Billions of COVID-19 relief dollars are en route from the federal government to American school districts, and much of that money is likely to be spent on ed-tech interventions designed to help students regain ground. With this much money on the line—and, more importantly, the urgency of helping students deepen and accelerate their learning—educators and developers need to avoid talking past one another or getting lost in jargon.
In my experience evaluating ed-tech products, I think developers are every bit as sincere as educators in wanting to help students succeed, but the two sides do have different frames of reference and vocabulary. Here are some conversation-starters that can help set expectations by clarifying the need or problem, and whether a proposed ed-tech solution directly responds to it.
For superintendents and principals talking to ed-tech developers:
Ask the salesperson you’re talking to: What’s the evidence that this product will help our students? When evaluators like me study an ed-tech product’s effectiveness, we’re basically determining how the product helps the average student. So ask how the product meets the specific needs of your students. Are you looking to support English learners? Students with IEPs in general education classes? Students who have new teachers? Ask the developer where the product was evaluated and with what student groups.
If they say something about “ESSA tiers of evidence,” try to steer the conversation back to what you need to know. Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, any product purchased with federal money must have been evaluated, and these tiers have to do with the type of evaluation, not the quality of the product. There is no such thing as a “tier 1 product” or a “tier 3 product.” There are excellent products out there with a tier 2 or 3 evidence base. (And if your school is really interested in a product with no evidence base at all, you’ll have to use another funding source.)
Are you going to help us with implementation? If the product requires professional development for teachers before they use it with students, will the company provide it? How many hours? Can your existing PD calendar support that many hours? Some literacy products require a full-time coach to monitor implementation—who’s providing that salary? Does the company have an implementation checklist or review process that can be adopted by your system seamlessly?
I’ve heard teachers compare ed-tech products to diets: I was jazzed for the first three weeks, but then the excitement wore off and I just wanted to go back to what was familiar! You can’t expect teachers to develop new habits without proper ongoing support. Talk to them about implementation and use. If you have their buy-in from the start, it will help with implementation and use. Can you work with your teachers to develop a feedback loop that reports on implementation, student engagement, and learning?
For ed-tech developers talking to superintendents and principals:
Ask the school leader you’re talking to: Have you identified your top needs, and what your goal is? Buyers and sellers owe it to each other to be as specific as the evidence allows about what the product can and can’t accomplish. If the product has good evidence that it helps with reading skills, but the school has identified math skills for intensive support, pitch another school.
Could we get your help with an evaluation study? Developers know it’s important to study how their product fares in the real world so they can tweak it, but in the scramble to get a product out the door, that doesn’t always happen in an organized way. Data collection and analysis involves buy-in from lots of stakeholders and solid, agreed-to privacy protections, and it can’t be rushed. But if the district agrees to participate, you could offer them a customized results report to share with the school board.
Do your teachers have a voice in product selection? Teachers may not control budgets, but that doesn’t mean the central purchasing officer is the only stakeholder you need to appeal to. If teachers aren’t on board, implementation will fail, and your product’s reputation will suffer.
The relief funding is a unique opportunity to address how ed tech can help students, especially following the pandemic shutdowns. I hope these tips help educators and developers work together for student success!
Faith Connolly is a research director at McREL International.