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The Real Reasons EdTech Hasn’t Closed the Achievement Gap

The Real Reasons EdTech Hasn’t Closed the Achievement Gap

Last week, EdSurge published an article outlining some of the reasons why the EdTech boom hasn't impacted underserved students. The well-researched piece cites some compelling reasons, but it doesn’t paint the full picture. Because let's face it; EdTech doesn't work for underserved kids because it's not designed or even meant for them.

In the piece, author and doctoral candidate Molly Zielezinski discusses the research into why EdTech hasn’t quite met its early hype, especially when it comes to serving low-income learners. She’s right, the hype back in the day was palpable. I was deep into my third or fourth year in the classroom back when Sal Khan first started getting attention. I remember a lot of talk then about education technology being the silver bullet that would close the achievement gap. All we had to do was get EdTech into the hands of students in low-performing schools, and voila! The products would teach the kids better than their lazy, unqualified teachers ever could, and we’d see huge gains in test scores overnight. Those of us who were teaching in underserved classrooms at the time were skeptical. How could a computer teach my kids better than I could? Wasn’t my relationship with those kids and my insight into what they needed just a powerful as a technology tool?

B-b-b-back in the day. Could a computer replace me in these kids lives?

B-b-b-back in the day. Could a computer replace me in these kids lives?

Turns out teachers do matter, and in Zielezinski’s research the choices teachers make about how to use EdTech have had an impact on it’s effectiveness. She finds that in low-income schools, teachers and administrators are more likely to use EdTech for remediation, not for the higher-level thinking skills more affluent kids get to practice with the same technology. I agree that we can do more to choose and use technology that challenges our kids to be creative and to think critically. That’s why I left the classroom to join the tech industry; I wanted to build the tools that would make a difference in lives of students and teachers in all schools, but especially in the kinds of schools I did my teaching in.

But having worked in the industry for over eight years, I can tell you that the real reason EdTech hasn't closed the achievement gap is more complex than how it’s used in the classroom. And I worry that in focusing on ineffective or misguided decision-making at the school level, we are reinforcing old paradigms that put the blame for failure firmly on the backs of the teachers and leaders in low-income communities. In my view, it's not just about the technology being used in the wrong ways; it's also just as much about the technology being built wrong. While not all EdTech companies and products are the same, the bottom line is that underserved students are simply not the intended audience for EdTech products. Here’s why:

EdTech companies think they can’t make money off low-income kids.

The most important thing to keep in mind about an EdTech company is that it’s a company – not a non-profit. That means it has to make money. While many EdTech companies approach their work with a genuine interest in making education better, many struggle with how to sell their product to schools. The smaller and less-well-funded a school district is, the less attention it’s going to get from a salesperson who is incentivized to close big deals. And when it comes to doing business with the largest school districts in the nation (a tactic many EdTech companies employ), issues with implementation and roll-out tend to hinder success and scare them off trying again. So EdTech companies are less likely to set underserved schools as a target audience for their product.

EdTech Product Managers don’t understand the needs of underserved youth.

While there are many talented and well-meaning PMs in the industry, a good deal of the product design is being done by people who have no experience in schools at all, let alone low-income schools. I can’t tell you how many product meetings I’ve been in where someone says, “Well, when I was in school…” or “In my kids’ school…” as a justification for some feature they want to build or not build. The bottom line is, if your only experience in education is your own education or that of your children (which was or likely is in a more affluent community), you have to cultivate a deep understanding of the needs of low-income kids. And not all PMs have the time, knowledge or interest in doing so.

EdTech products are not beta tested in under-performing schools.

Let’s assume the company has decided that underserved schools are their target customer and the PM is committed to understanding the underserved student as a user. Where are they going to test their product? The answer is -- wherever they can. EdTech companies often have a hard time getting facetime with students and teachers, or even forming relationships with schools at all. They tend to reach out to the schools who are willing to partner. And those schools are often either their own children’s schools, or charters. And while many charters serve under-resourced youth, they don’t always represent the same sorts of conditions that are present in more traditional schools in low-income communities. This means that a product that has an amazingly successful beta in a charter school might not be as successful when it rolls out more broadly.

Add these reasons to Zielezinski’s, and the picture is grim. But we’re not doomed to accept bad products that don’t work for our kids anymore than we’re forced to use EdTech for rote remediation activities. We can make things better.

If you’re a teacher, make sure your kids’ voices are heard.

Reach out to the EdTech companies who make the products you love. Trust me, they’d love to hear from you. Join their user community, sign up for betas, be a part of the conversation.

If you’re a school or district leader, vote with your dollar.

Don’t buy crappy products or fall for shady sales pitches. Don’t get into bed with a company that doesn’t care about your kids. Ask the tough questions, and push back. They want you more than you want them.

If you’re looking to make a career change, go get a job at an EdTech company.

Not that I’m advocating leaving the classroom. The world needs more teachers and school leaders doing the work, on the ground, everyday. But EdTech also needs voices like yours, too. If you’re interested, EdSurge has a great guide on how to get started. Even better, help your kids get careers in tech. One of my favorite organizations, CODE2040, does just that. But remember, there are tons of jobs for your kids in EdTech that have nothing to do with programming. Whether your kids wind up working in product management, marketing or even sales, they’ll bring a voice that is rarely heard and direly needed in the industry.

What are your ideas for how we can make EdTech work better for underserved kids?

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