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Economists Propose 'Consumer Reports' for Ed. Tech.

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One of the main gripes about education technology is that it's often used in the classroom without any real evidence that it can help students learn. Because they are expensive and the products are so new, rigorous studies into the efficacy of education technology are difficult to find. As a result, several organizations have tried creating ratings and reviews services for ed-tech products, using crowdsourced opinions from users, much like Yelp does for restaurants.

But in a new paper from the Washington-based Hamilton Project, two economists have proposed what could be the most ambitious effort yet to independently evaluate whether ed-tech products work for students, a project that would serve as a "Consumer Reports" for education technology and "the connective tissue between innovators and entrepreneurs" and "school systems."

The proposal is called EDU STAR, a nonprofit organization that would provide the technology and reporting resources for schools looking to quickly and cheaply test education technology products. It is the brainchild of Aaron Chatterji, a professor from Duke University, and Benjamin Jones, a professor from Northwestern University, who laid out the plans in a discussion paper that was presented Thursday at an event in Washington sponsored by The Hamilton Project, an economic policy initiative of the Brookings Institution.

Here's how it could work. Education technology companies would sign up to allow their products to be used in schools, and schools would agree to be subjects to test the products. EDU STAR would provide a web-based application that schools would use as a "platform" for testing the products, Jones said. Students would take a pre-assessment to test their existing knowledge and then would be assigned either a technology intervention—provided by the vendor—or a placebo technology. All of the assessments would be based around skills directly tied to the Common Core State Standards, adopted in all but four states. The results would be collected by the EDU STAR technology, publicly reported through its website, and the products would be rated based on efficacy.

The data will be recorded anonymously and aligned with the Family and Educational Rights and Privacy Act, the paper says. To ensure that the trials fit in with typical instruction and aren't a burden on the schools, Jones said the reporting could be aligned with schools own progress toward the common standards. This project likely wouldn't be possible without the common standards, Jones noted, because it ensures that there is some level of uniformity within the results.

The technological component makes it possible for hundreds of randomized trials to be conducted every day, with no cost to schools and potentially a small fee for companies. Chatterji and Jones write that this would knock down some of the "barriers to entry" to innovation in education by giving schools more information about a product before purchasing it and making it easier for companies to prove and test their products. That latter effect would also allow more companies to enter the education market, where vendors now face the challenge of having "to go school system to school system and convince them to use the products," Jones said at the Washington event.

"Entrepreneurs don't survive very long if they can't find anyone to sell to," he added.

Chatterji and Jones came up with the idea while both were working on the White House Council of Economic Advisers. EDU STAR is a convergence of three factors they believe drive much of the economy's health: education, innovation, and "building things," as Jones put it in an interview. America offers high quality higher education and is a leader in innovative technology companies, but "the U.S. K-12 education system appears to be an increasingly weak link," they write.

The paper points out that K-12 education accounts for 0.2 percent of the research and development expenditures in the U.S., a fraction of what is spent in the pharmaceutical industry, which is also highly regulated. A low-cost, rigorous, and rapid way to conduct randomized trials in schools would help education innovate at a rate similar to that of the general technology industry, where products are put in front of users early and often and companies are in a constant state of change, the paper argues.

Though that's what could make the public nature of the results a hard selling point to entrepreneurs.

"You are not going to know the right answer as you start as an entrepreneur," Eric Westendorf, the co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of LearnZillion, an online lesson sharing tool, said during the panel in Washington. "It's a little scary to think that, given that process, suddenly we would be given a score."

But Westendorf said EDU STAR solves more problems than it creates and that entrepreneurs like himself are looking for ways to test more rapidly.

So what will it take to actually get the idea off the ground? Five full-time employees and a $5 million budget, the professors argue, pegging potential funding sources such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, private companies such as Amazon and Google, or federal funding through the Investing in Innovation Fund grants.

In order to retain its objectivity, EDU STAR would not accept funding or board membership from companies or people with a financial stake in the evaluations (whether you believe Gates or the U.S. Department of Education fit that criteria is another issue) and, like Consumer Reports, it will not accept free product samples or trials, the paper says.

If the funding and staff is secured, the organization could be up and running in 18 months, Jones said.

So, educators and entrepreneurs, what do you think? Would you use EDU STAR?

Staff Writer Katie Ash contributed to this report.

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