The most important factor in a student’s success is a great teacher. But in the modern classroom, even great teachers face daunting obstacles.
This is a story about what happens when big data meets the ‘three Rs’: reading, writing, and arithmetic. It’s a story about the recent revolution in education technology, and how we in EdTech can help make our education system work for all American students.
Kids learn at different speeds and in different ways. A lesson perceived as boring and under stimulating to one student could strike another student as far too complicated to keep up. According to one study, seven out of ten middle and high school students require instruction that is specifically targeted to their strengths and weaknesses.
This is partly a function of human nature, but it is also a function of inequality. The first few years of a child’s life are crucial for their development, as they learn to recognize words and numbers by sight and sound. Many children who grow up poor (particularly poor children of color) have fewer books in their homes, less access to good libraries and less access to the Internet. As early as kindergarten, children in the highest socioeconomic level already outperform their playmates in the lowest socioeconomic level by 60%.
This creates a challenge for teachers: how do you take a class of 20 or 30 students who all have different home lives, backgrounds and skill sets, and somehow manage to teach them the same material? A new generation of education software is beginning to help teachers answer that question.
One of these services is Newsela. Newsela provides teachers with daily news articles from national and local newspapers, written at five different reading levels. The class can discuss the news as a group, and students can earn the satisfaction of moving up a level when they are ready. The software helps struggling students keep up with the class, and allows the brightest students to find engaging material.
What Newsela does for reading comprehension, NoRedInk does for writing. The web-based learning engine generates writing exercises and grammar questions for students based on their personal interests—for instance, Harry Potter or Spongebob. The program allows teachers to track students’ growth and progress and adapts questions based on what a student gets right or wrong. Like Newsela, it meets students where they are.
On the other side of the academic spectrum is Front Row. Front Row is an online software that generates math exercises for students based on their current skill level. Like Newsela and No Red Ink, it tailors the lesson to students’ needs and automatically tracks progress. The program even reads math questions aloud for ESL students, something that’s particularly important in light of the fact that by high school, fewer than one out of 10 students taking AP Computer Science are Latino.
We are entering a new age of Edtech. As Silicon Valley investor Umang Gupta has pointed out, there has never been a ‘mega-breakout’ in the education software space, and only one percent of all education spending right now is on technology. But that is likely to change. Computers and tablets only continue to get cheaper, and broadband access only continues to improve.
In an increasingly diverse nation, we need to use all the tools at our disposal (old-fashioned and new) to ensure that schools work for all of our kids. The era of widespread personalized education is rapidly approaching, and social justice-minded entrepreneurs are starting to break the code on how to teach using tech.
(Ben Jealous is former president/CEO of the NAACP, and Partner at Kapor Capital, a social impact investing firm that invests in EdTech companies including Newsela, No Red Ink and Front Row.)