Report Questions States’ Return on Ed. Tech. Investment

By Benjamin Herold — June 19, 2013 3 min read
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State education officials have failed to examine whether spending on educational technology is worth the investment, according to a new report from the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank.

After reviewing the policies of 50 different state departments of education by examining information on their websites, “We were deeply surprised to find that no state is looking at technology return on investment, or ROI, given the hundreds of millions of dollars that are currently being spent” on technology, wrote Ulrich Boser of center.

Making matters worse, said Boser, far too many schools are still using computers and other technology to drill students on basic skills. The problem is especially pronounced for poor and minority students, the center found.

“There is little indication that technology has revolutionized our nation’s school system,” Boser concluded, in a report that has drawn widespread media attention.

But the head of the State Educational Technology Directors Association called the center’s critique of ed tech spending “curious,” questioning the report’s methodology and arguing that accurately determining the cost effectiveness of any education spending is a complicated task that state education departments are ill-suited to perform.

“Just checking state websites is probably not the best way” to judge states’ efforts, said Douglas Levin, executive director of the association.

“In tough budget times, people are raising good questions about whether we can meet our goals for less money. I think we need to ask it not just about new investments, but how we’ve been doing business already.”

Levin said education officials have also struggled to determine the cost effectiveness of other big-ticket expenses, such as textbooks and professional development.

The report, titled “Are Schools Getting a Big Enough Bang for Their Education Technology Buck?” was released last week by the center, a liberal think tank.

Boser said states tend to track “basic indicators,” such as whether schools are connected to the Internet and how many computers they have. But he said the center found “no evidence” that states are looking at whether technology purchases are educationally and financially sound—for example, whether it makes more sense to use computers or worksheets to help students practice basic arithmetic.

The report argues that states and districts are plagued by “straightforward waste,” regularly overpaying for technology services and underestimating the true costs of implementing new technology products and initiatives. School leaders are also given too little flexibility over spending decisions, the report contends.

The center’s report recommends “close and careful studies of technology’s return on investment.”
“Clearly, the capability is there,” Boser said.

The report’s other major finding focuses on the actual use of technology in the classroom. The biggest problem highlighted in the center’s analysis, said Boser, is what he called “the new digital divide:" what students do with technology, rather than who has access to it.

The center found that “black students were more than 20 percentage points more likely to use computers for drill and practice than white students.”

Overall, the report argues that too few students from all backgrounds are using technology for problem solving and complex analysis. Only 24 percent of middle school students regularly use spreadsheets in math class, and just 17 percent regularly used statistical programs, the report says.

The findings related to student technology use are based on an analysis of survey information from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.