What if #EdTech Funding Amplified a Culture of Engagement & Not Testing?

How much educational technology funding goes toward testing? A Bunch. What would happen if we shifted that funding to focus on student engagement? Magic.

The state of Michigan spent 145 million over the last three years on educational technology updates in MI schools. That is an impressive amount of money. Look more closely and see why and where the money is going. Is it going toward increasing student engagement, designing high-impact learning experiences, helping classrooms connect with fascinating people and resources around the world, designing rich and immersive educational games and simulations, personalizing learning or creating adaptive learning that meets the needs of individual learners? Yes and no. There are some forward-thinking and admirable goals behind the Michigan Technology Readiness Infrastructure Grant.

  • Provide opportunities to increase capacity to deliver personalized learning in districts and classrooms.
  • Create sustainable collaborations that increase districts’ abilities to leverage actionable data, maintain reliable technology, and support learning.
  • Increase the capacity of local districts to provide ubiquitous access for “Any Time, Any Place, Any Way, Any Pace” learning.

Yet, that isn’t the entire story. This is also a grant focused on getting people ready for online testing. Following is an excerpt from an April 6, 2015 Michigan Department of Education News Release:

The state has invested $145 million, appropriated over the past three years in Technology Readiness Infrastructure Grants (TRIG) for education technology in Michigan.  School districts have used those grants to develop or improve their technology infrastructure, including, but not limited to, hardware and software, in preparation for the planned implementation of online assessments; and teaching and learning.

Eighty percent of Michigan school buildings, accounting for 83 percent of all students, are tech-ready for M-STEP (Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress), with the others using the optional paper-and-pencil option. The paper-and-pencil option will be available for schools through the Spring 2017 M-STEP administration.

In other words, this 145 million dollar pool of money from the state was partly focused upon preparing schools for the next new wave in education, online summative testing, annual snapshots student progress. Here is how the M-STEP web site describes the testing.

The M-STEP will include our summative assessments designed to measure student growth effectively for today’s students. English language arts and mathematics will be assessed in grades 3–8, science in grades 4 and 7, and social studies in grades 5 and 8. It also includes the Michigan Merit Examination in 11th grade, which consists of a college entrance exam, work skills assessment, and M-STEP summative assessments in English language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies.

While I’m not entirely opposed to taking snapshots of student learning at different stages in their schooling, I am concerned that the massive investments and seeming obsession with summative testing continues to detract from far more important efforts around student engagement, ongoing learning, and creating spaces where students experience transformational learning and grow in competence, character, and confidence. I know that there are excellent schools in Michigan, so this is not a critique of those schools as much as an opportunity to further reflect on the state of modern P-12 education. Such grants and efforts exist around the United States. Interview creative school leaders and classroom teachers who are recipients of the Technology Readiness Infrastructure Grant and you will see plenty who are finding ways to use the money to invest in educational technology that is about more than testing, things more in line with the list in my first paragraph.

Assessment technologies are now over a billion dollar industry largely due to such testing (of both students and future teachers). Such an influx of money has a way of changing priorities. It can change the focus of educational startups and venture capitalists. It can alter the attention of schools and teachers. It can change the experience of students. My concern is that some much funding (often from state and federal sources) focused upon these efforts is helping drive a culture of testing. Using snapshot assessment can provide interesting data, but students are not the winners when testing becomes an emphasis of a school system. Students don’t wake up in the morning excited to be assessed, but there are are schools where students wake up excited to learn, experience, explore, and expand their horizons.

Imagine what could happen if we shifted grant money away from funding summative testing, and instead focused them on efforts to increase student engagement and agency. Yes, there would be opportunity for misuse, just as there is today. However, this would drive significant attention in schools toward something that truly benefits students, and I suspect that it would engage teachers and school leaders in ways beyond what we can imagine…because we would be funding and resourcing the sort of thing that gets great teachers and school leaders up in the morning…and students too.

So, if you happen to be an independently wealthy investor, someone who manages a portfolio of grants, or a person with influence on state and federal funding; consider how your investments can amplify what really matters in the lives of students. Invest in engagement and agency. The same goes for education startups and venture capitalists. Yes, there is money in summative assessment, but there just might be a greater return on investment if you find ways to amplify student engagement and agency, and you will be contributing to something amazing. If you are not in one of those categories, invest in engagement and agency too. Invest your time, attention and support in those efforts that amplify the values that we know will make a difference for students. Our schools will be better and we will see an impressive social return on investment.

One Reply to “What if #EdTech Funding Amplified a Culture of Engagement & Not Testing?”

  1. lauriefriedrich

    This message motivates me as an educator! It is the direction we challenge school districts to aim as well. Exciting to work toward similar goals in different areas, impacting educational technology in the real world. Thanks for the stimulating messages you continue to share.

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