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The Digital Divide and America’s Achievement Gap

Posted in Ed Tech on January 22, 2014 by

Unequal resource distribution in schools is one of the most troublesome problems in education today, in both rich and poor nations. Wealthier students benefit from better funded schools, with higher paid teachers, better facilities, and newer materials. Poorer kids are left behind.

The steady growth of digital technology in learning has widened that resource imbalance. This phenomenon, the “Digital Divide,” receives a great deal of attention. Oddly, it receives more attention than do the other imbalances.

The most important driver of learning outcomes is teachers. Take PISA scores. Improving the bottom 10% or so of American teachers to be more like 50th percentile teachers would vault the U.S. to near the top of the global rankings.1

I look at that and think, “Wow. America needs to drop everything and fix that.”

But how would we?

The bottom 10% teachers tend to be clustered in schools with staggeringly bad facilities and materials. And the students at those schools are those whom society has failed the most. Put a “top 10%” teacher in one of those schools, and she won’t be top 10% for long. To fix these schools at scale (not just one at a time), we need to fix poverty. We can’t improve education by curing poverty. We have to cure poverty by improving education.

Finding scalable, affordable ways to improve low-performing schools isn’t easy. I know it can seem to policy makers like pouring money down a drain, but it is essential that we increase funding for these schools. A sustained surge of funding — for teacher recruitment and training, facilities improvement, new materials, and technology — will make a difference.

Though it is improving dramatically, edtech is today the least important item on that list. Why then do people tend to fixate on the Digital Divide? Don’t we have more fundamental problems to fix than uneven distribution of education technology?

I think there are three main reasons other inequities don’t get nearly enough attention versus the Digital Divide. First, gross imbalances in teachers, facilities, and materials have been the norm for centuries. People tend to lose interest in problems that have been around forever. Second, we’re making slow progress at these inequities. Some might say, “It’s obviously better now than it was during the 1940s.” Third, technology is an accelerant. The rate of change concomitant with any industry’s digital revolution can be exponential. If that happens in education then the “Achievement Gap” perpetuated by existing imbalances will become worse.

If edtech proves not significantly to improve learning outcomes, then by definition the Digital Divide won’t get any worse (and we should focus on teachers, facilities, and materials). From where I sit, though, this seems nearly impossible. Because Knewton is an enterprise platform, we’re constantly in discussions with just about everyone in the ecosystem. The stuff that’s going to hit the market in the next few years is pretty awesome. Learning outcomes are going to move. A lot.

It’s the richer schools that get the good technology. When next-gen learning products hit the markets en masse, the rich schools’ students’ learning outcomes will improve. This means tech will — at least temporarily — widen the Achievement Gap between rich and poor. That Achievement Gap is already odious. Widening it in any way feels terribly unfair.

But — and this is a big “but” — as those rich schools’ tech-driven outcomes are measured (and these products’ outcomes are intrinsically measurable), funds will then become increasingly available for poorer schools to implement these solutions. If new technologies can scalably and meaningfully improve learning outcomes for better-off kids, they might be expected to do so even more for poorer kids.2 Once those outcomes are measured and accepted, I believe that a flood of funding from foundations, corporations, private individuals, and all levels of government will ensue.

There’s a certain amount of regrettable irony here. Edtech is our best hope to narrow — at scale — the Achievement Gap between rich and poor. Yet, for a time, it will increase that gap. Society must push past that unfortunate moment and use tech-assisted outcome improvements as the rationale to drive spending in poor schools. All Americans, liberal and conservative, want to crack the code on poverty in America. When — perhaps for the first time ever — we see a realistic, scalable path to improving outcomes in poor schools, a new wave of investment in those schools should result.

When that day comes, let’s not view technology as a panacea and ask it to do everything. When edtech does improve learning outcomes in poorer schools, as I am certain it will, let’s not be satisfied with merely closing the Digital Divide. Let’s follow up on the learning gains that result by saying, collectively: “Finally, we can move the needle in these schools. Now let’s be greedy and keep spending — on teachers, facilities and materials.” Let’s use this opportunity to close the Achievement Gap itself. That’s the way we will turn those “bottom 10%” teachers into 50th percentile teachers and make America #1 in global education.


  2. By definition, low-performing kids have more space for upward improvement against state standards than do high-performing kids. And new education technologies are already proving to be effective at scalably remediating low-performing students.