When Microsoft co-founder and billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates spoke this spring to a packed ballroom of school leaders, education technology entrepreneurs and investors, he issued a startling assessment, given the audience: Ed tech has not moved the needle on student academic outcomes.
“Although there are examples of classrooms and software packages doing a good job today, we really haven’t changed the outcomes,” he said at an ed tech summit in San Diego in April.
Gates’ statement was an admission that the billions spent on educational technology in recent years have done little to close the achievement gap between wealthier, mostly white students and lower-income students of color.
But, school district leaders nationwide continue to roll out more technology, in the hope, shared by Gates, that the tech revolution will bear fruit. Hundreds of start-up companies have cropped up in major cities, including many in Chicago, to create, test and sell software and other products in a market that by some estimates is worth $8 billion.
In Chicago, district officials say that schools spend some $27 million a year on ed tech products. That figure is an underestimate because it doesn’t take into account the outside, private dollars that supplement school-level purchases.
Adaptive technology that’s popular in personalized learning programs can make it easier to teach students who are in the same grade but at radically different academic levels.
Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool calls personalized learning “the future of education” and plans to offer incentives to schools to adopt the approach next year, though it’s unclear what those incentives will be given the district’s fiscal woes.
But there are questions about how much stock schools should put into expensive software and products that are largely unproven in terms of academic benefit. Skeptics also worry about the influence of local and national nonprofits and wealthy individuals who support the trend, many of whom made their fortunes in technology ventures and are involved in the increasingly controversial charter movement.
Carol Caref, a researcher with the Chicago Teachers Union, worries that the encroachment of more technology into classrooms will come at the expense of teachers and aides. “We’re not [against] technology,” Caref says. “But I am concerned about the direction education is going and the impact this has on the development of students as people.”
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Chicago’s experience so far bears out at least some of this skepticism.
A Catalyst Chicago analysis of a CPS spending database shows that nearly every district-run school bought some type of ed tech product in the 2014-2015 school year, spending an average of $30 per student — up from $19 four years earlier. Some 284 companies sold products to CPS, mostly to individual schools. Elementary schools tended to spend more than high schools.
Yet there is no clear connection between spending and achievement. And many schools sink money into costly products one year, only to discard them the next.
Bogan Computer Technical High School, for example, spent $53,000 in the 2014-15 school year, but then slashed ed tech purchases after staff realized they went overboard.
“I could see where it’s tempting to say ‘Oh, this program will solve my [achievement] problem’ but it won’t,” Principal Alahrie Aziz-Sims says. “I can say most of the [instruction] that I see that’s high-quality from teachers in classrooms has nothing to do with a program.”
Researchers and those who promote education technology echo her sentiment, saying that the products are tools that are only as good as the teachers who use them.
“Technology alone doesn’t solve this,” Gates said at the April summit. “It’s a combination of great teachers using the technology in the right way.”
Dilara Sayeed, chief education officer for the Golden Apple Foundation, wrote her 2015 doctoral dissertation at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education on ed tech in CPS. She says principals are inundated with sales pitches and struggle to figure out whether any one product would be useful for students.
Sayeed found that companies with the most aggressive sales teams got the most business.
“Their products could have been great. But in terms of how many schools a company was in, it came down to how much money you had for salespeople and business, or how excited one teacher was about a product demo and their level of influence with the principal,” she says.
Since few companies publish list prices for their products, price-gouging is a risk. To avoid this, principals often spend extra time calling up colleagues to compare prices.
“I worry about the person doing the purchasing who does feel bad about questioning a line item to do a roster sync for $500,” says Marcos Alcozer, director of technology at Intrinsic Schools’ campus on the Northwest Side. Alcozer says he’s written similar coding language to merge student rosters in 30 minutes.
“So $500, or essentially $1,000 an hour for an engineer, is ridiculous,” he says. “But it’s very unlikely that people know that stuff.”
In fact, price-gouging has become a national concern. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is now funding a group to help districts share information about technology prices. Its first target, ironically, is a product made by Microsoft’s chief competitor: the Apple iPad.
