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Sure, the edtech product is proven to work, but will it work in my district?

It’s a scenario not uncommon in your district administrators’ office. They’ve received sales pitches and demos of a slew of new education technology (edtech) products, each one accompanied with “evidence” of its general benefits for teachers and students. But underlying the administrator’s decision is a question often left unanswered: Will this work in our district?

In the conventional approach to research advocated, for example, by the U.S. Department of Education and the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the finding that is reported and used in the review of products is the overall average impact for any and all subgroups of students, teachers, or schools in the study sample. In our own research, we have repeatedly seen that who it works for and under what conditions can be more important than the average impact. There are products that are effective on average but don’t work for an important subgroup of students, or vice versa, work for some students but not all. Some examples:

  • A math product, while found to be effective overall, was effective for white students but ineffective for minority students. This effect would be relevant to any district wanting to close (rather than further widen) an achievement gap.
  • A product that did well on average performed very well in elementary grades but poorly in middle school. This has obvious relevance for a district, as well as for the provider who may modify its marketing target.
  • A teacher PD product greatly benefitted uncertified teachers but didn’t help the veteran teachers do any better than their peers using the conventional textbook. This product may be useful for new teachers but a poor choice for others.

As a research organization, we have been looking at ways to efficiently answer these kinds of questions for products. Especially now, with the evidence requirements built into ESSA, school leaders can ask the edtech salesperson: “Does your product have evidence that ESSA calls for?” They may well hear an affirmative answer supported by an executive summary of a recent study. But, there’s a fundamental problem with what ESSA is asking for. ESSA doesn’t ask for evidence that the product is likely to work in your specific district. This is not the fault of ESSA’s drafters. The problem is built into the conventional design of research on “what works”. The U.S. Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) bases its evidence rating only on an average; if there are different results for different subgroups of students, that difference is not part of the rating. Since ESSA adopts the WWC approach, that’s the law of the land. Hence, your district’s most pressing question is left unanswered: will this work for a district like mine?

Recently, the Software & Information Industry Association, the primary trade association of the software industry, released a set of guidelines for research explaining to its member companies the importance of working with districts to conduct research that will meet the ESSA standards. As the lead author of this report, I can say it was our goal to foster an improved dialog between the schools and the providers about the evidence that should be available to support buying these products. As an addendum to the guidelines aimed at arming educators with ways to look at the evidence and questions to ask the edtech salesperson, here are three suggestions:

  1. It is better to have some information than no information. The fact that there’s research that found the product worked somewhere gives you a working hypothesis that it could be a better than average bet to try out in your district. In this respect, you can consider the WWC and newer sites such as Evidence for ESSA rating of the study as a screening tool—they will point you to valid studies about the product you’re interested in. But you should treat previous research as a working hypothesis rather than proof.
  2. Look at where the research evidence was collected. You’ll want to know whether the research sites and populations in the study resemble your local conditions. WWC has gone to considerable effort to code the research by the population in the study and provides a search tool so you can find studies conducted in districts like yours. And if you download and read the original report, it may tell you whether it will help reduce or increase an achievement gap of concern.
  3. Make a deal with the salesperson. In exchange for your help in organizing a pilot and allowing them to analyze your data, you get the product for a year at a steep discount and a good ongoing price if you decide to implement the product on a full scale. While you’re unlikely to get results from a pilot (e.g., based on spring testing) in time to support a decision, you can at least lower your cost for the materials, and you’ll help provide a neighboring district (with similar populations and conditions) with useful evidence to support a strong working hypothesis as to whether it is likely to work for them as well.