This blog post is co-authored by Melanie Dukes, Associate Program Director, K-9 Education, and Lina Eroh, Communications Director, at Overdeck Family Foundation. 

In well-functioning markets, the best products and services rise to the top, making their way into the hands of buyers and consumers who, through trial and error, can quickly decide whether the purchase they made met their needs and whether they would purchase again. By measuring demand, providers know what consumers want and innovators can see what’s missing.

But today’s K-12 education market, especially when it comes to edtech solutions, is anything but well-functioning. Purchasers ranging from individual districts to schools big and small often settle for incomplete, inconsistent, and unreliable information, and have to decide in isolation when making pivotal decisions. Once a product is purchased, it often becomes the de facto solution for a school or district, regardless of whether it’s meeting student and educator needs.

Prior to the pandemic, the U.S. K-12 education market accounted for $800 billion in public spending, with an estimated $26-$41 billion spent on edtech products alone. Experts estimate that the pandemic increased edtech spending to over $50 billion and that school districts access an average of 2,591 edtech tools annually. This was before the $190 billion infusion of federal funds, which are set to end in 2024, sparking increased urgency for schools and districts to make quick, informed decisions on what to bring into their schools.

Demand for edtech solutions holds strong, without evidence

Research suggests that disparities in student achievement are growing and that educators overwhelmingly see technology as a key resource to meet students’ needs. However, at a time when schools are looking for innovative ways to reimagine the learning environment and make up for learning gaps, there is little to no guidance about best practices for purchasing and implementing edtech, or making decisions based on evidence of impact.

Strikingly, less than 27 percent of decision-makers say a lot of information is available on the effectiveness of the digital learning tools they currently use. This lack of data leads to ineffective purchases, with an estimated 65 percent of student edtech licenses going unused, and only an estimated five percent being used efficiently.

Without additional support, purchasers and decision-makers will continue to lack context-specific evidence on edtech purchasing and implementation in schools and districts like their own. They’ll make decisions based on personal networks and word-of-mouth versus data-based evidence, relying on teachers to select digital learning tools despite many of them not being trained to do so. Working in silos, districts will continue to purchase solutions that either don’t work at all, or simply aren’t right for them and their students. The proliferation of disruptive, emergent technologies like generative artificial intelligence is likely to only increase these challenges.

All of these decision-makers are hoping to make the right choice. But with no incentive for purchasers to share data and little available evidence to help guide decision-making, too many ineffective edtech solutions dominate the market. This not only causes students to miss out on opportunities for effective technology-enhanced learning experiences, but also fails to improve or accelerate student learning, leading to an overall question of whether the promise of edtech can live up to its realities.

Philanthropy’s role

Teacher talks with a student at a desk

Courtesy of Saga Education

Philanthropy has a critical role to play in avoiding the doomsday scenario above.

Many funders, including our foundation, fund edtech nonprofits such as Zearn, ST Math, CommonLit, and Saga Education that rely on evidence of efficacy to help develop and scale their products. But simply funding these types of organizations isn’t enough, especially when there is continued investment by venture capitalists and others in for-profit edtech solutions that may be less dependent on evidence of impact before scaling.

This points to the unique role the philanthropic community can play when it comes to influencing the edtech purchasing landscape, both in the short- and long-term.

In the short term, philanthropic funders can help purchasers make sense of the Wild West of edtech purchasing by ensuring that evidence on efficacy is easily accessible and available for states and districts. Doing so should promote better decision-making, which will lead to more impactful products entering our schools.

Currently, using evidence to evaluate potential solutions requires a huge investment of time and resources—both scarce commodities in the education sector. Philanthropy can change that dynamic by both funding the creation of evidence on effective, context-specific edtech solutions and making that evidence easily available to decision-makers. Examples of organizations already doing this are Digital Promise, EdReports, EdResearch for Action, EdTech Evidence Exchange, Center for Education Market Dynamics, and the National Student Support Accelerator.

But providing data and evidence alone is not enough to lead to better decisions. These changes must be accompanied by incentives. In the long term, instead of letting the companies with the best sales teams “win,” philanthropy can incentivize action so that districts and schools that use evidence in their decision-making process are most likely to benefit from government dollars.

Our hope is that better information will lead to better edtech purchasing decisions, which will lead to better student outcomes.

For example, by working with policymakers to ensure that federal and state funds can only be used for edtech solutions that have been shown to positively impact student outcomes, philanthropy can help foster demand for these solutions. (A similar dynamic is currently in play with science of reading-based literacy curricula.) This increase in market transparency and accountability for edtech providers would help rebalance the market, ensuring that the most effective products and solutions make their way to students.

Our hope is that better information will lead to better edtech purchasing decisions, which will lead to better student outcomes. But of course, it’s not that simple. Even if we succeed in improving access to data, decision-makers can still opt not to use it to make purchasing decisions. And educators and administrators may be too overburdened to share insights on efficacy, resulting in limited data being collected and shared, which would limit use cases.

That’s why stronger accountability metrics at the policy level are so critical. Only by incentivizing the use of evidence at scale can we change the dynamics of the market. It will take a critical mass of funders and policy changes to ensure that the edtech in our classrooms comes off the shelves to meaningfully help students.


Header image courtesy of ST Math / MIND Education