EdTech Tug of War: Teacher Choice vs. District Mandates

Teachers and administrators locked in a tug of war battle over teacher choice in edtech.
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Teacher choice or district centralization? Do we lean into individual autonomy or do we drive consistency across classrooms? This decades-long push and pull has been a driving force behind countless initiatives, policies, and educational trends in the 21st century. The cyclical nature of technology adoption has transformed the modern learning environment, ushering in new possibilities and preparing students for an increasingly digital world. But it hasn’t been an easy road, and we’re still learning some valuable lessons as we travel it together.

Now, as the pendulum swings back in the direction of consolidation once again, questions remain about what’s best for students. Which criteria do we want driving the decisions that shape our classrooms? Are we unintentionally squeezing out innovation in favor of the slower-moving establishment? Why are so many school districts still paying millions of dollars in bloated contracts to companies that have proven unable to reverse the negative trends that started around the time those companies became popular in the first place?

This is the story of this century’s ongoing edtech expansion-to-consolidation cycle, through the lens of what it means for the future of instructional programming.

An anachronistic wild west scene showing a host of people on horses surrounding an app trading post. This represents the heyday of teacher choice.

Chapter 1: The Wild West of EdTech

Veteran educators will remember the rise of digital learning tools spanning the mid aughts through about 2015. This was the boom period of 1:1 initiatives and the earliest iterations of digital learning resources. “Blended learning,” “gamification,” and “makerspaces” were the buzzwords of the day.

As schools and districts worked to harness the potential of instructional technology, the market’s expansion quickly outpaced the ability of government agencies—let alone most technology and curriculum departments—to draw up policy and regulate what was being used in the classroom.

Teachers drove the adoption of most tools. They combed through app stores and shared their favorite web-based resources with their peers. iPads and Chromebooks hummed with instructional videos, educational games, and a hundred different approaches to multimedia learning. The common refrain at the time was that teachers knew their students better than anyone. They were thus in the best position to determine what worked for them. Teacher choice was thriving.

The unfortunate result of this approach was a proliferation of classroom tools that were of questionable instructional value. Many did not comply with data privacy laws, and/or did not integrate well with existing technology infrastructure. Teachers enjoyed the freedom to choose, but often lacked the evidential or technical expertise to evaluate programs on those grounds.

Eventually, district technology and curriculum leaders realized they needed to tighten the reins. Vendor vetting workflows, data privacy agreements, and approval lists became the norm throughout the country. The 2015 passage of ESSA was also a catalyst for this movement. The Act required interventions to be “evidence-based” to qualify for federal funding, rendering programs that lacked supporting research obsolete.

A tower of edtech representing the consolidation of the late 2010s.

Chapter 2: The First EdTech Consolidation

By the 2016-2017 school year (give or take a year or two), the edtech bubble had more or less popped. Smaller players either fizzled out or became absorbed into other programs via mergers and acquisitions. Security and privacy safeguards and practices were tightened up in the wake of dozens of new state-level data privacy laws. Interoperability became a baseline expectation rather than a nice-to-have specification. This led to the widespread adoption of popular data standards such as OneRoster, LTI, and Ed-Fi.

At this point, some districts had enacted various forms of compromise with their schools and teachers. Principals were free to purchase approved materials for their schools beneath a certain price point. Teachers could still choose or request their programs, as long as they followed established approval workflows. Districts that delegated these decisions to their schools tended to be more hands-off. They leaned into the idea that no two schools were the same. The hope was that teachers would get more out of resources they felt comfortable with.

These concessions were not without drawbacks; a 2017-2018 study found that two-thirds of all educational software licenses were going unused. School district technology leaders lamented the pitfalls of product adoption without appropriate follow-up. The downside of teacher choice reared its head, as teachers were falling in love with trials of certain products, but didn’t always have the time or resources to learn how to use them most effectively once they were purchased. Licenses were often bought for multiple products that filled the same instructional needs, leading to teacher migration between products depending on who was championing what at any given moment. If the person who spearheaded the adoption of a particular program left their position in the middle of a license term, there was no one left to pick up the slack.

In many districts, the central office took on a larger role in the implementation of district-wide curriculum and assessment programs. State agencies joined non-profit ventures like EdReports and AIR’s National Center on Intensive Intervention in vetting products at scale to help inform purchasing decisions. Teachers were given usage mandates for programs in the name of fidelity, a blanket term for “are we using the program consistently enough to get the results we expect?” District leaders needed to be able to justify exorbitant contract costs. The only way to get that data was to make sure everyone was using the programs they were investing in.

Consolidation had its benefits. Junk programs fell out of favor. Those that ignored basic privacy and security practices were forced to either shape up or ship out. This push was not, however, without controversy. The moves to mitigate risk inevitably gave larger, more established companies a significant leg up over smaller startups. Companies that could afford to maintain their own data and research departments and/or pay for six-figure independent studies did. They suddenly looked much more appealing than those that could not, whether or not their products were more effective.

