Baltimore City Public Schools is on a spending spree. The district’s budget is projected to increase $227 million in 2023—an increase of nearly a sixth of its current budget, despite falling enrollment. Greater state funding from the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future Act accounts for much of this increase, but a significant amount comes from federal sources. These federal funds are part of the roughly $190 billion that has been earmarked for education in 2021’s big spending bills: the CARES Act, the Consolidated Appropriations Act, and the American Rescue Plan Act.
So, in the fall of the 2021–2022 school year, my district asked for help in determining where to allocate some of this newfound wealth. High school staff and students were asked to vote between two fully digitized English curricula that the district might purchase. In my ninth grade English class, I projected the flashy promotional videos made by each company, as my students filled out a response survey on their laptops. Both presentations promised that students would be empowered. (If you wish to hear this word every day until you die, become a public school teacher.) Both presentations tried their best to make the everyday activities of an English curriculum—writing essays, preparing for debates, and answering questions on articles and novels—sound exciting.
One of the companies, Imagine Learning, distinguished itself by claiming that, on their platform, students could demonstrate their knowledge of English language and literature by “composing a rap song or creating a TikTok.” Some students seemed intrigued. Others groaned over their laptops. Yet another edtech firm was promising to uplift marginalized students by filling the classroom with the kind of entertainment media they consumed at home.
Such products can make educational content more accessible, especially at home, but they cannot actually address academic shortcomings any more than pen and paper. This is because learning happens through what educators call “productive struggle,” not merely the consumption of educational content. Productive struggle is the profession’s term for problem-solving at a level that is difficult for a student, but possible with effort and limited assistance. Educators refer to this magical window of learning as the “zone of proximal development.” Any education technology that is able to employ entertainment to transcend the difficulty inherent in learning ceases to be educational.
But even if such a technology is able to elicit productive struggle among students, it still runs up against a deeper challenge: poverty. The real reason that students have difficulty in the classroom is not due to the lack of thoughtful UX design, but because the trauma and instability wrought by the material circumstances of their home and community make engaging in productive struggle difficult. This does not mean that edtech products are useless. But they are not able to address the core cause of educational inequality any more than traditional instruction.
The recent growth in school funding from Covid relief measures gives educators a long-overdue opportunity to confront the material roots of educational inequality. But this influx of public money also represents a potential payday for a fast-growing edtech sector. The edtech market in the US is expected to grow to about $60 billion by 2026, according to an estimate from Global Industry Analysts, more than doubling its 2021 valuation and drastically outpacing the growth of the education sector as a whole. At a moment when governments are committing real resources to public education, companies touting disruptive digital approaches see a gold rush. They plan to win lucrative contracts by promising to solve a problem they can’t possibly solve.
Passed, Present, Failure
When asked about how to address the legacy of slavery in an early Democratic primary debate in 2019, Joe Biden wound his way through a surreal answer that ended with him advising parents to “make sure you have the record player on at night, the phone, make sure the kids hear words.” While many viewers were probably confused by the now-president’s statements, those of us in education knew exactly what he was referring to. He was regurgitating the long-held belief that poor children suffer academically due to the “word gap”—a disparity in the complexity and the volume of words heard by children in rich and poor homes.
Biden’s statement is the perfect encapsulation of a particular tradition in American education. This tradition, rather than trying to address the historic inequities that drive educational disparities, relies on something that is already in nearly every American home regardless of income: entertainment media. From phonographs to television to the internet, the wide availability of entertainment media has led generations of educators to embrace it as a potential salve to problems in American education, despite little evidence of its effectiveness.
Early in the twentieth century, the Victor Talking Machine Company led a major campaign to market its “talking machine” phonographs as educational tools. Victor was the first edtech company, touting a wide variety of potential educational benefits from its technology, from learning roller-skating and typewriting to French. Despite these claims, clear-eyed educators quickly recognized the limits of the machine. Writing in 1918, at the height of Victor’s educational marketing campaign, Charles C. Clark, a professor of foreign languages at Yale, argued that the machine “taught only when its master makes it teach.” Citing an example of a friend who failed to learn Italian from recordings that he played every day while eating lunch, Clark noted that only those who would already do well learning through coursebooks could learn with the phonograph, as serious study was needed regardless. Writing six years earlier, a French language professor, Charlotte J. Cipriani, observed that the phonograph could help with French phonetics but could not “relieve teachers and students from the distasteful task of thinking”—in other words, productive struggle.
By the latter half of the twentieth century, the record player had ceded its cultural dominance to television, which brought its own wave of advocates and critics arguing over its place in education. Television became the dominant entertainment medium precisely because, to borrow Cipriani’s words, it relieved viewers of the “distasteful task of thinking.” And, as with the phonograph, educators embraced television not because of its usefulness in pedagogy, but because of its ubiquity in students’ homes. In 1979 an editor for a prominent education magazine, Kathryn LeGrand-Brodsky, argued that “realists” must use television in education because of the “simple fact that children do watch television, and a lot of it.” This is the foundational rationale for using entertainment technologies in education: it’s there, so we might as well use it.
