by Bart Epstein for The Hill

The ongoing progress of COVID-19 vaccinations suggests we may finally have a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, and that soon all of our 56 million K-12 students, as well as teachers and administrators, can return to school.

When they do, millions of students will need intensive support to have any chance of catching up. Our collective recovery effort is likely to be dependent on our ability to deploy and leverage educational technologies at a scale like never before.

Here’s the problem: We spend tens of billions a dollar per year on edtech tools, but we are unable to answer the most basic questions about their effectiveness. Many states lack even basic spreadsheet tracking of which learning technologies are in use across 13,000 school districts.

There may be a solution, but it will take a concerted effort from educators and policymakers starting at the very top.

This is a plea for President Biden and his education team — for Miguel Cardona, U.S. education secretary and for Mark Schneider, the well-regarded director of the federal Institute of Education Sciences: Think big. Think collectively. Martial all the resources we have to make edtech work for every child.

And most importantly: Lead with data.

A group of nonprofits, led by the EdTech Evidence Exchange, recently collected and reviewed as many estimates of state, local and federal edtech spending as they could locate. The results were disturbing. Do we collectively spend $26 billion per year on education technology including content, licenses, devices, connectivity, training, professional development and support, or do we spend $41 billion? Nobody can say for sure.

In addition, we know from companies such as LearnPlatform, which have unique insight into edtech usage in a small but growing subset of school districts, that a significant proportion of dollars currently spent on education technology are wasted. Many edtech products and programs are purchased with the best of intentions, then rarely — if ever — used.

Because we know neither how much we are spending, or what actually works, it is impossible for us to analyze the returns on our collective investment of $26 billion per year. (Or is it $41 billion per year?)

This is madness. We can and must do better. And we have the tools to do better.

Right now there’s a national effort underway by a collection of nonprofits and researchers who are working to dramatically improve our national return on edtech investment.

The startup phase of this effort has been funded by philanthropy. The next phase of the work will require deep involvement of the federal government. Why? Because our nation’s education system is a textbook example of what economists call a “collective action problem.” It consists of 13,000 independent school districts, none of which has the capacity to organize or fund efficacy research or to facilitate the exchange of lessons learned between millions of educators. IES is perfectly situated to address this problem at scale.

We will soon see the end of the pandemic. By this fall, when virtually all of our schools are back in session, our education system can start to move out of the “triage” stage and into the “recovery” stage. More than ever, they’ll need good, data-driven guidance on how to help their neediest, most vulnerable students.

Bart Epstein is CEO of the nonprofit EdTech Evidence Exchange and a research associate professor at the University of Virginia School of Education & Human Development.

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