I might be the outlier in the education technology community, but I greeted the US Department of Education’s “Effectiveness of Reading and Mathematics Software Products” research study prepared for Congress as a great success for the technology community. It might also be the case that as a former working journalist and a TV news producer that I know what is necessary to generate a headline and to stir up a bit of controversy.
The US Department of Education contracted with two great organizations (Mathematica Research Policy, Inc and SRI International) to study 33 districts, totaling 132 schools, and 439 teachers. They ultimately ended up with a student sample of 9424 students to test 16 reading and math products (1st and 4th grade reading; 6th grade math, and Algebra). What they learned was that statistically there was very little difference between classroom instruction and the products tested. Bravo!
This means that these products have been certified, in essence, to be on par with traditional class-room based instruction. Now, the study did not say this, but I think it can be inferred that the teachers in the classroom control group of the study were fairly competent. So, my conclusion would be that this is indeed very good news for the software industry, not the opposite. As a result, my headline would be, “Software Holds Its Own with the Best Teachers.”
It should also be very good and long-awaited news to schools, districts, and state agencies because the study shows that school officials do not have to question or be afraid of these 16 well-known math and reading products. Just the opposite, they have data to suggest these products’ competence and utility in real-world settings.
Let’s dig a little deeper into the findings. Here are the three other main conclusions from this massive study (page xix in the Executive Summary):
- Nearly all teachers received training on the products and believed that the training prepared them to use the products
- Technical difficulties in using the product were minimal
- When the products were being used, students were more likely to engage in individual practice and teachers were more likely to facilitate student learning rather than lecture
In my mind number 1 and 2 above are significant in and of themselves. This reports that teachers can be trained to use the products and that the technical difficulties were “minimal.” Neither would have been the case three or four years ago. So, this is quite positive and again it signals teachers and administrators that the software can be used at their facilities, granting flexibility in constructing their instructional programs.
But most impressive is number 3: students were engaged and teachers were facilitating. If this is not an endorsement of technology usage in the classroom, I am not sure what is. I think this sends a clear message – progressive education that is a mix of technology and human interaction can work effectively in various settings.
All in all, I think this study delivers good news at the right time. We need help in our classrooms. We do not have enough highly qualified teachers. If we know we can rely on software to augment the classroom, to free up some teachers from lecturing, and the government has approved the study, this is a wonderful foundation. I wonder where things will be by the time the second study is ready from the Department?
Now, why all the gloom and the negative press? Lets look at the headlines and some paragraphs:
- “Federal Study Finds No Edge for Students Using Technology-Based Reading and Math Products” – Education Week, April 4, 2006
“A major federal study of reading and mathematics software has found no difference in academic achievement between students who used the technology in their classrooms and youngsters who used other methods.”
- “Is Education Software Worth Anything?” – ZD Net, April 5, 2007
In a blow to companies that produce educational software, a new report found that students using educational software to improve performance show no significant improvement compared with those who don’t use the software.”
- “Software’s Benefits On Tests In Doubt: Study Says Tools Don’t Raise Scores” – The Washington Post, April 6, 2007
“The long-awaited report amounts to a rebuke of educational technology, a business whose growth has been spurred by schools desperate for ways to meet the testing mandates of President Bush’s No Child Left Behind law.”
These news reports were gloomy. The software and trade associations for technology interests were very defensive. Again, I may have it backwards. But my reading is that we have made steady progress in technology in education – the industry now has a firm leg to stand on and to move forward from.
Finally, there is no way to take technology out of education or say that it has no place in education. The modernization of education will require all sorts of technology usage. As software improves and students and teachers get better using it, there may be significant gains for certain students.
We know this much, there are not going to be enough highly qualified teachers to cover all subjects in all places. We also know that modern infrastructure in districts will come to rely on technology for communication with parents and between teachers and administrators, for content, for 24 x 7 access to the classroom, and for teacher professional development.
It’s simply a misnomer to brand technology as good, bad, useful or not useful. It would be like saying books are bad because sixteen of them were not up to par. The better focus is take lessons learned and apply them as well as we can to improve our schools with the best bag of tools – technical and human – we can muster.