Public schools in the United States are making huge investments in digital education, with proponents often touting digital tools as a way to close achievement gaps and improve learning opportunities for economically and academically disadvantaged students. Digital instruction—using computers, netbooks, or handheld devices—is also a boon to big business, with one estimate valuing the U.S. school market for education software and digital content at nearly $8 billion. As digital tools increasingly compete with face-to-face methods of instruction for shrinking funds, it is critical to ensure that both the chosen technology and modes of delivery are being effectively utilized to significantly increase learning, especially for those students who face significant barriers to succeeding in school.
The limited evidence accumulated to date shows that there is enormous variability in how digital educational technologies are rolled out, accessed, and supported both during and outside of the regular school day in K-12 schools. The quality of educational programming using these tools depends on a lot more than the technologies and software purchased by a state or local educational agency. Unfortunately, initial purchases are often not followed up by the gathering of transparent, accountable evidence about how the new platforms are used and to what effect. Educators are expending substantial resources and instructional time on the deployment of digital educational tools, and we need to know much more about the supports and training needed to improve educational quality and student achievement through the use of these tools.
In October 2014, through a generous gift made to the Center for Health and Social Policy by Jaime Davila, we launched a new two-year study of use of digital educational technology in two large urban school districts—Dallas Independent School District (ISD) and Milwaukee Public Schools—which are in process of implementing new strategies to better harness the potential of digital tools for improving student achievement. Both of these school districts are integrating digital technology into education as part of a broad set of educational improvement initiatives—Imagine 2020 in Dallas and EDGENUITY 2020 in Milwaukee—and are prioritizing children at elementary, middle and high school levels with the greatest risk of risk of falling further behind in their academic achievement.
We are taking advantage of the multiple ways that Dallas ISD and Milwaukee Public Schools are using digital tools in their schools to address both specific questions about the effectiveness of student engagement with the technology itself, as well as the critical questions about how it is deployed and managed in the districts, and to what extent these initiatives are reaching and helping the most economically and academically disadvantaged students. As state and local educational agency policies and directives can also support or constrain the effectiveness of innovative school-based programs, having a cross-state, multi-district design will aid in identifying those policy factors or levers that influence program success.