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Digital Learning Claims Don't Always Match Results

Monday, October 10, 2011 - 07:31 AM

Happy Columbus Day. There is no school Monday, but education was very much in the news over the weekend, with extra attention paid to education-related businesses.

Trying to find the digital solution that will help students pick up math and reading as quickly as they do the latest online game, districts and schools are spending $2.2 billion a year on educational software. But does all that money add up to higher scores on standardized tests for students? Not as often as the manufacturers say it does.

In a front page article on Sunday, Trip Gabriel and Matt Richtel reported in The New York Times that technology companies often inflate the results of their software programs — for instance, claiming “revolutionary results” for a math program and describing a literacy program as “powerful.” And with educators under so much pressure to raise scores, many schools and districts are finding the big sell alluring.

But as is often the case, if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. The United States Department of Education's What Works Clearinghouse has found that the claims by companies that make classroom software are often inflated, with manufacturers failing to acknowledge studies that show tepid or even no results. The article focused on Carnegie Learning’s flagship software, Cognitive Tutor, and found:

Many companies ignore well-regarded independent studies that test their products’ effectiveness. Carnegie’s Web site, for example, makes no mention of the 2010 review, by the Education Department’s What Works Clearinghouse, which analyzed 24 studies of Cognitive Tutor’s effectiveness but found that only four of those met high research standards. Some firms misrepresent research by cherry-picking results and promote surveys or limited case studies that lack the scientific rigor required by the clearinghouse and other authorities.

“The advertising from the companies is tremendous oversell compared to what they can actually demonstrate,” said Grover J. Whitehurst, a former director of the Institute of Education Sciences, the federal agency that includes What Works.

The article is part of a Times series on educational technology, “Grading the Digital School.”

Michael Winerip, who writes the “On Education” column for The Times, has also been looking into the education industry, focusing on the interaction between Pearson, the educational services and testing company, and its nonprofit arm, the Pearson Foundation.

He reports Monday that Pearson may be in violation of federal tax laws by inviting state superintendents on international trips, where the superintendents are able to share ideas — but also meet with Pearson’s top executives. Many of the superintendents are in states that have large contracts with Pearson.

“The Pearson conferences fit the same fact pattern as the influence-buying junkets that the convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff arranged for members of Congress,” said Marcus S. Owens, a lawyer who was director of the Exempt Organizations Division of the Internal Revenue Service for 10 years and is a former board member of the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance. “Those junkets were paid for by private charities.”

And one more article in The Times points to a growing education-related business: locker decorations. Wallpaper, shag carpeting and even mini chandeliers are being scooped up from stores and used by middle-school students to transform lockers into personal show spaces, Elissa Gootman reports on Monday.

Some parents and educators say it is a new rite of passage that helps students make the transition from elementary to middle school, but others worry that students who can't afford the locker accouterments may feel left out.

The New York Post reports on Monday that the State Department of Education somehow dropped 20,000 episodes of robbery, assault, theft, fights and bullying that had been reported by schools last year from its data on school violence. As a result, the number of serious school cases dropped to 29,000 in 2010 from 61,000 in 2009.

That may partly explain why only nine city schools were named to the list of persistently dangerous schools this year, The Post says.

Among the implausible cases was John Bowne High School in Flushing, which registered 509 serious incidents among its more than 3,000 students in 2009 — including 61 minor altercations, 11 thefts and 7 sexual offenses.

Somehow, the mammoth Queens high school compiled just three incidents for the entire 2010 year.

Interestingly, City Department of Education officials told The Post they had been trying to bring the error to the state's attention since June. The state has acknowledged the error and ordered a review.

The Post also reported this weekend that Washington Irving High School in Manhattan has new grading policies that help students pass exams so they can graduate. The school is under pressure to improve its performance, but now it is under investigation by the city's Education Department for the policies, which are recorded in documents obtained by The Post.

On The Choice blog on Monday, a new post warns high school students that they could jeopardize their application if they are caught at a keg party while visiting a college. On the other hand, the post acknowledges that this is sometimes an unavoidable stop on the college tour.

Finally, The Times this weekend looked into the criticism of the United States Education Department by Republican presidential candidates, with Michele Bachmann pledging to “turn out the lights” and Mitt Romney calling for an end to federal involvement in education.

“The quest to sharply shrink government that all the Republican candidates embrace, driven by the fervor of the Tea Party, has brought a sweeping anti-federal government stance to the fore on education, as in many other areas,” the article says.

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