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Unlike some other districts, principals in Chicago have autonomy over what technology they purchase. But to help them make better selections, CPS is researching whether there are any correlations between popular ed tech products and higher achievement for students. But there’s no timeline for when this research will be finished.
Meanwhile, schools have only a “preferred vendors list” covering products that meet certain technical standards (for security, student privacy and internet bandwidth requirements), but without any standard for academic quality. Other efforts, including an interactive catalog where principals and teachers could write and share reviews of products, have stalled in the wake of administrative turnover.
Shawn Jackson, CPS chief officer of leadership and learning, says that “there’s a sense of urgency, but we need to do this right. When you start putting it out there as best practice you have to make sure you’ve done your due diligence.”
In the vacuum of CPS guidance, the nonprofit LEAP Innovations has emerged as a go-to source for information and training on personalized learning — and money to pay for it.
“They were able to offer something that the district couldn’t offer — a space to do this research and development,” says CPS Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson.
Phyllis Lockett, a well-known figure in Chicago’s education reform community, started LEAP in 2013 and recruited high-profile financial and corporate executives for its founding board, including then-BMO Harris Bank President and CEO Mark Furlong, who would go on to become a School Board member.
Lockett previously headed the pro-charter group New Schools for Chicago, once known as the Renaissance Schools Fund. In a statement, Lockett explained why she launched LEAP: “While there has been important work done by the education reform community, change is not getting to our classrooms and our students quickly enough. What we’re proposing isn’t simply a new program — it’s to transform the education model, from one-size-fits-all to personalized paths for each and every student.”
LEAP is based in 1871, a tech incubator at Merchandise Mart that’s also home to several ed tech startups and some of their investors.
The organization’s most exclusive program gives schools more than $300,000 in “Breakthrough” grants to launch personalized learning schoolwide. The program is the regional version of the Next Generation Learning Challenges, a national initiative with backers that include the Gates, Hewlett, Broad and Michael & Susan Dell foundations, among others. The Chicago Public Education Fund also supports LEAP.
“Breakthrough has opened our eyes to innovative approaches to teaching and learning,” said Lovett Elementary Principal LeViis Haney during a May ceremony in which the Austin school was named a grant winner. At Lovett, students in second through fifth grade use a personalized learning model that’s familiar throughout LEAP schools.
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LEAP’s “Pilot Network” is a sort of stepping stone for schools that want use personalized learning and eventually go on to compete for the Breakthrough grant. The program provides teacher training that schools can’t get anywhere else and ed tech proponents says is critical.
To participate in the 18-month Pilot Network, schools must apply and pay $25,000. Lockett says that’s only a third of what it costs to provide the training and other supports, but some principals say that pricetag is still unrealistic given cuts to school budgets.
The companies whose products are part of the pilot program gain a competitive edge with schools, something LEAP touts in its promotional materials: “Last year, 86 percent of Pilot Network school teams adopted their edtech product after pilots ended.” Though Lockett says personalized learning doesn’t require technology, so far, every one of the two dozen or so pilot schools have used it.
In a report released this winter on the first-year results of the Pilot Network, LEAP credited ThinkCERCA and Lexia Reading Core5 — two literacy-focused technology products chosen by schools — with “closing the achievement growth gap” on the NWEA for low-income students by 45 percent. The two products were already growing in popularity, with contracts at 122 schools totaling more than $900,000 last year. And the companies are backed by big investors with deep ties to Chicago’s political elite, who sit on the board of the high-powered Public Education Fund.
Lockett says there’s no potential conflict of interest because the Fund’s donations to LEAP are for its Breakthrough program, not the Pilot Network.
LEAP declined to provide information about products that failed its vetting process, saying “there are many reasons” they don’t make it into the pool offered to pilot schools. “It would be unfair to make those names public and have the public make inferences about why they were not selected,” Lockett says.
The district is now planning to launch its own version of LEAP.
“Our goal is to take what they’re doing and put it on a broader scale,” Jackson says. “Obviously anything we would do, the public would have access to that data.”
Kalyn Belsha contributed to this story.