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Making classrooms work for all students

By Ben Jealous
On September 27, 2015

Educational technology helps teachers to educate students with different learning curves.

The most important factor in a student’s success is a great teacher. But in the modern classroom, even great teachers face daunting obstacles.

This is a story about what happens when big data meets the “three Rs” – reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic. It’s a story about the recent revolution in education technology, and how we in EdTech can help make our education system work for all American students.

Kids learn in different ways and at different speeds. A lesson perceived as boring and under stimulating to one student could be far too complicated for another student. According to a study, seven out of 10 middle and high school students require instruction that is specifically targeted to their strengths and weaknesses.

This is partly a function of human nature, but it is also a function of inequality. The first few years of a child’s life are crucial for their development, as they learn to recognize words and numbers by sight and sound. Many children who grow up poor, particularly children of color, have fewer books in their homes, less access to good libraries and less access to the Internet. As early as kindergarten, children in the highest socioeconomic level already outperform their playmates in the lowest socioeconomic level by 60 percent.

This creates a challenge for teachers: how do you take a class of 20 or 30 students who all have different home lives, backgrounds and skill sets and somehow manage to teach them the same material? 

A new generation of education software is beginning to help teachers answer that question.

One of these services is Newsela, which provides teachers with daily news articles from national and local newspapers, written at five different reading levels. The class can discuss the news as a group and students can earn the satisfaction of moving up a level when they are ready. The software helps struggling students keep up with the class and allows the brightest students to find engaging material.

What Newsela does for reading comprehension, NoRedInk does for writing. The web-based learning engine generates writing exercises and grammar questions for students based on their personal interests, such as Harry Potter or SpongeBob. It allows teachers to track students’ growth and progress and adapts questions based on what a student gets right or wrong. Like Newsela, it meets students where they are.

On the other side of the academic spectrum is Front Row, an online software that generates math exercises for students based on their current skill level.

Like Newsela and NoRedInk, Front Row tailors the lesson to students’ needs and automatically tracks their progress. The program even reads math questions aloud for ESL students, something that’s particularly important in light of the fact that by high school, less than one out of 10 students in Advanced Placement Computer Science classes are Latino.

As Silicon Valley investor Umang Gupta has pointed out, there has never been a “mega-breakout” in the education software space and only one percent of all education spending right now is on technology. But that is likely to change. Computers and tablets only continue to get cheaper and broadband access only continues to improve.

In an increasingly diverse nation, we need to use all the tools at our disposal – both old-fashioned and new – to ensure that schools work for all of our kids. 

The era of widespread personalized education is rapidly approaching and social justice-minded entrepreneurs are starting to break the code on how to teach with tech.

Ben Jealous is former president and CEO of the NAACP and a partner at Kapor Capital, a social impact investing firm that invests in EdTech companies.

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