U.S. schools not making the grade when it comes to education technology

Here’s a bit of disappointing but not-so-surprising news: according to a new report from the nonprofit think tank Center for American Progress (CAP), U.S. schools aren’t doing enough to enable technology in the classroom to live up to its potential.

Not only are students across the country frequently using technology for basic skills (for example, middle school students are mostly using computers for drills and practice exercises, not data analysis or other activities that really take advantage of computing power and sophisticated software), schools aren’t looking at the returns on their technology-related investments. The CAP also found that students from high-poverty areas were less likely to get access to rigorous science and technology learning opportunities.

“In this analysis, it quickly became clear to us that many schools and districts have not taken full advantage of the ways that technology can be used to dramatically improve education-delivery systems,” the report said.

The report comes as investments and innovation in education technology are on the rise. According to Chicago consulting firm GSV Advisors, venture capital spending in K-12 education climbed more than 150 percent between 2010 and 2012 to $334 million. And as we’ve reported previously, accelerator programs for education technology startups are popping up across the country to court a growing class of education entrepreneurs.

Despite increased innovation in ed tech, the CAP report pointed out several obstacles standing in the way of smart approaches to classroom technology. It’s not just that educators have been historically resistant to new technology, it’s that schools often don’t have the resources, right incentives or flexibility to implement pro-technology programs.

Citing an analysis from technology expert Lee Wilson, for example, the report said it could cost a school 552 percent more to implement iPad textbooks. If cost isn’t the issue, it might be because a state requires schools to focus on the amount of time a student is spending in a seat — instead of his performance — to determine whether he should move ahead. For some principals and school leaders, the problem is that they lack the power to choose the technology they think would be best for their kids.

So, what are our technology-challenged schools to do? In addition to calling on advocates to push for more studies evaluating the cost-effectiveness of education technology, the Center recommends that policymakers promote school management environments that are friendlier to new ways of doing things and more responsive to access issues in poorer areas. I’d also add that, while it’s still just a couple of years old, the Innovation Zone (iZone) program launched by the New York City Department of Education offers an interesting approach to figuring out how to improve learning through technology. The program includes about 250 of the city’s 1,700 public schools and is charged with testing new technology-compatible models and tools, creating relationships between educators and the tech community and scaling promising projects.

CAP said that its study was based on data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test administered to students every two years by the U.S. Department of Education, as well as a state-by-state review of state department of education websites to see if states had evaluated the return on their technology-related spending.