Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A digital science boost

With all the buzz about digital learning, one of the biggest questions is how much educational bang schools can get for their electronic bucks.  Discovery Education, a vendor to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools,  has released a study showing its interactive science lessons contributed to significant student gains in high-poverty CMS classrooms.

Discovery Education provides reading passages, videos and virtual labs to get students engaged in scientific exploration.  For instance, fifth-graders studying insect life cycles would look at photos of insects such as butterflies, grasshoppers, beetles and dragonflies. The teacher would get them to talk about different ways those insects grow, and to make predictions about how each changes during its life cycle. Students would watch a digital video on metamorphosis.

CMS uses federal Title I money to provide Discovery Education digital science lessons for all its highest-poverty schools (75 percent or higher), along with training for teachers in how to use those lessons.  But participation wasn't required during the study years (2007-08, 2008-09 and 2009-12),  so some teachers in Title I schools opted out.

The study compared results on state fifth- and eighth-grade science exams for students of 457 Title I teachers who used Discovery Education, 295 Title I  teachers who did not and 538 teachers in lower-poverty schools that didn't use Discovery Education. Researchers found that the Title I teachers using the program saw eighth-graders go from 38 percent passing to 57 percent, outperforming both other groups by significant margins (Title 1 non-users went from 19 percent to 32 percent passing, and the non-Title I group went from 41 to 43 percent). The results for fifth-graders weren't as dramatic, but the Title I teachers using Discover Education saw the biggest gains in two years.

The study factored in the benefits that some of the Title I schools got from support provided through CMS' Achievement Zone and/or the strategic staffing program, and there still appeared to be benefits attributable to the digital program.

I'm always cautious of drawing oversimplified conclusions from numbers, especially a study done by an interested party.  But this does seem to reinforce what CMS and many thoughtful commenters have been saying:  Technology can be a helpful tool when it's combined with good training and enthusiastic teachers.

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