The new school year started this week in DC. Out here in the burbs, kids have been in class longer. Some places in the country, they’ve been going since late July.

And almost all those schools likely have one thing in common: their current number one concern remains “learning loss”.

Certainly there must be some kind of tech fix for the problem, right?

Last June, reporters from ProPublica, a non-profit investigative newsroom, went looking for those magic wands on the Expo floor of the annual ISTE conference in Philadelphia. And, of course, they found “dozens”1 of companies who thought their products fit the bill.

“We’re huge in learning loss,” said Dan DiDesiderio, a Pittsburgh-area account manager for Renaissance Learning, a top seller of educational software and assessments. He was talking up his company’s offerings in the giant exposition hall of the Philadelphia Convention Center, where dozens of other vendors and thousands of educators gathered for three days late last month at the confab of the International Society for Technology in Education.

Edtech, of course, is now big business and expanding fast. The writers note that the “sector” has received a big boost from federal support for schools, most recently in the form of the $122 billion in that came from the 2021 American Rescue Plan. That law requires at least 20% of that money to be used to address learning loss.

So, one question these reporters should have been asking while roaming the Expo floor was, who is your company/product serving, students or stockholders? I know what the sales people in those booths would say, but this is a business, after all.

“The pandemic has created a once-in-a-lifetime economic opportunity for early stage companies to reach an eager customer base,” declared Anne Lee Skates, a partner at venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, in a recent article. (Her firm has invested in ed tech companies.) The federal funds “are the largest one-time infusion of funds in education from the federal government with almost no strings attached.”

That “almost no strings attached” is another avenue ProPublica and other journalists should be aggressively following. A recent report critical of technology in education from UNESCO starts with the fact that “Good, impartial evidence on the impact of education technology is in short supply.”.

Maybe they (and the people buying this stuff) should start by asking edtech companies to provide evidence that their product actually ameliorates “learning loss”. I’m betting they can’t.

Because there’s no such thing as “learning loss”.

Which is the starting point for a much longer future rant.

The photo shows the ISTE Expo floor from 2018 in Chicago. The convention center featured a nice elevated lounge in the middle of the huge room, perfect for capturing at least part of the carnival.

1. Based on past experience, I’m pretty sure there were more than “dozens” of vendors on that floor. All of them marketing “solutions” for just about any problem a school might have.