Schools’ pandemic spending boosted tech companies. Did it help US students?

Padcaster President Jon Goldberg, left, and CEO Josh Apter, demonstrate their Padcaster Studio for remote and virtual learning at Edtechweek 2023 on Oct. 3 in New York. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

WASHINGTON — As soon as the federal pandemic relief started arriving at America’s schools, so did the relentless calls.

Tech companies by the dozens wanted a chance to prove their software was what schools needed. Best of all, they often added, it wouldn’t take a dime from district budgets: Schools could use their new federal money.

ADVERTISING


They did, and at a tremendous scale.

An Associated Press analysis of public records found many of the largest school systems spent tens of millions of dollars in pandemic money on software and services from tech companies, including licenses for apps, games and tutoring websites.

Schools, however, have little or no evidence the programs helped students. Some of the new software was rarely used.

The full scope of spending is unknown because the aid came with few reporting requirements. Congress gave schools a record $190 billion but didn’t require them to publicly report individual purchases.

The AP asked the nation’s 30 largest school districts for contracts funded by federal pandemic aid. About half provided records illuminating an array of software and technology, collectively called “edtech.” Others didn’t respond or demanded fees for producing the records totaling thousands of dollars.

Clark County schools in the Las Vegas area, for one, signed contracts worth at least $70 million over two years with 12 education technology consultants and companies. They include Achieve3000 (for a suite of learning apps), Age of Learning (for math and reading acceleration), Paper (for virtual tutoring) and Renaissance Learning (for learning apps Freckle and MyON).

The pandemic sparked a boom for tech companies as schools went online. Revenue skyrocketed and investors poured billions into startups.

At the same time, new marketing technology made it easier for companies to get school officials’ attention, said Chris Ryan, who left a career in edtech to help districts use technology effectively. Equipped with automated sales tools, marketers bombarded teachers and school leaders with calls, emails and targeted ads.

At the school offices in rural Nekoosa, Wisconsin, the calls and emails made their way to business manager Lynn Knight.

“I understand that they have a job to do, but when money is available, it’s like a vampire smelling blood,” she said. “It’s unbelievable how many calls we got.”

The spending fed an industry in which research and evidence are scarce.

“That money went to a wide variety of products and services, but it was not distributed on the basis of merit or equity or evidence,” said Bart Epstein, founder and former CEO of EdTech Evidence Exchange, a nonprofit that helps schools make the most of their technology. “It was distributed almost entirely on the strength of marketing, branding and relationships.”

Many schools bought software to communicate with parents and teach students remotely. But some of the biggest contracts went to companies that promised to help kids catch up on learning.

Clark County schools spent more than $7 million on Achieve3000 apps. Some were widely used, such as literacy app Smarty Ants for young students.

Others were not. Less than half of elementary school students used Freckle, a math app that cost the district $2 million. When they did use it, sessions averaged less than five minutes.

The district declined an interview request.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

By participating in online discussions you acknowledge that you have agreed to the Star-Advertiser's TERMS OF SERVICE. An insightful discussion of ideas and viewpoints is encouraged, but comments must be civil and in good taste, with no personal attacks. If your comments are inappropriate, you may be banned from posting. To report comments that you believe do not follow our guidelines, email hawaiiwarriorworld@staradvertiser.com.