culatta. Both are set to leave their positions at the end of the month.

While Duncan’s departure is a setback for game advocates, Culatta’s could be a real blow. Culatta has pushed, often, it seemed, single-handed, to encourage game developers to dive into the edtech space. He toured the country this past year meeting with teams, he told us, to get them to apply “the elements of game design – the things that we have learned make the experience engaging and interesting for students – to some of these challenges that have been unaddressed for too long in education.”

Culatta announced early this month that he would head back to Rhode Island to help with the connection of technology and learning at the state level. As he departed, though, his team also published a critical document, the 2016 National Education Technology Plan.

The plan makes special mention of the increasing use of digital games in the classroom, noting these games, “give students the experience of working together on a project without leaving their classrooms. Students are involved actively in a situation that feels urgent and must decide what to measure and how to analyze data in order to solve a challenging problem.”

But it goes even further, encouraging the Department of Education to focus on how games could be used to better assess student learning within the classroom. Its section on Assessment concludes that, “Although some of this research is in its early stages, the way forward will require close collaboration among organizations—such as GlassLab, Games for Change, and iCivics; colleges, universities, informal learning spaces, and schools; philanthropic organizations; and research institutions—that have a deep understanding of how game mechanics increase learner motivation. This collaboration can increase the likelihood of effective and engaging experiences being built to support learning.”

The big question, though, is: will this focus on games and other digital tools continue in the new year? With both Duncan and Culatta gone and with many other senior people at the Department of Education waiting out to see if they will have a job after next fall’s election, the question of how much these recommendations will happen and to what degree the implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act will see a further move to embrace digital games and learning tools remains a real uncertainty.

The team Culatta leaves behind has pledged to continue the work, but 2016 could be a year somewhat lost to federal politics unless Culatta’s replacement can continue to move developers and the government closer together.

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Lee Banville Lee Banville is editor of Gamesandlearning.org and editorial director of the Games and Learning Publishing Council. He is also an Associate Professor of Journalism at The University of Montana. For 13 years he ran the online and digital operations of the PBS NewsHour, overseeing coverage of domestic and international stories.