Voices in Education

Equal Scrutiny in Contracts for Digital Education
Public school districts are under more pressure than ever to buy digital services and products. Much of this pressure is coming from policythe push for common online assessments, the push to show reforms’ impact on student performance via standardized tests, the push to do more (e.g., increase enrollment, teach students how to learn via technology) with less money. As would be expected, much public debate has focused on the implementation challenges (e.g., the technology doesn’t work, adults and students don’t know how to use it).

But there is an important backstory to the digital surge that deserves equal and careful scrutiny. Digital education is nested in a broader trend where public schools and governance structures have come under increasing pressure to contract out core functions of teaching, learning, and assessment, mirroring a rise of privatizing initiatives in other aspects of social policy. By design, digital education creates financial opportunities for large for-profit and not-for-profit vendors to do more business with public schools. It creates opportunities for vendors to have more political influence on what gets taught, how it gets taught, and how performance is measured. We argue in Equal Scrutiny (Harvard Education Press, 2014) that given these stakes, it is time to start paying more attention to the role of the vendor in all aspects of digital educationdata, assessment, curriculum, and instruction.
The Key Questions
What questions should districts be asking of potential contractors to make sure that they get the best products and services for their students and aren’t sold programs that waste scarce resources, such as money and teachers’ and administrative time? There are four questions we think districts and vendors should consider in any formal or informal contract for digital education: 
  1. What drives the digital curriculum?
  2. What drives the digital instruction?
  3. What drives assessment and access to data?
  4. And what can vendors and districts do to make sure that commercial or political interests don’t trump students’ interests?
For example, who (or what) drives instruction in an asynchronous-software-based instructional program and is this instruction adapted to students’ particular needs? Programs with a live instructor who drives instruction may work better for students with particular disabilities that need frequent adaptations and greater scaffolding for assignments. On the other hand, software-driven asynchronous programs may be a better match for migrant students who frequently come in and out of a district, and may not have regular access to the Internet. Also, who maintains formative assessment data on studentsthe vendor and/or the teacher using the program in her classroom? These questions provide a structure and strategy for demanding equal scrutiny of the vendors, programs, and digital instructional spaces students increasingly see in their school experience. These nuances are important in understanding how best to serve students’ needs and ensure transparency and accountability within the current surge of contracting for digital education products and services in K12 schools. Digital education clearly is here to stay, given the power and influence of those driving it, as well as the clear financial incentives of those selling it. But, what is it that we are getting, and what is its actual value for students and schools with limited financial resources? In the absence of sustained scrutiny and informed action, we lose the potential for digital education to push a broader agenda for more equal redistribution of resources in public education. This would be an enormous loss.
For more information on contracting in education, please visit: https://contractingeducation.usc.edu/.

About the Author: Patricia Burch is an associate professor of education at the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California. Annalee G. Good is an associate researcher at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research. She also teaches online courses for middle-schoolers.