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Schools ‘Can’t Sit Out’ AI, Top U.S. Education Department Official Argues

School districts that choose not to engage with artificial intelligence will leave their students unprepared for a future in which the technology is expected to dominate, a key U.S. Department of Education official said at a Nov. 14 event in Washington about AI.

“I’ve had conversations with some educators who have said, ‘Well, I don’t quite know what to make of AI. I’m not well prepared to really address it. So I’m gonna sit this one out, and we’ll see what comes next.’ And this is not one of those that you sit out,” said Roberto Rodríguez, the assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development at the Education Department during the event on AI in schools held at the American Enterprise Institute, a free-market think tank. “Your kids aren’t sitting [it] out. Their lives aren’t sitting [it] out. And, in fact, you’re going to disadvantage [students] and create greater inequities by trying to sit AI out.”

At the same time, he said, there need to be privacy safeguards when using any kind of technology in K-12 education, and teachers need to be the key decisionmakers about how AI is used to teach children. What’s more, developers creating learning tools that rely on AI need to work with educators to make sure that their products will help students learn.

“When you do that, building on the trust of educators and their lived experiences, you’re going to have a better result, you’re going to get a solution for learning that actually works in classrooms and works for students,” Rodríguez said.

AI has the potential to help teachers tailor instruction for individual students and improve outcomes for populations of students that have been harder for schools to help, Rodríguez said.

“I get excited about how we [can] support new approaches to delivering core content and personalizing that core content,” Rodríguez said. “Let’s think about what AI could bring to the challenge around accelerating English/language arts or math instruction, or science. Let’s think about what AI could bring to supporting more individualized and personalized learning experiences, what it could bring to students who are planning for their next career and for their college pathway.”

‘Not looking for a perfect policy prescription’

School district officials are eager for policy guidance around how to protect student privacy with AI tools, deal with the possibility of students using the technology to cheat, and a host of other challenges. The federal government plans to step up to the plate to help, but it may take some time. A sweeping White House executive order on AI released Oct. 30 calls on the department to develop AI policies and guidance within a year.

In crafting those resources, the department is “not looking for the perfect policy prescription that is a one size fits all for everybody,” Rodríguez said.

Instead, officials should ask: “What structures do we want to see to help support the responsible use of AI in education? … I think one of the most important pieces is: How do we think about building the capacity and exposure of our educators around how AI can be of use?”

Last May, the Education Department released a report on AI that called for keeping “humans in the loop” when using the technology to help with tasks like creating lesson plans, tutoring students, or making recommendations about how to help individual students grasp a concept.

Rodríguez elaborated on that principle at the AEI event. AI tools “need to have an expectation that human judgment and teacher judgment be part of the process of learning,” he said.

Meanwhile, the federal government needs to ensure its laws keep pace with developments in technology, Rodríguez said, in response to a question about the main law governing student privacy, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA. FERPA was signed into law in 1974, almost 50 years ago and well before the birth of the internet.

Rodríguez agreed that the law needs to be updated to reflect an environment where technology products and services, including those powered by AI, are collecting a mind-boggling quantity of student data. While rewriting FERPA—or creating new federal privacy laws to supplement it—will be up to Congress, the Education Department has already begun conducting listening sessions to inform a rewriting of the regulations, or rules governing the law, Rodríguez said.

“How we utilize data, how we collect that data looks so different than it did back” in the 1970s when the law was passed, Rodríguez said. “Think about the average of 148 tech tools that are being used every year by students or by their teachers, many of those tools gathering student data. We need a more modern policy infrastructure to match the technological infrastructure we’re seeing.”

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