Did edtech spending pay off for schools? It’s complicated

The pandemic fueled an edtech boom in K12 education. Today, schools rely on technology more than ever through the help of federal pandemic relief to ensure students get back up to speed and close academic learning gaps. But is their spending paying off?

The Associated Press asked 30 of the nation’s largest school districts for contracts that were funded by federal aid. Nearly half of the records provided included a variety of education software and technology. Others chose not to respond or required fees for handing over the records, according to the AP.

Their analysis suggests that many districts spent tens of millions of dollars on various tech company services, including licenses for apps, games and tutoring. For instance, schools in Jefferson County, Kentucky paid more than $9 million for services with Imagine Learning, more than $5 million with Paper and nearly $8.5 million with Florida Virtual School.

However, there is little evidence as to whether these programs and technologies have actually benefited students. In fact, some of the new software was hardly used, according to the AP‘s analysis.

One issue K12 leaders faced as they received these federal funds is that they’ve almost been targeted by edtech companies as marketing technology has made it much easier for companies to grab administrators’ attention. Educators consistently received emails, calls and targeted ads from marketers.

“It’s probably predatory, but at the same time, schools were looking for solutions, so the doors were open,” Chris Ryan, who left the edtech business to help districts use technology efficiently and effectively, told the AP.

Lynn Knight, a business manager in Nekoosa, Wisconsin, said their school’s offices were being bombarded with emails and calls.

“I understand that they have a job to do, but when money is available, it’s like a vampire smelling blood,” Knight told the AP. “It’s unbelievable how many calls we got.”

Schools also used their federal dollars to pay for software communication that would help them better engage with parents and equip students with the tools to learn from home. Some of the largest contracts paid for services that promised to help schools close pandemic-related learning gaps, but the results are complicated.

For example, Clark County schools spent more than $7 million on Achieve3000 apps, some of which were “widely used,” according to the AP. However, other apps like Freckle, a math app that the district paid $2 million for, was used by less than half of elementary school students. And when they did use it, the sessions lasted less than five minutes on average, the AP reports.

“What’s the point of having all this software in place when you don’t have a teacher to teach the class? It doesn’t make sense,” remarked Lorena Rojas, a parent who lives in the district told the AP.

While edtech makes up only a fraction of most pandemic spending in K12 districts, the AP notes that nearly all schools spent some money toward technology. But there’s no final consensus on how effective these investments were.

Bart Epstein, founder and former CEO of EdTech Evidence Exchange, a nonprofit that helps guide schools to use technology more effectively, told the AP that there should be some federal intervention from the U.S. Department of Education.

“There has never been anything close to a proper accounting of what has been spent on or how it was deployed,” he said. “You can call it mismanagement, you can call it a lack of oversight, you can call it a crisis. There was a lot of it.”