Find your next job fast at the Jan. 28 Virtual Career Fair. Register now.
Opinion
Ed-Tech Policy Commentary

How Do We Know If Ed Tech Even Works?

By Britt Neuhaus, Philip Oreopoulos & Thomas J. Kane — June 05, 2018 4 min read
34 Comm 1 Neuhaus 600x292 Article Copyright Skip Sterling

In April, the newest National Assessment of Educational Progress scores once again showed minimal progress in U.S. math and reading achievement and a widening achievement gap between our highest and lowest performers. Against this backdrop, educators today are eager for solutions that have long seemed elusive to age-old challenges in education.

Education technology will be part of the solution. Technology today allows teachers to adapt instruction to wide-ranging student needs. Students can use software to receive rapid, specific feedback and work through richer, more realistic problems. Education technology is now ubiquitous in many U.S. classrooms—with annual pre-K-12 spending on software reaching a staggering $8.3 billion, according to a 2015 estimate from the Software and Information Industry Association.

Yet we cannot be blind to the risks. Cash-strapped schools may be tempted to purchase software to keep their most troublesome students occupied, rather than to actually teach them. Today, a majority of products are purchased with no evidence of efficacy. Based on a survey of more than 500 school and district leaders conducted by a 2016 EdTech Efficacy Research Academic Symposium working group, only 11 percent of those responsible for making education-technology adoption decisions demand peer-reviewed research.

Cash-strapped schools may be tempted to purchase software to keep their most troublesome students occupied, rather than to actually teach them."

Too often, there is usually no plan to learn whether the implemented technology is helping or hurting student learning. Our collective failure to learn what is and is not working may be one of the largest barriers to achieving more rapid progress in U.S. education today.

But this problem can be solved. In 1962, the federal government revolutionized medicine by requiring that drugs undergo rigorous testing before they could be marketed and sold. We have made rapid progress in medicine because we have committed ourselves to systematically evaluating the impact of medical treatments, winnowing down to those with a proven impact, and scaling up only interventions that work. Drug developers always think their new treatments work—until they are found to be ineffective or even harmful.

Likewise, education leaders, developers, and philanthropists are convinced their ed-tech products will help. But when they are wrong, it is our children who pay the price. Particularly for vulnerable students, every hour of instructional time counts. If schools invest resources and time into a software that isn’t working, some students may not have a second chance. On the flip side, truly effective programs may languish unnoticed, even if they could help students at a massive scale.

If we are serious about helping students learn, we have an obligation to test educational technology before widespread adoption. But a lack of analytic expertise within school agencies, coupled with the misperception that evaluations are too expensive or take years before results, may make districts wary of evaluation.

This is beginning to change, as leading school districts partner with university-based research centers to conduct rigorous evaluations that capture both timely, short-term outcomes and critical longer-term metrics like graduation rates and college attendance. Over the past 15 years, schools have also built advanced data systems that can drive down costs of data collection and facilitate comparisons between students who are using a specific program with similar students who are not.

Another barrier to ed-tech evaluation has been the classic free-rider problem: Although every school would benefit from knowing whether something works, no single district wants to bear the cost of finding out. Fortunately, a growing number of foundations have taken the lead to try to correct this problem. Among them, the Overdeck Family Foundation (where Britt Neuhaus serves as a program officer), the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are all funding efforts to evaluate what is effective—and what is not.

Finally, there’s a pressing need for cultural change among school district leaders to recognize their obligation to rigorously evaluate the education technologies they are adopting. As gatekeepers of school procurement, district leaders should insist that contractors provide rigorous evidence. Even when presented with evidence, district leaders should build rigorous evaluation and performance targets into any contract before implementing a new product at scale. They should initially pilot the software in a subset of schools, establish a comparison group, and only pay the full contract if the students outperform the comparisons by the promised amount.

If we commit to systematic and rigorous evaluation, we may find that certain technologies can truly help make massive inroads in learning. We already have promising evidence that some programs, when paired with thoughtful implementation and supports, can have powerful impacts. For example, randomized evaluations found that ASSISTments—a virtual math-homework support—significantly improved math scores despite only being used for about 10 minutes several days a week. Students with low prior math achievement benefited the most.

Imagine what we might uncover if we committed to evaluating the impact of every technology that comes through our schools and scaling up the most effective programs to the benefit of all our students.

Follow the Education Week Commentary section on Facebook and Twitter. Sign up to get the latest Education Week Commentaries in your email inbox.
A version of this article appeared in the June 06, 2018 edition of Education Week as Who Decides If Ed Tech Even Works?

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Branding Matters. Learn From the Pros Why and How
Learn directly from the pros why K-12 branding and marketing matters, and how to do it effectively.
Content provided by EdWeek Top School Jobs
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
How to Make Learning More Interactive From Anywhere
Join experts from Samsung and Boxlight to learn how to make learning more interactive from anywhere.
Content provided by Samsung
Teaching Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table With Education Week: How Educators Can Respond to a Post-Truth Era
How do educators break through the noise of disinformation to teach lessons grounded in objective truth? Join to find out.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Special Education Teachers
Lancaster, PA, US
Lancaster Lebanon IU 13
Speech Therapists
Lancaster, PA, US
Lancaster Lebanon IU 13
BASE Program Site Director
Thornton, CO, US
Adams 12 Five Star Schools

Read Next

Ed-Tech Policy New York Banned Facial Recognition in Schools. Will Other States Follow?
New York schools are prohibited from using the widely criticized biometric identifying technology until at least July 2022.
3 min read
Girl looking into smartphone facial recognition
Getty
Ed-Tech Policy Dawn of an Education-Friendly FCC? Chairman Ajit Pai Moving On
The FCC chairman plans to step down from his role at the end of President Donald Trump's term on Jan. 20.
3 min read
Federal Communications Chairman Ajit Pai arrives for an FCC meeting to vote on net neutrality.
Federal Communications Chairman Ajit Pai arrives for an FCC meeting to vote on net neutrality. 
Associated Press
Ed-Tech Policy Many Students Still Lack Home Internet. Here's How Big the Problem Is.
Only 11 percent of school district leaders and principals said all their students have the home internet access they need to fully participate in virtual instruction.
3 min read
Ed-Tech Policy Districts: Here's How to Get Some Help With the E-Rate
Ed tech officials: Confused about the E-Rate? The State Educational Technology Directors Association is on the case.
1 min read