Ken Eastwood is the superintendent of Middletown City School District, NY, a member of our League of Innovative Schools.

In terms of student proficiency, today’s classrooms are more diverse than ever. We’re “detracking” students previously sorted by ability. We’re mainstreaming those with special needs. And we’re serving more and more students who are just learning English.

In these classrooms, teachers face a seemingly impossible task — providing effective instruction to all the unique students under their care.

Educational technology (edtech for short) can play a significant role in mitigating and solving this growing dilemma. Many school districts — including mine in Middletown, NY– are leveraging the power of technology with adaptive assessments and instructional software. These tools help us identify and then address — through intervention or enrichment — individual students’ needs around each of the major academic standards.

An increasing amount of data around personalized educational models like “blended learning” and content-specific software suggests that edtech makes instruction in diverse classrooms more efficient. In one survey, a large majority (80 percent) of math teachers reported that free instructional content from Khan Academy helped them challenge their most advanced students, and a smaller but still significant majority (66 percent) reported that it gave them extra capacity to help their most struggling students make the gains they needed. A recent study within a number of school districts, including the Middletown City School District, showed significantly greater academic growth in blended learning versus traditional classes.

Yet these student growth gains are not reflected in most edtech implementations. A recent study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that access to computers and other digital devices had no impact on students’ proficiency in reading, math, and science. In many cases, using computers frequently at school actually worsened performance.

Given the enormous potential of edtech to assist teachers in highly diverse classrooms to truly personalize learning and obtain significant student academic growth, why are we seeing such consistent and large-scale edtech failure when it comes to gains in student academic achievement?

My answer is simple: the failure occurs because when we introduce edtech into our classrooms, we continue to focus on things rather than on the process — on devices instead of on good pedagogy.

Successful and sustained edtech implementation requires that good pedagogy must first be in play within the classroom. Few school districts realize the need for this instructional requirement and assume that the technology will make for a better teacher, when just the opposite is true. A pedagogically skilled teacher leverages and manages edtech to maximize instructional efficiency and effectiveness.

A perfect example of the device-before-pedagogy practice is the now-infamous 2011 Los Angeles Unified School District edtech initiative, which involved the purchase of more than 100,000 iPads for its classrooms to the tune of $500 million without any return on investment in terms of student outcomes. Four years later, the district was demanding a refund from Apple.

Most analysts — and the school district itself — blamed the failure on buggy software. But follow-up studies showed a bigger problem. Where LAUSD’s iPads were used at all, they were used for whole-classroom instruction, just like whiteboards of old. LAUSD didn’t motivate teachers to improve or master their teaching methods (pedagogy) or introduce them to newer, more effective personalized learning models that could leverage the power of edtech. This isn’t a new story: even PCs, which were widely available in classrooms by 2001, rarely had a real impact on classroom instruction.

So, what can be done?

First, when planning edtech initiatives, ensure that mastery of pedagogy is in place or in the works.

Much of the history of educational technology has been around the power and glamour of the computer — the next silver bullet in education, the equalizer that would finally level the playing field.

If the history of education has taught us anything, it is that education is a human process. An enthusiastic teacher who has mastered pedagogy, content, and reinforcement schedules and is passionate about student learning and success is the only true silver bullet. That teacher, though, by leveraging technology and “disruptive” ideas and models of instruction, such as some of the new personalized learning models, becomes even more effective and efficient, especially in highly diverse, high-needs classrooms.

If the educational cart (edtech) is put before the horse (good pedagogy skills), any edtech initiative is bound to fail or not be sustained — or result in more of the same.

Second, given the explosive growth of edtech content and other resources on the market, contract with third-party consultants who can vet the thousands of digital options to find those that match specifically with your school district’s educational and pedagogical needs.

Fifteen years ago, there were only a few edtech products, and those were offered by only a few big publishing houses. But in recent years, we’ve seen a spike in the number of smaller, tightly focused, niche edtech product companies.

Venture funding in the edtech sector has increased from $385 million in 2009 to an expected $2 billion this year. EdSurge’s Edtech Product Index currently lists more than 1,500 edtech products in areas ranging from curriculum to teacher needs.

Unfortunately, though, there are no reliable ratings or certifications for these products — no Consumer Reports. So how do you choose?

You choose by focusing on how you want the technology actually to be used in classrooms. This means asking not just whether the product is “good,” but whether it effectively addresses the instructional and pedagogical needs of the teachers and students in your district. That question should drive your edtech purchasing, and runs counter to the typical implementation in which districts require their teachers and students to fit the education technology.

This recommended approach doesn’t mean picking will be easy. In my opinion, the whole task of choosing edtech tools, content, and devices has become unmanageable for a typical school district, with its already overwhelming list of mandates and instructional requirements.

We hired an outside consultant — Education Elements — who specializes in, and works with our teachers on, the pedagogical aspects of personalized learning models (i.e. blended learning). An organization comprised of former teachers and administrators, they worked with our teachers not only to design instructional models, but also to navigate and vet the field of edtech products and resources, identifying those that would best fit our district.

They wanted to make sure the products in our classrooms supported our models and matched the needs of our students. And they had a deep enough understanding of the marketplace that they could do this with far more ease and expertise than we ever could. That edtech value added service was a perfect match to the pedagogical work they were doing with our teachers.

Focusing on your district’s own culture and instructional strategy will help a lot if you decide to go your own way. It is essential you understand how your systems work, how your leaders and teachers feel and act, and what your students need.

Third, know how to generate buy-in from schools.

Individuals have belief systems. So do school districts. It’s important to implement edtech initiatives in a way that fits your district’s beliefs and educational culture. You’ll get nowhere with a one-size-fits-all approach.

In Middletown, our implementation model for new initiatives consists of a two-year voluntary opt-in period, followed by a year of “risk-free practice” during which nothing about implementation affects teachers’ evaluations. We’ve rolled out other programs this way. It’s now a part of our culture, and teachers are comfortable with it.

This summer, in fact, we finished the two-year opt-in period for blended learning at the elementary level. Ninety-two percent of teachers have opted in. That’s pretty good buy-in. The remaining 8 percent will be trained this October, and our rollout will be complete.

We know how Middletown responds best to programs like this. It is essential to know how your district works as well, to ensure full integration of new technology in each class.

Fourth, understand that technology is there to help teachers.

Despite the dizzying proliferation of edtech products, the truth remains: technology is there to help teachers do their job more efficiently and effectively — not to replace them.

Too many edtech initiatives treat teachers as robotic implementers of a higher plan. But as the failure of the LAUSD iPad initiative shows, teachers in classrooms with edtech need to become entrepreneurs around instruction. Technology should inspire teachers’ creativity, not stifle it. That’s the only way they can provide new, effective, personalized learning experiences to students.

As Diane Ravitch writes in her book Reign of Error: “The education profession must become more professional, not less so. In a professional environment, professionals have the autonomy to do their work and are not expected to follow scripted programs or orders written by non-professionals.”

Let’s master pedagogy first. Then leverage the technology. That in itself would be very disruptive in education, and very necessary.

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