School tech grants should go to schools with a real plan

Over the past decade, the United States has spent upwards of $100 billion on K-12 classroom technology to no discernible effect. The reason is clear: most education technology in use in K-12 classrooms is not integrated into core instruction, and thus offers limited educational value.

This is largely the story with Congressman George Miller’s (D-Calif.) “Transforming Education Through Technology Act of 2013” (TETTA), which aims to improve the use of technology in K-12 schools. The attractively named proposal seeks to make “learning more student-centered [and] ... lower costs and increase efficiency and productivity” for K-12 students. Through a series of competitive grants to states, school districts and schools themselves, the legislation hopes to spur innovation and improve the collection of data.

Education technology certainly has the potential to transform education when it is fully integrated into an instructional model designed to maximize its effectiveness. A good example would be the timely data feedback loops that characterize high-quality blended learning. These data feedback loops allow teachers to digitally differentiate or individualize student learning paths, using real-time and actionable student data via online tools and assessments. Educational technology tools can both deliver content and assess student progress on that content. That data aids teachers, who can then deliver both remediation and enrichment as needed to each pupil.

A primary concern with Miller’s TETTA is that the plan defines a range of allowable uses for the “digital learning” grant dollars far too broadly. Eleven separate categories are defined that encompass everything from “mobile and wireless technologies” to the practice of “hybrid or blended learning.”

This broad definition of allowable use could actually be counterproductive for the growth of blended learning, by allowing schools and districts to acquire computer hardware and software without discernible metrics for outcomes. Schools are already at risk of falling into what Carrie Douglass of the Cities for Entrepreneurship in Education (CEE) Trust calls the “tech-rich trap,” where schools are “transferring traditional practices to a new medium as a paper essay becomes a word document. ... Instead, they need to change their instructional practices.”

Miller’s plan describes substantial research showing that effective data usage improves learning outcomes and drives achievement. When effectively implemented, data-driven strategies help to close the achievement gaps and enhance both the breadth and depth of student learning.

The experience of the nation’s top blended-learning charter schools, like California’s Rocketship or Arizona’s and Indiana’s Carpe Diem, is indicative of the transformational potential of blended learning’s feedback loops. In 2004, prior to the implementation of a blended learning program, only about 45 percent of Carpe Diem’s students scored proficient or advanced on state assessments. After full implementation, Carpe Diem consistently ranks as a top school statewide with well over 90 percent of the student body scoring proficient or advanced in both reading and math on state exams.

Meanwhile, innovative new blended learning models are being implemented around the country, mostly in charter schools but in traditional public schools as well. Newark, New Jersey’s Touchstone Education, Chicago’s Intrinsic Schools, and Los Angeles’s KIPP Empower Academy all represent exciting new blended models, each with an approach that integrates technology into school missions specifically designed to close achievement gaps facing economically disadvantaged and minority students.

In lieu of subsidizing the purchase of more smartboards and iPads, whose instructional benefits are largely undefined, a better plan would provide targeted support for high-quality blended-learning programs. These should be data-driven instructional plans that use technology to collect and analyze student data more quickly and integrate it regularly into instruction. Such a program would improve the quality of teaching, because real-time and actionable data allows teachers to focus on the specific needs of their students in a timely and accurate fashion.

Kennedy is a fellow at the Lexington Institute, a nonprofit think tank in Arlington, Va.

More in Education

Riding the mobile wave back to school

Read more »