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On ed tech, we’re asking the wrong question

Instead of examining whether technology is worth schools’ investment, the Times should have focused on two other, more relevant questions: Why are so many districts that invest in technology still failing to see success? And, what are the conditions that best lead to ed-tech success?

Default Lines column, Oct. 2011 edition of eSchool News—Does the use of textbooks lead to better student achievement? Somebody should do the research. Schools nationwide are spending billions of dollars each year on textbooks, with no clear evidence they improve test scores—and stakeholders deserve some answers.

I’m being facetious, of course. Textbooks are simply tools that educators use in their instruction, and few people would suggest that textbooks—by themselves—hold some larger power over whether students learn.

But if we wouldn’t expect this of textbooks, then why should we expect it of educational technology?

In the end, that’s all technology is, too—a resource. In the hands of talented and well-trained teachers, it can facilitate high-quality teaching and learning; when used by average teachers, it most likely will lead to average results. And in either case, it’s not entirely clear whether test scores would rise, anyway—for reasons I’ll discuss later.

Whether technology can lead to better achievement is a question stakeholders have asked now for decades. This question surfaced yet again in a Sept. 3 front-page story in the New York Times, which examined whether—in light of “stagnant” test scores in reading and math—the Kyrene School District’s $33 million investment in educational technology over the last five years has been worth it.

In an issue of eSchool News in which two of the most significant news items relate to jobs creation and Jobs loss, it’s this story from the Gray Lady that I’d like to address instead. Honestly, I’m surprised that, more than a decade into the 21st century—and seven years since the launch of Facebook sparked the biggest communications revolution since the invention of the telephone—we’re still having this debate.

Outside of school, students are plugging in and taking charge of their own learning, as the results from Project Tomorrow’s annual Speak Up survey have shown. But when students arrive at school for their formal education, many have to power down and revert to a style of learning that arose when the goal of public education was to prepare them for industrial-era jobs.

Statistics from the U.S. Commerce Department rank education dead last in technology use among 55 sectors of the economy, suggesting that the transformation the rest of society has experienced as a result of technology has left schools largely untouched. That anyone would be OK with the notion that schools haven’t changed much since the days when factory jobs were prevalent speaks volumes about how our society values education and its children.

The Times story says there is very little evidence of technology’s efficacy as a learning tool. That’s not entirely true. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that, when used wisely, technology is a powerful resource that can help boost achievement.

California’s Santa Ana School District, for example, credits a software program called DataDirector—which enables teachers to assess students’ skills, analyze the results, and deliver follow-up support that is customized to each student’s needs—with helping to raise the achievement of its ethnically diverse students. And West Seattle Elementary School special-education teacher Elizabeth Raymond attributes an average 40-point gain in her students’ math scores last year to their use of an adaptive software program called DreamBox Learning.

These are just two of the countless ed-tech success stories we’ve reported in the recent past. Still, the Times story is correct in noting the scarcity of scientifically valid evidence that proves technology’s pedagogical value without a doubt.

One reason there are few such empirical studies is because of the ethical dilemma this poses. (Imagine having your children’s education be the subject of a tightly controlled experiment, in which the teacher gives some students access to technology but not others. You can see how that would be problematic.) Another issue is that it’s hard to control for influences outside of the technology itself. But I would argue that’s the point: You can’t separate the technology from the rest of the learning process, because they are inextricably bound.

Technology can facilitate this learning process; it can open up new avenues for learning; it can provide teachers with useful information about their students, and it can point children to lessons geared toward their particular needs. It can do all of this in ways that are clearly superior to other resources or methods of instruction.

But technology doesn’t exist in a vacuum. For technology to have an impact on student achievement, schools also need sound teaching, strong leadership, fidelity of use, and a supportive culture, among other things.

In other words, technology can’t improve student outcomes by itself. Instead, it’s one of several elements that must work together in harmony, like a complex dance, to elicit results. Should it come as a surprise that test scores haven’t risen markedly in Kyrene, when the Times reported the district has had to cut several teaching positions in recent years? Who knows how much the district has invested in professional development, or tech support?

Give the Times credit for shedding light on the fact that too many districts are struggling even after investing heavily in technology—a reality that some ed-tech supporters don’t like to acknowledge. What’s more, the newspaper’s story should further dispel the myth that technology is a “silver bullet” that can magically overcome the problems plaguing U.S. public education—a narrative that ed-tech companies deserve blame for perpetuating.

But the Times got it wrong with regard to the central question it invited readers to consider. Instead of examining whether technology is worth schools’ investment, the newspaper should have focused on two other, more relevant questions: Why are so many districts that invest in technology still failing to see success? And, what are the conditions that best lead to ed-tech success?

This second question is easier to answer. Last year, an initiative called Project RED did an extensive analysis of the academic performance in school districts that have given laptops or other computing devices to every student. It found that success wasn’t guaranteed—but there were several factors the most successful districts had in common.

Among schools with one-to-one computing programs, 70 percent reported their students’ achievement scores on high-stakes tests were on the rise. But this figure was 85 percent for schools that employed certain strategies for success, including the use of electronic formative assessments on a regular basis, frequent collaboration of teachers in professional learning communities, and—most importantly—strong principal and school district leadership.

To understand why many districts have yet to see improvement, even after investing so much money in technology, consider the size of the hurdles they face. The simple answer is that too many districts haven’t followed this blueprint for success—but there’s more to it than that.

As Kyrene’s example shows, tight school district budgets have become an impediment to sustaining ed-tech initiatives. Funding constraints have been exacerbated by an ever-multiplying series of challenges, such as growing populations of ESL and special-needs students and the creeping effects of poverty on school district operations.

The Times story alluded to a jump in the number of Kyrene students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches, which the district explained as largely a result of the recession. That mirrors a trend happening in school districts nationwide: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of Americans living in poverty last year surged to 46.2 million—the most in at least 50 years—as household incomes fell sharply.

Problems such as poverty have always existed, but what hasn’t is the idea that schools should be responsible for educating every child, regardless of his or her circumstances. As a society, we’ve made this promise as part of No Child Left Behind, but we haven’t backed it up with the funding that is needed to make good on this promise—preferring instead what we think are quick solutions, such as merit pay for teachers … or technology in classrooms.

In his “Learning Leadership” column this month, Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, writes that improving student achievement isn’t a mystery.

“If children and schools are failing, it is not because we lack the knowledge to provide them with the proper education,” he writes. “It is because we refuse to provide them with the resources and the opportunities they need to succeed.”

Just as the Times asked the wrong question about school technology use, Domenech believes we’re asking the wrong question about achievement in general. The real question isn’t how to improve public education, he says—it’s: Do we really want to? And that’s a question we’ve been avoiding as a society, because the answer might require a level of commitment we’re not prepared to make.

For advocates of educational technology, Domenech’s argument is compelling. In the wealthiest country in the world, it would be nice to think that school districts like Kyrene shouldn’t have to choose between technology and teachers. It would be nice to think they could afford both.

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Dennis Pierce

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