At the start of the school year, Nicole Guth, a 1st grade teacher in Sidney, Neb., had a student who could only count to 29.
Kindergartners entering 1st grade in her state are expected to be able to count to 100. And by the end of 1st grade, students should be able to count by ones and tens to 120 starting at any given number, according to Nebraska’s College and Career Ready Standards. If the student was going to be able to unlock the grade-level content, “she had a lot of improvements to make, and we had a lot of work to do,” Guth said.
By the end of February, the student could count to 79, “which is tremendous growth for her,” Guth said.
Guth gives thanks, in part, to Zearn, the math learning platform that the Sidney public schools use for K-5 students. The student still receives on-level 1st grade material when she’s in small-group sessions with Guth, but when she’s doing independent work on Zearn, she’s strengthening her understanding of numbers, the teacher said.
“She’s still in a different spot than everybody else in Zearn, but her number sense has just grown so strong,” Guth added.
The most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress scores for students who took the test in spring 2022 showed the biggest drop in math performance among 4th and 8th graders since the testing program began in 1990. In reading, 4th and 8th graders are generally performing on par with students in the 1990s, but about a third of students in both grades can’t read at even the “basic” achievement level—the lowest on the test.
With federal COVID-relief funding, schools purchased tech tools to help students make up for the unfinished learning that happened during the most critical period of the pandemic. Sidney’s use of Zearn is just one example of how districts are applying technology to embrace “acceleration,” or ensuring students can access content for the grade they are in, even if they haven’t mastered every concept from the previous grade.
In addition to Zearn, some other tech-driven accelerated learning products on the market include Amira Learning, which provides reading tutoring, oral reading fluency assessment, and dyslexia risk screening; Great Minds’ Eureka Math, an online math curriculum and learning platform; Amplify CKLA, an online English language arts curriculum; and ReadWorks, which provides differentiated reading instruction.
Are those investments paying off in terms of improved student outcomes?
A majority of teachers (66 percent) say yes, technology has been “somewhat” or “very” effective at helping accelerate student learning, according to an EdWeek Research Center survey of 1,058 educators, including 296 district officials, 284 principals, and 478 teachers conducted between Jan. 26 and Feb. 1.
Tech still falls short for meaningful, effective acceleration
But some education experts say there’s still a lot of work to do for technology tools to truly accelerate learning.
“I’m such an optimist about the role that technology can play in learning, both for students and for teachers,” said Emily Freitag, the co-founder and CEO of Instruction Partners, a nonprofit focused on supporting educators to improve instruction for all students. “I will say it feels like it’s had a spotty run so far.”
That is the case, Freitag said, because the design of the technology sometimes requires “a linear path”: Start at point A and then work your way up in progression to point B through point Z, which “doesn’t reflect what we know about learning.”
While there are digital tools that are pushing the envelope on learning acceleration, there are other ed-tech tools that claim to accelerate learning but aren’t actually aligned with the principles of learning acceleration, said Bailey Cato Czupryk, the senior vice president of learning, impact, and design for TNTP, a nonprofit that consults with districts on teacher training, instructional strategy, and other education issues.
“If the design is: You start on the thing you’re furthest behind on or you start on a thing that’s well below grade level—that’s not connected to the grade-level thing you’re trying to learn—that’s not a platform that’s designed to accelerate learning,” Czupryk said.
A tech tool designed for learning acceleration should give kids access to grade-level content and just-in-time support to master the content, she said.
Plus, there are other experts who are skeptical that technology is necessarily the right tool for schools to invest in to accelerate learning.
Schools should implement more tutoring, said Justin Reich, an associate professor at MIT Teaching Systems Lab and the author of Failure to Disrupt: Why Technology Alone Can’t Transform Education.
Schools also need “generational funding,” instead of emergency funding, because “the harms of the pandemic are going to last the rest of [this generation’s students’] educational careers,” he said. And schools need to invest in “the stuff kids love most about school, so they show up every day—you’re not going to get accelerated learning without kids in the building.”
Students show 2.5 times the growth on their math state assessment scores
Zearn, the math learning platform that Nebraska schools are using, is an example many experts pointed to. A study analyzing the impact of the Nebraska education department’s statewide partnership with Zearn found that elementary and middle school students who consistently used Zearn had 2.5 times the growth in their state assessment scores than students who did not use Zearn.
Traditionally, “we build math systems that are really high stakes, so that when you make a mistake, you’re off the track … never to return to the grade-level instruction that you should definitely be on,” said Shalinee Sharma, the CEO and co-founder of the nonprofit.
Instead, struggle in math should be seen as a positive feature, not a problem, and tech tools should reflect that, she said.
If a 6th grade student is struggling with ratios, “we don’t need to put them two grade levels behind—that’s a hyperbolic and unnecessarily catastrophizing reaction,” Sharma said. The student probably just needs a few more minutes of support or just needs to be shown a different way to solve the problem, and that’s where Zearn’s math platform helps teachers, she added.
In Guth’s 1st grade class at South Elementary, she starts every lesson with a whole-group application problem. Then, the class is divided in half; one-half works with Guth on the content they’re learning that day, and the other half works on their online component on Zearn, where they can access up to two lessons ahead or behind that day’s content.
“I love the idea that kids can work at their level and keep working ahead and I’m not holding them back,” Guth said.
So far, Guth is seeing results: The most recent NWEA Map Growth test results show 100 percent of her students made progress in math, she said.
At the end of the day, the teacher who builds relationships with students and provides grade-level material and tech-enhanced learning acceleration is likely to have the most success, according to researchers and educators.
“Technology should do a lot of the extra work,” said Rick Meyer, the principal of South Elementary in Sidney. It should provide adaptive, on-level, quality practice for students. It should pull reports and data for teachers so they know where each student is struggling and excelling. It should “enhance what [teachers] are doing,” he said.
Encouraging a ‘mindset change’ for teachers
The lack of tech products that are effectively designed for acceleration isn’t the only problem educators are facing. Classroom teachers also lack the preparation and support they need for accelerated learning, TNTP’s Czupryk said.
“The idea of giving kids grade-level content, even if they’re not 1,000 percent ready for it—that’s not how we’ve taught teachers to be teachers,” she said. “We haven’t necessarily, as a system, done a particularly good job making sure teachers have access to [high-quality curriculum material] and the supports they need to use it.”
The gap between what teachers are learning in their preparation programs versus what they have to do in the classroom then needs to be filled in with professional development, according to experts.
Since adopting Zearn as their math curriculum in the 2020-21 school year, South Elementary teachers have had to go through “a mindset change,” Meyer said.
The biggest hurdle, he said, was adopting a more flexible way of thinking about how kids learn, as opposed to a more typical, direct-instruction approach. While Zearn provided adequate professional-development modules, Meyer’s teachers eventually switched to a professional learning community approach, where teachers in the same grade collaborate and discuss what’s working and what’s not.
And Meyer is seeing results: South Elementary’s 2nd graders, for the last two school years, have been in the 99th percentile in growth, according to their MAP Growth test results.
“That’s because we are able to teach our kids where they’re at and then push them with a good solid core,” he said.
Get Up to Speed on Learning Acceleration
A version of this article appeared in the April 05, 2023 edition of Education Week as Schools Bought Tech To Accelerate Learning. Is It Working?