The “money talks” problem hasn’t gone away. The biggest companies continue to enjoy outsized influence at the state level thanks to extensive lobbying. Government relations departments influence everything from curriculum legislation to state-provided RFP templates. It all feels rather icky, even if it is legal. When billion-dollar corporations have as much say as educators on school district priorities or where and how funding gets allocated, the inherent conflicts of interest beg many questions about the limits and perils of centralized edtech.

Image of a teacher in front of a large monitor providing remote learning to a large group of students.

Chapter 3: The Pandemic and the Return of Teacher Choice

You know what they say about “the best laid plans of mice and men…” Just as many district offices began to feel more attuned and aligned with the resources being used in their classrooms, Covid came along and ruined everything.

Many districts went from business as usual to fully remote for the last couple months of the 2019-20 school year. Most had almost no time to prepare. The disruption famously extended to the 2020-21 school year, which saw school systems either fully virtual or in some hybrid instructional model for large stretches. This led to an unprecedented boom in online learning tools. Those edtech tailwinds that have only just begun to dissipate four years later.

The pandemic forced three major shifts in edtech evaluation and purchasing:

1) Districts relaxed their guidelines and timelines, enabling schools to rapidly acquire the resources they needed for virtual learning without the red tape.

2) Teachers were actively seeking out new tools on their own to support the modified learning environment. Those who relied less on digital tools in their normal day-to-day were now forced to embrace and get up to speed on them with minimal background. Edtech vendors everywhere saw massive spikes in free trial signups.

3) The federal government’s pandemic relief package, the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER), took the financial burden away from schools. Districts didn’t need to fit new edtech into their budgets. They could just add it on top of everything else they were already paying for with no repercussions.

The results of these efforts pushed many companies to new heights. Capital investments peaked at more than $8 billion in 2021 (that number fell to $2.8 billion only two years later). Big-ticket programs like i-Ready, Imagine Learning, Achieve3000, and others secured multi-million dollar contracts that often went largely unused, as teachers discovered better, cheaper ways to fill the same instructional needs.

For a brief moment, it looked like the rising tide really would raise all ships indefinitely. Predictions flew left and right about how education would be changed forever. Online learning would presumably become normalized on a level we hadn’t imagined before. In reality, we’ve mostly just returned to business as usual. The big difference now with edtech is that the extra funding has dried up. School districts have found themselves with a bunch of licenses for programs they are either not using or don’t need due to redundancies in content and instructional niche.

A color blast style of picture showing happy students interacting with technology, with a variety of themes showcased in the background.

Chapter 4: The Second EdTech Consolidation and the “Built Differently” Generation

…All of which brings us to now, the early days of the Second Great EdTech Consolidation. For the most part, we have seen districts defaulting back to their pre-pandemic curriculum, assessment, and core tech stacks, with few significant changes. The most pervasive programs from five years ago are still the most pervasive programs now.

Admins are also working to drive consistency in teacher habits by slashing programs that aren’t used in big enough numbers. The biggest names are staying, the smaller, newer disruptors are going, and we’re mostly right back where we started.

But there are major differences this time around. From a human standpoint, any educator can tell you that kids these days are just built differently. It’s not just learning gaps, it’s out-of-control behavior issues, social-emotional and mental health chasms that schools aren’t equipped to address, and a general lack of respect for rules or authority that makes it difficult to even manage a classroom, much less attend to the wildly varying academic needs of increasingly diverse student populations. Traditional approaches are falling flat, and it takes much more effort to engage students and keep them invested in their learning.

If that’s not enough, this consolidation also happens to coincide with the rise of artificial intelligence, a technological revolution the likes of which we haven’t seen in 20 years. AI has the potential to personalize learning, save teachers time, and knock down barriers to education at massive scale already, and it’s only going to get better.

This has led to a whole new debate around teacher choice and district centralization. If budgets are already reserved for “the old way” of doing things, but the big names that eat up the majority of those budgets are the slowest to move with AI, are we sacrificing innovation at the altar of familiarity?

The time for change is now. Even before the pandemic, reading and math scores were already in decline. The companies that now market their products as the best way to help students “catch up” are mostly the same ones districts were leaning on five-ten years ago when growth was already starting to stagnate.

It is imperative that we find a way to balance the benefits of teacher choice with the safety and security of district centralization. Only through repeated trial, error, and feedback loops do we have any chance of entering our next chapter on a positive note. Let’s embrace innovation, figure out a better way to track academic ROI, and start investing taxpayer dollars in programs and pedagogies that are built for the modern age. The old way isn’t working. Let’s not go running back to it with open arms.

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