A new investigation has shown that despite the feeding frenzy on federal taxpayer dollars enjoyed by tech companies, students benefited very little from the record-breaking spending on education technology during the COVID-19 pandemic.
When U.S. school systems were grappling with implementing virtual learning amid COVID-19 lockdown measures, they received a massive allotment of $190 billion to do so. The Associated Press recently dove further into the data, looking at the 30 largest school districts in the country and their spending on ed tech.
When looking at the ed tech contracts, the AP found that while many of the contracts between school districts and tech companies were for products helping educators teach students and communicate with parents, the largest sums were spent on those promising to boost student learning.
For example, Clark County schools in Las Vegas inked deals with 12 tech consultants and firms. Their commitments surpassed $70 million in spending over two years, securing services from Achieve3000, Age of Learning, Paper, and Renaissance Learning, among others. All promised to accelerate student learning.
However, a number of the products peddled were rarely touched by students. For instance, looking at Clark County students’ use of ed tech, some services like the Achieve3000 literacy app Smarty Ants, which cost the district $7 million, saw high rates of use while others like the Renaissance math app Freckle, which cost $2 million, did not.
A similar trend was seen nationwide, according to Bart Epstein, founder of the nonprofit EdTech Evidence Exchange.
“Some companies sold hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars in products that they could see were barely ever being used,” Epstein claimed, according to Fox 4 KDFW.
Moreover, a study by the ThinkCERCA literacy program found that Clark County students’ scores showed no change even with the popularity of the literacy app. In fact, as extensively covered by The Dallas Express, the pandemic saw sweeping declines not only in students’ math and reading skills but also led to increases in classroom misbehavior and absenteeism.
Dallas ISD, for instance, a district that has struggled with student achievement outcomes even before the pandemic, only saw 41% of its students score at grade level on their STAAR exams during the 2021-2022 school year. Additionally, almost 20% of its graduating Class of 2022 failed to earn a diploma in four years despite the hard work of the district’s dedicated educators.
Some observers have claimed that part of the failure of ed tech spending was that the funds were dispensed poorly and with no oversight.
“That money went to a wide variety of products and services, but it was not distributed on the basis of merit or equity or evidence,” said Epstein, per Fox 4. “It was distributed almost entirely on the strength of marketing, branding, and relationships.”
“There has never been anything close to a proper accounting of what has been spent on or how it was deployed,” he continued. “You can call it mismanagement, you can call it a lack of oversight, you can call it a crisis. There was a lot of it.”
Overall, a Wild West-type situation was created by the shift to online learning, and advancements in marketing technology made it simpler for these companies to capture the attention of policymakers in school districts.
According to Fox 4, Chris Ryan, an industry insider, noted the aggressive marketing approaches, saying, “It’s probably predatory, but at the same time, schools were looking for solutions, so the doors were open.”
School business manager Lynn Knight of Nekoosa, Wisconsin, echoed this sentiment in a statement to Fox 4, comparing the relentless emails and calls from tech companies peddling products she received during this period to “a vampire smelling blood.”
Nowadays, some experts such as Epstein are calling for more federal oversight to ensure that the ed tech products schools are spending on are actually meeting the mark by showing evidence of their efficacy among students.
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Education Technology researches and develops public policy on ed tech. It recently revealed its EdTech Evidence Toolkit aimed at supporting educational leaders in using evidence to make informed decisions when it comes to ed tech.
The ed tech market is currently reported to be worth $340 billion, with students’ use growing 99% since 2020, according to Exploding Topics. Propelled by anticipated advancements in AI and other technology, the market is expected to see an annual growth of 15%, reaching $605 billion by 2027.