A pragmatic approach to predicting our edtech future.
GUEST COLUMN | by Doug Mesecar
Crystal ball predictions about the upcoming year in education are often compelling cases for bold, lofty ideas, but rarely fully consider public policy or government funding landscape. That is perplexing given that K-12 public education is almost entirely funded by taxpayers and for all practical purposes completely subject to governmental decrees.
It is crucial to look at the availability and flexibility of funding in education budgets, how new accountability and other rules will drive purchasing and procurement, and the focus on product efficacy.
Ultimately, it is imperative that states, districts, and vendors learn from past experience to improve the effectiveness of future products and services, especially edtech.
2017 is looking more positive than many prior years as restrictive funding streams are becoming more flexible; complicated regulations designed for compliance rather than innovation are shifting to a more outcomes-based analysis; and the formerly limited research or awareness of product/service efficacy is improving.
Funding Levels and Rules
Unfortunately, results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress continue to be essentially flat, with only minimal gains in the last 20 years in fourth and eighth grade reading and math, despite a nearly 50 percent increase in total federal, state and local spending over the same period.
It is what is done with education funding that will ultimately produce a more equal and successful educational system. Although the impact of the major federal law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), is still being determined, the changes it will bring to the overall educational system will be significant.
It is unlikely there will be large funding increases next year, yet the law’s new programs and policies provide more flexible funding that can be put to better use. Federal education spending is a small portion of the $600 billion spent annually for K-12, but it has a disproportionate impact on state and local uses of funds.
A significant new federal program is the Student Support and Academic Enrichment block grant that consolidated 50 small, single-issue programs. These new funds are more flexible and can be used for activities supporting well-rounded educational opportunities; safe and healthy students; and the effective use of technology, which can get as much as 60 percent of the funds.
There is also a new, optional program for states and districts called “Direct Student Services.” These competitive grants to struggling districts can be used for credit recovery, AP or college-credit bearing classes, as well as personalized learning. ESSA includes an equivalent to the Investing in Innovation (i3) program, potentially putting significant additional funding into research-oriented innovation.
A number of changes to existing federal expenditure policies will provide increased flexibility to states and districts on how to use federal funds. These changes should alleviate some compliance headaches while allowing for more innovation, creating a “flexibility dividend” for states and districts.
Disruptive Policy Change
In the highly regulated and publicly funded K-12 education system, perhaps the most disruptive innovation is policy change. As the machinery of government creaks into motion with the passage of ESSA, power is shifting from the federal government to states and districts alongside broader notions of academic achievement.
Under ESSA, states and districts can take advantage of considerable new flexibility and authority to redesign and refocus accountability, testing, and instruction to better educate all of their diverse learners — without having to seek federal blessing. States must redesign their educational systems by the start of the 2017 school year to focus on more comprehensive, multiple-measure based views of student performance and success. ESSA is not a one-size-fits-all approach, and those that can manage mass customization that efficiently manages complexity and diversity will be well positioned.
A way to address this shifting paradigm is the use of educational technology (edtech) to effectively manage change and spark transformation of teaching and learning. If developed and used effectively, it can streamline time-consuming processes like lesson planning, content management, personalizing learning, assessment, data use and communications.
ESSA encourages personalized and blended learning through high quality, specific professional development and by defining important edtech terms, which will impact federal, state, and local funding and policy decisions, bringing more consistency and proficiency to how edtech is used.
ESSA is creating space for states and districts to use a wider array of learning models and providers and to report student outcomes in multiple ways. Big changes are afoot in accountability systems, as some localities have been allowed to move away from annual summative assessments, an opportunity that has system-level implications and likely to expand to a number of states in the coming years.
Efficacy and Outcomes
With helpful changes in funding and new opportunities with policy, how are states and districts to make impactful and timely decisions to meet their needs? All too often, the decision is made to build a solution internally, rather than to buy a solution externally. This binary ignores the growing opportunity to construct public-private partnerships, which can leverage the best of both sides of the equation. And, there is new emphasis in ESSA — and a growing array of tools — to improve the measurement of solutions, particularly edtech.
The importance of evidence-based activities is evident throughout ESSA’s programs (e.g., Title I, II, III and IV). The use of federal funds for activities and practices must have compelling research. “Evidenced-based” is defined in the law as either: 1. having a statistically significant effect on improving student outcomes as demonstrated by strong research studies, or 2. supportable with a strong rationale based on research findings or a positive evaluation.
Indeed, it is hard to go more than a few pages in any recent U.S. Department of Education guidance without running into an argument for, or a requirement to use, an evidence-based strategy. This emphasis welcomes more rigor and evidence to the selection of strategies, activities, products and services.
However, the question of how districts and schools can make evidence-based decisions still looms. Thankfully, there is a growing crop of potential resources, including one from the USDE called the Ed Tech Rapid Cycle Evaluation Coach, which joins the ranks of other tools and methods from private or quasi-public organizations like Learn Trials, the Jefferson Accelerator and Digital Promise. In their own way, each is trying to solve for the fact that traditional research does not adequately meet the needs of quickly and successfully evaluating rapidly changing education technology.
Until recently, technology advancements that may have seemed far-fetched a decade earlier are no longer pie-in-the-sky ideas. Not coincidentally, venture funding in the edtech sector has been strong, estimated to exceed $2 billion over the last 5 years, much of which is focused on making the educational experience more engaging, individualized and accessible for students. With the policy and funding environment changing and improving, this investing may well grow in 2017.
Ultimately, it is imperative that states, districts, and vendors learn from past experience to improve the effectiveness of future products and services, especially edtech. Technology can amplify good teaching, but technology cannot replace poor teaching. Properly implemented by states and districts, these new funds, policies and evaluations can help the educational system produce better, scalable outcomes for students.
Doug Mesecar is VP of Strategic Partnerships for IO Education. Previously, he led virtual and blended learning solutions for Edison Learning, the school services and education technology implementation for Sylvan Learning, and math and strategic initiatives at Scholastic Education. Doug has served in senior operational and policy roles at leading education companies, the U.S. Department of Education, and in Congress. Contact him through LinkedIn.