a six-year-old girl with brown pigtails stared at an iPad perched on the desk in front of her. As she studied the screen, she squinted her eyes, and her brow furrowed into a pair of delicate question marks. A minute ticked by. She was still perplexed. Then suddenly, the iPad emitted a soft, triumphant-sounding ping, and her face lit up. The girl had successfully solved a mathematical puzzle in the educational software program ST Math. At adjacent desks, her first-grade classmates at Jack L. Weaver Elementary School, in Los Alamitos, Calif., were grappling with their own ST Math challenges. The room was silent, with no hint that the morning recess was just 15 minutes away. “They could do this all day,” the teacher, Kathi Ruziecki, whispered.
ST Math, which uses visual puzzles to teach concepts such as fractions and number lines to elementary school kids, is the creation of the Irvine, Calif.–based nonprofit MIND Research Institute. The organization’s work could help quell some heated debates being waged in school districts and around kitchen tables across the country regarding technology’s role in the classroom. Ever since Weaver Elementary’s principal, Erin Kominsky, signed on to try out the earliest version of the ST Math software 16 years ago, when its interface was only via traditional desktop computers, it has been a cornerstone of the school’s curriculum. Kominsky combines two 35-minute ST Math sessions per week, in addition to homework assignments as appropriate and the option to use the software in their free time, with traditional math instruction and cognitively guided instruction, a teaching style based on listening to children’s mathematical thought processes. The approach is a good example of blended learning, which combines traditional teaching methods with computer-generated ones.
Kominsky said her school has been transformed since incorporating ST Math: “It has changed the playing field with math for us.” When Kominsky arrived at Weaver Elementary in 1996, it had been closed for 13 years. Even though Los Alamitos residents had recently voted to reopen the school, at first they weren’t eager to enroll their kids. As Kominsky put it, “We had no residents who would be caught dead coming here.” Parents from surrounding cities started driving their kids to Weaver.
Within three years of adopting ST Math, “our school outperformed every school in this district” in math, Kominsky told me while we observed the first-grade class. Local families started getting a lot more interested in Weaver. Now the student body has swelled to 720, with the majority local to Los Alamitos, and there’s a waiting list to get in. This year, 98 percent of Weaver students tested proficient or advanced in mathematics, and the school’s Academic Performance Index, California’s measure of how well a school is doing overall, was the highest in Orange County. Weaver also scored higher than any elementary school in neighboring Los Angeles County. Kominsky credits much of the school’s success—not just the spike in math scores—to MIND Research Institute. In classrooms across the United States, digital learning has become de rigueur. As of last year, there were 10 million iPads in American schools, according to an estimate by Apple. The U.S. market for educational software is valued at $7.9 billion. But while technologists have been clamoring to enter the education space, some educators have resisted the onslaught, wondering whether more time in front of a screen is a good idea for kids who already watch an average of 28 hours of television a week; whether tech is a good use of limited educational resources; and if it will be used as an excuse to cut costs in other areas, such as by replacing teachers and increasing classroom sizes. Other skeptics fret about privacy of student data, or maintain there’s not enough evidence that technology is effective at helping kids learn.
The Los Angeles Unified School District found itself at the center of the debate after it approved plans last summer to distribute iPads to 600,000 students. When 300 students hacked the security settings of their new devices and began using them for unsanctioned activities, complaints over the expense—$1 billion—segued into questions about whether the district had properly prepared for the rollout. By December, critics were howling about the multimillion-dollar spend on unproved software from education company Pearson, and a survey of LAUSD teachers showed that only 36 percent favored continuing the program. The survey echoed educators’ attitudes toward technology nationally: A 2012 reportby the education nonprofit Project Tomorrow showed only 17 percent of teachers believed tech helped students explore their ideas deeply and 26 percent thought it boosted problem solving. The same study, however, also showed that teachers in training are far more enthusiastic about using technology as a learning tool.
Those in the pro-tech camp like how software can assess students’ progress while they work, a facet known as embedded assessment. It provides teachers with real-time reports signaling which students need more help and allows them to reach all students at their individual ability levels. Given that educators have traditionally relied on tests administered every few weeks or months, most see this as a revelation. “It’s huge,” Damian Bebell, assistant research professor specializing in testing and educational policy at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education, said of embedded assessment. “It’s like the difference between sending an instant message and sending a letter by Pony Express.”