Far too often in the U.S., a person’s zip code determines their destiny. Children who grow up in poverty are likely to stay that way. 

The numbers are staggering: nearly a quarter of American K-12 students live in poverty, and more than half are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, raising the likelihood they will perform poorly in school and perhaps not graduate. 

School districts, recognizing that they can’t end poverty, are turning to tech for a quicker fix. Educational technology, whether in the form of hardware like classroom tablets or software aimed at improving reading comprehension, has become widespread in the last decade

As U.S. K-12 schools spend billions yearly on edtech products – from individual learning tools to large-scale auditing software – investment in the sector is on the rise, too. According to industry news platform EdSurge, investors poured $1.45 billion into edtech companies in 2018; in 2011, that number was just $500 million. Edtech is popular with a wide range of investors from mainstream venture funds to family foundations to impact-focused institutional investors. 

But data on the effectiveness of these tools, particularly for disadvantaged students, lags behind their rapid-fire development. A new study from consulting firm Boundless Impact Investing and analytics research firm BrightBytes provides some guidance for investors. 

“Kids are especially falling down in literacy in math in low-income communities, and those are basic skills they need.”

While these tools certainly can’t eradicate poverty, researchers found they can help.

The report concluded that students at Title I schools showed clear improvement in both math and language arts. When Title I status was ignored, no improvement was shown among the students.
“These results suggest that Title I students have a fighting chance for improved learning growth using education technology products,” the report says.

“Kids are especially falling down in literacy in math in low-income communities, and those are basic skills they need,” says Boundless founder and CEO Michele Demers. “We wanted to look at what products are actually helping kids, and which ones are saying they are but can’t really demonstrate it.”

The researchers collected data on almost 12,000 students throughout the 2018 academic year. About two-thirds of the children attended schools receiving significant funding from the Title I program, which makes grants to schools with a high population of students with low socioeconomic status.

EdTech Advantage

The resulting paper, published last week, found that disadvantaged students saw single-digit improvement in math and reading scores after consistently using edtech products. The study examined four tools, all web-based, that aim to improve students’ math and reading skills. While the report doesn’t name the tools, one uses quizzes, games, and other interactive modules; the second focuses on math and is known for its graphing calculator function; the third works on reading using adaptive software; and the fourth enables students to create flashcards. All four are “widely used” across schools in the US, according to the paper.

Another discrepancy between disadvantaged students and others was when they used edtech tools. The researchers observed that students in Title I schools either used their tech less on weekends or not at all, whereas their non-disadvantaged peers used it more on weekends – suggesting that Title I students were hurt by a lack of technology access at home, which affects how effective these tools will be.

“Edtech venture funds that are more proactive in impact measurements are the ones who will have better success, because they’ll create products that are really helping kids learn better.”

Jason Palmer, a general partner at education-focused New Markets Venture Partners, told Karma this is consistent with what he’s seen in his work. 

“Most edtech products are designed assuming students can access them at school and at home,” he said. “Many students might have a smartphone but not a computer, and companies that adopt a mobile-first approach understand that.” But, he added, he has not seen any products that try to address the hardware gap directly.

The Boundless study suggests that edtech investors consider one-laptop-per-child programs and similar initiatives that expand access to hardware, in addition to their explorations of software.

By focusing on results among disadvantaged students, the report concludes, edtech investors will find the tools with the most promise for students. Demers, the Boundless CEO, says that keeping such social impact front-of-mind is the best guidance. “Edtech venture funds that are more proactive in impact measurements are the ones who will have better success, because they’ll create products that are really helping kids learn better.”

Palmer, however, has learned to be cautious about expecting too much from any tool, no matter how well-designed. How school districts implement their purchases “matters more than the tech itself,” he said. Over his twenty years in edtech, nearly the entire lifespan of the sector, he has not seen any miracles. “Technology is improving things marginally in the right direction in many different places, but it’s not the breakthrough that everyone is suddenly proficient that we were hoping for two decades ago.”

Boundless Impact Investing is a strategic partner of Karma.