ESSA and education technology: 5 reasons for optimism


There is a fundamental, persistent design flaw in the current
approach to education. Despite a variety
of skill levels, interests, and backgrounds, students all study the same
content in the same order, at the same pace and place.

Fortunately, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the new
federal law that replaces the reviled No Child Left Behind, contains a number
of provisions that, if taken advantage of by states, districts, and schools,
could seriously alter the stubborn, teach-to-the-middle, manufacturing-based
approach to modern schooling.

ESSA is more than a
disruptive policy innovation. It provides states and districts more funding
and greater flexibility to use breakthrough education technology. Education technology (edtech) can empower educators to break
the traditional approaches that in effect, wait for students to fail before giving them
individualized instruction. That has far-reaching implications for the
structure and composition of educational institutions themselves.

Under ESSA, edtech can be
implemented in new and powerful ways, with the potential to transform teaching
and learning. Here are five examples of where ESSA can empower educators.


The law — which must be implemented starting with the 2017-18
school year — embraces a more
comprehensive vision of academic achievement and student success, incorporating
multiple measures of educational outcomes, including indicators of student
academic growth and social-emotional learning.

This shift from narrow, summative, test-based accountability complements personalized learning, which takes a more comprehensive view of student achievement, better engages students and is showing increasingly strong outcomes where implemented thoroughly and consistently.

ESSA sets college and career-readiness as the goal for K-12 education, not grade-level proficiency as under NCLB. This is a significant shift that focuses on the end-goal of schooling, not the way-stations that may — or may not — add up to a successfully prepared student.

On a detailed level, the statute defines key terms like “blended learning” and “digital learning.” This is important because federal, state, and local funding decisions will be made using them, which should bring more consistency and capability in how edtech is integrated into teaching and learning.


Title IV of ESSA — the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Block Grant — is a significant new statutory authority that encourages states, districts, and schools to take advantage of the flexible overall structure of the bill. Authorized at $1.65 billion, up to 60 percent of the grant funds — almost $900 million — can be used for edtech strategies (importantly, though, no more than 15 percent can go toward technology infrastructure).

ESSA also makes important changes to the “supplement not supplant” and Title I “schoolwide” rules, making it easier for administrators to use federal funds to procure innovative edtech to deliver a more relevant, successful education to students.

Learning models

Advances in adaptive technology enable educators to personalize every student’s educational experience to accommodate the nuances of each student’s learning needs. Throughout ESSA are references to allowable uses of funds to support personalized, blended, and competency-based educational models.

The law importantly addresses effectively using data to personalize learning and deliver improved, targeted professional development. Without high-quality data, personalized and blended learning is not possible and professional development is likely to miss the mark or be ineffective.

Personalized and blended learning can be supported through the major programs in the federal legislation, including Titles I and II. Title IV of ESSA adds to these other sources of funds and could be the key that unlocks the potential of these edtech-driven learning models to scale.

Professional development

ESSA emphasizes professional development (PD) designed to enable teachers to powerfully integrate edtech to enable teachers and instructional leaders to increase student achievement. The law’s provisions emphasize initial and ongoing PD for innovative learning models and the effective integration of edtech. Through the use of data and targeted needs analysis, Title II seeks to boost personalized PD for teachers, a key strategy to improve the quality and effectiveness of the training.

The law’s PD provisions have at their core enabling teachers and instructional leaders to increase student achievement, particularly those involved in new learning models. For example, when districts apply for Title IV funds, they must look at “access to personalized learning experiences supported by technology and professional development for the effective use of data and technology.”

One survey found that 41 percent of teachers said they don’t believe their districts have an explicit plan to support teachers in the effective use of edtech in lessons and curriculum. ESSA is making strides in addressing these concerns from the field.

Evidence-based practices

The importance of evidence-based activities is obviously a priority in the law. Title IV makes it clear that once a district identifies its needs, it should select relevant “evidence-based” activities that will have the likelihood of working within the district. States are to encourage their districts to use evidence-based practices when it comes to using Title II professional development funds and Title III language instruction educational programs.

Of particular note, ESSA contains the Education Innovation and Research authority (a new version of the Department of Education’s Investing in Innovation, or i3, program) that school districts and nonprofits can apply for to receive funds for edtech and personalized learning research and development.

While it should be noted that efforts are underway in Congress to throw out the ESSA accountability regulations, the five areas discussed here are statutory (not regulatory) and will survive — and even thrive — no matter what regulatory battles are fought.

There is no doubt that the current situation creates some uncertainty that may confuse decision-making at state and local levels in the short term. The backstop, though, is the fact that no one has suggested pushing back the implementation timeline of the law.

With the high-speed connectivity increasingly in place, thanks in part to the Federal Communication Commission’s E-rate program, edtech solutions are well positioned to fulfill their potential to transform the teaching and learning experience. New learning models are allowing educators to proficiently personalize each student’s education experience.

We cannot keep doing things the same ways we always have, and ESSA is ensuring the old ways go away. Well implemented and leveraged by states and districts, ESSA can help teachers become efficient and effective and student outcomes can be significantly improved.

Doug Mesecar is responsible for strategic partnerships at IO Education. Reach him on Twitter @dmes.