Karl Rectanus, Senior Vice President, K12 Strategy, Instructure

Karl Rectanus is an educator and a high-growth serial entrepreneur committed to expanding equitable outcomes through systemic change. As a co-founder of LearnPlatform and the SVP of K12 Strategy for Instructure, he equips educators, researchers, policymakers and technologists to expand access for all students to the tools and teaching that work best for them.


Tech-enabled learning is here to stay. In the K-12 sector, districts manage an average of over 1,400 edtech tools per month, yet the recent 2023 Edtech Evidence Report found that only 26% of the 100 most accessed learner and educator-focused solutions publicly share their federally compliant evidence. It’s been overwhelming for administrators and educators to know how these tools are working, in which situations, and for which students…until now. The single most important question every district leader is asking right now is “what evidence can we have or build to show that this solution is best for our needs?”.

In fact, officials in major cities like Chicago and Los Angeles are now requiring vendors, including education technology companies, to provide research showing their solution works in their RFPs. Furthermore, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) mandates that federal funding be used for evidence-based interventions, defined as those with at least a logic model demonstrating a rationale, to one or more studies meeting promising, moderate or strong evidence requirements.

Leading solution providers, of all sizes and stages, are answering the call though.  Recently, DreamBox Learning, a leading Pre-K through 12 education technology provider, transforming the way the world learns, executed a research study with 1,800 K-6 students at William Penn School District, a large school district located in Pennsylvania that serves a majority of students who identify as Black and are eligible for Free or Reduced Lunch.

The third-party findings validated DreamBox Math complied with ESSA Level III, promising results to show students achieved higher end-of-year math test scores. William Penn School District’s commitment to partner with DreamBox Math to successfully accelerate student learning achievement is a testament to how effective, engaging, and easy-to-use learning solutions are critical to closing achievement gaps and unlocking learning potential for all students. Thousands of ESSA-compliant studies are being activated this year, on everything from tutoring and curriculum to communications and social-emotional learning, across all types of learning environments.  This is game-changing for the field!

Given that the influx of stimulus funds for nearly three years is about to hit a fiscal cliff, this type of research provides districts like William Penn with valuable evidence to drive student outcomes and empower effective education technology investments. With thousands of edtech solutions in the K-12 marketplace, state, district and school leaders can more easily identify tools that are safe, interoperable, compliant with regulations and policies, and eligible to be purchased under the law. 

School constraints, the prohibitive cost of traditional research, and the previously slow and time-intensive nature of building an ongoing portfolio of evaluation to truly understand how well education technology solutions are working to improve outcomes for students—or when they work best, for whom, and under what conditions – was daunting. Now in the face of massive changes in schools, everyone must collaborate in building rigorous, practical evaluations to provide evidence at the speed of decision-making.

However, quickly, and cost-effectively meeting this requirement is a new muscle for education.  The key is making research iterative, replicable, and ongoing, thus reducing the time and expense involved, and making it accessible to all solution providers and their partners, so they can innovate together. Here are four best practices for K12 solution providers and their district and school partners to consider when gathering and sharing ESSA-aligned evidence:

Understand what’s required. Since 2016, ESSA requires federal funds to be used for evidence-based interventions, but understanding the evidence–what, how recent, and how much of it there is–behind specific products is easier said than done.

Applying the four levels of evidence laid out by ESSA can feel overwhelming, especially for administrators and teachers without an academic research background. However, putting the ESSA framework to use is not only critical to maintaining federal compliance but it’s also a key tool to make informed edtech decisions that will positively impact student achievement. ESSA Evidence Badges designed in consultation with the US Department of Education are credentials that can be earned by K-12 solutions and offer a quick, trustworthy means for educators to understand a solution’s existing evidence base.

Don’t try to do it all at once.  Develop a plan. Edtech providers partnering with US-based districts and states must bake evidence-building into the product roadmap in order to comply with ESSA Level IV to demonstrate a solution’s logic model and commitment to ongoing research. Don’t stop. Technology evolves and research should be continuous. Evidence-driven innovation should be viewed as an ongoing and iterative process.

Ask for help! The right research partner brings independence, expertise, and technology to make this process faster, more practical, and less expensive, so providers can focus on implementation and outcomes. For example, LearnPlatform’s Evidence as a Service is a tiered subscription model to support K12 solution providers of all sizes meet ESSA compliance in a matter of weeks, at a fraction of the cost of traditional research. Rapid-cycle evaluation should be embraced by providers and their partners to build evidence that can inform decisions.

Don’t go into evidence-building with a single goal. Everything is a learning opportunity. Less-than-ideal findings lead to improved implementations, better outcomes for students and other opportunities. Evidence-building is continuous and is elemental to drive improvement and innovation, effectively and efficiently.

As one evidence trailblazer, Stephanie Myers at Reading Horizons, insightfully noted recently at SXSWedu, “as an industry we need to confront the data”. Now is the time to elevate evidence-building to the forefront of K-12 best practices for technology providers and their partners to modernize learning environments and optimally amplify learning for all.

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