With the mainstreaming of the internet in the early twenty-first century, a new edtech product emerged: the massive open online course, or MOOC. Unlike the phonograph or television, which were entertainment media that could just barely be packaged as educational, the internet allowed for rigorous educational content to enter homes with the same ubiquity as entertainment media. MOOCs promised to break down the walls between home and Harvard, liberating education from its ivory tower. In the early 2010s, optimistic writers and educators heralded the arrival of online courses—often free and taught by professors from elite universities—as a great leveling event. In a 2013 op-ed, Thomas Friedman claimed that “nothing has more potential to lift more people out of poverty.”
Unlike the phonograph and the television, MOOCs can be rigorous: they have the ability to foster the conditions for productive struggle. Moreover, unlike traditional universities, MOOCs can allow everyone, regardless of income or location, to learn. Still, MOOCs fail to provide the social support that students need to be successful. This explains their very high rates of incompletion: according to a 2019 MIT study, a large percentage of MOOC students fail to complete their courses, including for degree programs. And the broader accessibility of MOOCs has not led to any real equity in education, with participants from very developed countries passing their courses at 48 times the rate of those from the least developed countries.
The rise and fall of MOOCs makes clear that support, not access, is the key to achieving equitable educational achievement. These realities have led many MOOC platforms to pivot to working with traditional institutions to help award expensive online professional degrees. These partnerships have greatly benefited the bottom line of MOOC providers, with Coursera, the world’s largest MOOC platform, valued at over $7 billion dollars. Such figures dwarf the valuations of the major education media companies of the television era, with Disney buying Baby Einstein for only $25 million in 2001, and Hooked on Phonics reaching a peak valuation of about $100 million in the 1990s. With such money on the line, a slew of edtech companies have entered the market in the past decade, often funded largely by public school districts.
Among the products at the forefront of the new edtech wave is Achieve 3000. Achieve is one of the programs licensed under Baltimore City School’s Math and Literacy Intervention Programs budget, which shot up from $10 million in March 2020 to a staggering $28 million in November 2021, thanks in large part to the CARES Act. The program features thousands of readings and exercises, presented much like the Netflix homepage, with the newest articles listed across the top of the page in rows of suggested topics with names like “Teen Channel” and “US History.” Its main innovation is that the same articles are written at different levels, so that students will each be given a text on the same topic that is targeted to their developmental stage. As they answer questions correctly, the difficulty of the readings will gradually increase.
For students who are able to focus on the readings, and who have the language skills to engage with the readings, the program works well. The way that the software continuously calibrates the difficulty level for each student helps create the conditions for productive struggle. But for those students who are already falling behind, the program does little to help them advance.
During the pandemic days of distance learning, if one of my struggling students turned on the camera or microphone, there would almost always be a hurricane of activity and noise going on behind them. If any of my students who were excelling did the same, they were almost always in a quiet, empty room. The few students I taught who were fortunate enough to have their own room, no siblings or children to babysit, and a parent with a job that allowed them to monitor their child’s progress easily at home, excelled on the Achieve platform. Students who did not have such privileges, whose parents worked “essential” jobs, fared about as well as the millions of MOOC students who churned out of their courses. Programs like Achieve work, all things being equal—but things are not equal, and no amount of spending on edtech products can level the playing field.
Making Students Whole
Baltimore City Schools and many districts like it around the country are now flush with Covid relief cash. This means they have plenty of money to spend on edtech products. So much money, in fact, that Baltimore decided to license not one but both digitized English curricula that I presented to my students, at an annual cost of over $1.75 million. In fact, the $28 million “intervention technology” budget, which only covers a portion of the edtech products licensed by Baltimore, is greater than the district’s entire “student wholeness” budget for 2022, which provides funds for advising, mental health services, and social-emotional learning. Concerningly, edtech companies are even beginning to encroach into this territory, offering digitized versions of services that could only ever be effectively provided through a human connection.
With only a $750,000, three-year contract, Colorado-based Pairin is a relatively small player in Baltimore’s edtech procurements. However, its contract is a particularly insidious example of an edtech company receiving funds earmarked for social services. For Baltimore City Schools, Pairin made a new product called Plan2BMore, which is meant to serve as a sort of virtual guidance counselor and claims to be customized for the needs of Baltimore schoolchildren.
Unfortunately, it does not work.
When my school attempted to get students to use the program in March 2022, it constantly crashed. This was an issue district-wide. More importantly, Pairin represents the attempted digitization of the exact needs that Baltimore should be addressing through hiring counselors, advisors, and social workers, or by providing other services administered under the district’s meager student wholeness budget. Giving guidance to students and helping them set a path for their future is a deeply personal act, and one where a human connection can help immensely. It is also an area where students in Baltimore City Schools, who overwhelmingly do not have parents who have graduated from college and who live in impoverished communities, need far more support than their wealthier peers in the suburbs. Such guidance, along with myriad other social services, could help motivate students to engage in real productive struggle, justifying the investment in products like Achieve 3000. To contract out such work to a faraway for-profit firm sets a worrying precedent for how Baltimore City Schools will allocate its rapidly expanding budget going forward.
Good edtech products have a role to play. But the content that we stream into classrooms or homes is simply not as important as the material inequities faced by students, and a school district’s ability to relieve those inequities through counseling, guidance, and other social services. If school districts and the governments that fund them want real change, they must address the material needs of students at home and in school. Otherwise, they risk becoming yet another pipeline for the transfer of public resources to the private sector.