Can technology solve the achievement gap?

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Oct 23, 2015

One of the biggest challenges the U.S. education system faces is ensuring that all children have the opportunity to receive a high-quality education. The reality is that there are still significant and persistent disparities in academic performance and educational attainment between students from different ethnic/racial and socioeconomic groups. An Education Week article reported that in 2011, “black and Hispanic students trailed their white peers by an average of more than 20 test-score points on the NAEP math and reading assessments at 4th and 8th grades, a difference of about two grade levels.” It also stated that “[w]hile 82.7 percent of Asian students and 78.4 percent of white students in the class of 2008 graduated on time, that was the case for only 57.6 percent of Hispanic, 57 percent of black and 53.9 percent of American Indian students.”

Last week, I attended the San Mateo County Office of Education’s Achievement Gap Summit, where I spoke on a panel about the impact that technology can have on closing the achievement gap. Preparing for and participating in this event gave me an opportunity to reflect more deeply on the potential role of technology in addressing this issue.

Much of the achievement gap stems from larger societal issues such as poverty, racism, and disproportionate access to resources and opportunities; and technology is not a silver bullet for addressing these issues. But technology can help schools to tackle other factors that contribute to the achievement gap, including school attendance, student motivation, and classroom disruptions. Below are a few examples that illustrate some of these solutions.

School attendance
At the Summit, Hedy Chang, the director of Attendance Works, a national and state initiative that promotes better policy and practice around school attendance, gave a compelling keynote on how school absences and truancy widen the achievement gap. In the traditional educational model, school attendance is critical because students don’t learn important academic content unless they are actually in class when the teacher covers the content. When students are absent or tardy, they often become lost because the class moves on to new content that builds upon the previous content they missed. As a result, the more a student is absent or tardy, the more that student becomes lost and confused as holes in her learning accumulate.

Fortunately, blended learning can help to buffer the effects of attendance challenges. In some blended-learning models—such as the Flex and Enriched Virtual models—a substantial portion of the learning happens online. This means that learning is not completely dependent on a student being present in the classroom, and it is possible for students who are absent to continue their learning online while away from school.

Also as my colleague Julia Freeland Fisher has shown in her research, blended learning can enable competency-based instruction at scale, thereby breaking the lockstep pace of traditional instruction so that students can recover more easily from an absence. In a competency-based model, when a student returns from being absent, she can pick up right where she left off, rather than being dropped into the middle of new content that she doesn’t understand.

To be clear, blended-learning models depend on some degree of face-to-face instruction, which means that attendance is still important. Additionally, effective online learning away from school depends on access to devices and Internet connectivity, and on the student receiving support and expectations to ensure that time away from school is productive learning time. But the benefit of blended learning is that it makes attendance-related challenges easier to solve.

Student motivation
Another factor that contributes to the achievement gap is student motivation. Students who have fallen behind in school often lose motivation to keep trying, which can further exacerbate their learning gaps. As Michael Horn and Clayton Christensen have explained, students have a basic “job” of wanting to feel successful, and they “hire” activities to help them meet that job. For students who start out ahead of their peers academically, school is often effective at fulfilling this job because it feels good to know that your teachers are pleased with your performance. These students are typically motivated to do well in school because they want to continue feeling successful. But for students who start school chronically behind in meeting learning standards, school often doesn’t meet the job of helping them feel successful. Instead, these students find themselves looking to other activities—such as sports, employment, video games, or gangs—that give them more opportunities to feel successful.

Unfortunately, the traditional classroom model wasn’t designed to help all students feel successful. In a system of fixed-pace, standardized instruction, you inevitably end up with students who lose motivation because the instructional model is unable to address their individual learning needs so that they can succeed. In contrast, blended learning, by definition, allows student control over the time, place, path, and pace of learning so that instruction can better meet their individual learning needs. As technology personalizes students’ instruction and frees teachers’ time for more personal interaction with students, this individualization makes it easier for teachers to help more students feel successful and stay motivated.

Classroom disruptions
Students living in poverty often face challenges outside of school that affect their ability to pay attention and learn at school. For example, some students are preoccupied with social and emotional struggles with friends or family, others come to school hungry or without adequate sleep, and some are even coping with traumatic events such as seeing or experiencing abuse, violence, and crime. Often, these issues spill over into school and students act out as they wrestle with these challenges.

In these circumstances, teachers in traditional classrooms face an incredible moral dilemma. On one hand, teachers care deeply about individual students and want to give them every support they can. On the other hand, teachers know that their students cannot learn unless the teacher is directing the learning, so anything that distracts from a teacher’s planned lesson keeps the whole class from staying on track to meet academic standards.

In most cases, teachers make the rational choice to preserve a classroom culture focused on learning, even if it means sacrificing the needs of individual students. The best teachers learn ways to defuse disruptions and then loop back to support individual students after class or when other students are working independently. At other times, however, teachers under this pressure end up dealing with major classroom disruptions by resorting to harsh disciplinary tactics or by having disruptive students removed from the classroom by counselors or school administrators.

As I’ve written previously, blended learning can help to alleviate this problem. In blended-learning models that make online learning the backbone of instruction, students can do much of their working independently. This frees the teacher to give students individualized help with their academic, non-cognitive, or social and emotional challenges as these issues arise. Summit Public Schools and Innovations High School are two examples of where I’ve seen this done particularly well.

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To be clear, technology is not a silver bullet that can magically solve societal issues related to the achievement gap. Technology does, however, provide unprecedented opportunities to rethink and redesign our approaches to teaching and learning such that schools can more easily ensure that every student receives the educational support he or she needs.

Thomas Arnett is a senior research fellow in education for the Clayton Christensen Institute. His work focuses on studying innovations that amplify educator capacity, documenting barriers to K-12 innovation, and identifying disruptive innovations in education. Thomas previously served as a trustee and board president for the Morgan Hill Unified School District in Morgan Hill, California, worked as an Education Pioneers fellow with the Achievement First Public Charter Schools, and taught middle school math as a Teach For America teacher in Kansas City Public Schools. Thomas received a BS in Economics from Brigham Young University and an MBA from the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University.