Don’t blame EdTech

Today I read and watched a sad story about early reading scores in Pittsburgh. CBS KDKA Channel 2 in the Steel City reported that Early Grade Reading Scores Fall At Pittsburgh Public Schools, Despite Millions Spent On Educational Technology.

The third grade students scoring Below Basic (i.e. not proficient) in year-end tests rose from 11.7% to 17.9%. Alarmingly, 62% of African American students scored Below Basic. Educators know that students who are not fluent in reading by the end of third grade are four times more likely not to graduate from high school.

The story focuses on a multi-million dollar purchase of ReadyGen, a reading curriculum from Pearson, and simply blames “EdTech.” However, KDKA Channel 2 notes:

Almost three years ago a teacher advisory committee recommended against an elementary reading program called ReadyGen, but Superintendent Dr. Anthony Hamlet and the district purchased it anyway from Pearson Education for $4.4 million.

Andy Sheehan, KDKA, Pittsburgh September 3, 2019 

The importance of the teacher role cannot be understated. In the Principles of Effective Digital Learning, John Ross states in Principle 1:

Digital resources promote student achievement for all students, especially historically under-served students, when students use them to produce information rather than passively consume information, but technology use alone is ineffective unless mediated by an effective teacher.

John Ross, The Principles for Effective Digital Learning

Other principles Dr. Ross cites elaborate on the importance of the teacher. Choosing a curriculum that teachers did not want is a terrible way to start an adoption of reading materials. The article did not go into the manner in which teachers had professional development (“PD” or training) on how to use the materials once selected. No program is going to be effective if teachers don’t want to use it and if they are not well trained. Seattle Schools once adopted a Math curriculum that was not selected by adoption committee of teachers (the board chose another one unilaterally) and the results were similar to what is happening in Pittsburgh. Districts need teacher buy-in and good professional development to be successful.

Making a broad statement about Pearson ReadyGen is unfair without examining the implementation. Making a broader statement about all of EdTech is irresponsible. There are plenty of cases where EdTech has proven successful in raising student achievement. John Ross in The Principles of Effective Digital Learning quotes evidence from noted scholars Linda Darling Hammond, John Hattie, and others whose studies support EdTech’s role as an accelerator of student achievement.

Also, calling ReadyGen “EdTech” is a misnomer. The publisher Pearson’s site clearly demonstrates ReadGen is a full reading curriculum with, yes, books that offer authentic texts and access to complex texts and tasks. The site further explains that the curriculum requires teachers to rethink their pedagogy. Again KDKA mentions nothing of the teachers teaching practices.

Pure Edtech vendors themselves share the efficacy of their platforms. Newsela is a leading EdTech platform used by millions of students to improve reading. They have research where:

One study found that using Newsela twice a week leads to 2x reading gains in achievement scores and 3x gains when used daily. 

WestEd Findings

Pittsburgh needs the raise the percentage of 3rd grades reading proficiently – especially for African Americans. Administration and the press should support the teachers with the materials and professional development they need and not simply blame EdTech.

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