Kenneth K. Wong is Annenberg Professor and director of the Urban Education Policy Program at Brown University. Spencer Davis is a former teacher and recently earned his master’s degree in Urban Education Policy at Brown University. Joseph Wise is chief executive officer at Acceleration Academies and a former district superintendent.
School districts across the nation are spending record, and growing, amounts on educational technologies to broaden learning opportunities and strengthen instructional capacity in remote, hybrid and in-person classrooms.
Simultaneously, stakeholders and education sector employees alike are becoming more keenly aware of the mixed results produced by off-the-shelf ed tech solutions in the areas of product quality, educational equity, educator buy-in and alignment with academic standards. Are there alternative strategies that can provide the benefits of the traditional ed tech model while avoiding these understandable apprehensions?
Our recent case study of the Cobb County School District in Georgia suggests a promising divergent pathway. CCSD created their own high-quality digital learning system from the ground up, using closely supervised ed tech providers as partners for technical support. Early indicators of the initiative’s success are encouraging.
Other districts could potentially design their own digital learning blueprints around the lessons gleaned from Cobb’s novel ed tech approach.
How Cobb County accelerated pandemic recovery
CCSD looks similar to most other metropolitan districts in Georgia. Cobb is a socioeconomically heterogeneous district with a diverse student population, including multilanguage learners, economically disadvantaged students and students with disabilities. Comparable districts to Cobb (like Atlanta and DeKalb) were disproportionately affected by COVID-19 learning losses, experiencing declines in testing scores and slow academic recoveries.
Cobb does not follow this trend. In terms of testing and academic recovery, the district has already overcome the worst of the pandemic’s effects and shown a steady pace of recovery.
Families and faculty often credit the Cobb Teaching and Learning System for this commendable academic recovery rate. The CTLS initiative is an innovative digital learning suite built “for Cobb, by Cobb,” originating in 2014 as an alternative to unsatisfactory one-size-fits-all ed tech available at the time.
Development started under the guiding hand of incoming district superintendent Christopher Ragsdale who came from the technology sector, bringing with him a forward-looking approach to educational systems. While individual parts of CTLS were produced, piloted and released piecemeal from its inception through the start of 2020, the pandemic’s onset demanded acceleration in development. CTLS transformed from a collection of digital classroom supports into a fully integrated digital learning environment in a matter of months.
Since the system’s districtwide rollout, CTLS has become an integral component of Cobb’s educational landscape. Early research suggests CTLS contributed significantly to the district’s academic recovery during the pandemic. Planned future expansions to the program promise to amplify its effects.
A few key strategies linked to the initiative stand out as fundamental to the system’s efficacy. These strategies are not Cobb-specific and could inform the policies of other districts that decide to take stronger ownership of their digital learning systems.
Strategic partnerships for more robust support
CTLS doesn’t rely on “Software as a Service” companies to provide prefabricated digital learning tools, but it is still a joint effort between CCSD and their ed tech partners.
CCSD recruited Education Incites to develop the core framework of CTLS. Later, ParentSquare and Learning Explorer were brought on to help fill more specific niches in the system, each working alongside Education Incites to ensure a seamless end user experience.
Technologically and organizationally, Education Incites has taken on a central role in the CTLS initiative, even as Cobb retains full ownership. This combination of ownership and partnership has allowed Cobb to benefit from a fully-customizable digital learning tool that can quickly evolve to meet their needs.
Accountability in data utilization
CCSD and Education Incites have created a system that laser-targets the needs of Cobb’s community using real-time data. Essentially all academic work is created, completed, graded and recorded through CTLS. The system thus automatically generates and compiles vast amounts of readily parsable data, which can then be used by management, administration, teachers and even parents to help guide students toward academic success.
Even CTLS itself isn’t immune from this automated accountability: A “Utilization Dashboard” monitors CTLS usage patterns in order to better target end user support while continually improving and refining CTLS’s features. Unlike other ed tech models that can rely on data held by many slow-moving providers, Cobb’s model integrates the capacities of its partners into itself and allows for much nimbler data access and utilization.
Many proponents of CTLS say this nimbleness has led to better policymaking in the district, which in turn has contributed to CCSD’s atypically high academic performance and recovery rate.
Policies that strengthen communities of practice
CTLS stands on the shoulders of existing policies enacted by CCSD. These complementary policies create a learning ecosystem that promotes and is facilitated by CTLS. Cobb has invested in creating a community of practice among its teachers, including use of the cohort model, increasing co-planning time, and building professional learning communities. CTLS enhances these measures by creating new avenues of communication between teachers while creating formal digital space for collaboration.
CCSD has also created a team of Technology Training and Integration Specialists composed of exemplary former teachers. The TTIS initiative has become a crucial means of training up teachers on evolving ed tech while earning their hard-won buy-in for these transformative technologies.
Promising new direction for districts
Cobb’s from-the-ground-up digital learning approach is a departure from traditional strategies that primarily rely on retrofitted off-the-shelf products and services. In pursuing a digital learning system that was designed to be “For Cobb, By Cobb,” district leadership made significant front-end commitments to ed tech investments that have already begun to pay off.
The positive academic outcomes linked to Cobb’s unorthodox district-centered ed tech development strategy suggests this approach offers promising merit.
Districts are doubling their efforts to both accelerate student academic achievement and also derive better return on investment of public dollars. School districts could adopt the Cobb approach to partnership with carefully curated technology providers to accomplish more on behalf of their students, educators, families and other stakeholders. Through strategic partnerships, accountability in data utilization, and mutually-reinforcing policies strengthening communities of practice, CTLS could potentially offer a new direction to future ed tech initiatives far beyond Cobb County.