Category Archives: Education Technology

This Financing Model Could Make School Buses Cheaper and Greener, But No One Is Using It

Every day, nearly 500,000 school buses transport students to and from school in districts across the country. Many of these buses are older diesel models that release dangerous emissions, harming both the environment and student health. While cleaner and cheaper alternative fuels like propane, compressed natural gas (CNG), and electric exist, higher upfront costs prevent most districts from transitioning.

The good news: there’s an increasingly popular financial tool out there that could solve this problem.

Social Impact Bonds (SIBs) are typically used to finance programs that can generate both societal benefits and cost savings, particularly programs administered by nonprofit organizations and government entities. Under the SIB model, private investors provide initial capital in exchange for a return funded from eventual cost savings. Those investors, and not taxpayers, absorb the financial losses if these programs do not achieve projected savings. SIBs have been used to fund programs related to prisoner recidivism, high-quality preschool, and reducing common health hazards, with varying levels of success. As of 2016, nine SIBs operate in the United States, with 50 more in development, representing over $90 million in private investment.

As we describe in our recent report, “Miles to Go: Bringing School Transportation into the 21st Century,” the benefits of switching to buses that run on alternative fuels are well-documented. And they cost less to run, benefiting district budgets. However, in contrast to the public transit sector, where more than one in three buses runs on alternative fuels or hybrid technology, uptake in the school transportation sector has been limited. Of all buses sold in the U.S. and Canada in 2014, only six percent were alternatively fueled. In 2012, that figure was less than three percent.

This is largely due to the additional costs associated with shifting away from diesel. Propane buses cost about five percent more than their diesel counterparts; that figure is 25 percent for buses run on compressed natural gas. Electric buses, which offer the most cost savings and environmental benefit, are more expensive still — often costing an additional $100,000 to $120,000 more than diesel buses.

Transitioning to these buses may also require infrastructure expenditures in the form of fueling and charging stations. For example, case studies from the Department of Energy estimate that installing a propane fueling station costs between $55,000 and $250,000, depending on the station’s size and equipment.

This is where SIBs can help. For SIBs to work, projects have to attract investors by demonstrating the potential for a return on investment. A number of case studies have provided evidence of the potential cost savings of switching to alternatively fueled buses, savings sufficient to offset the higher upfront cost. A 2014 report from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory found savings of between $400 and $3,000 per bus per year associated with replacing diesel with propane, with the incremental costs of the vehicles and related infrastructure being offset over a period of three to eight years. And researchers from the University of Delaware have shown that using an electric school bus instead of a diesel bus could save a district roughly $230,000 per bus over a 14-year lifespan, with the initial investment being recovered after five years.

Alternatively fueled buses are cheaper to fuel, operate, and maintain than diesel buses. Alternative fuels cost less than diesel, and their prices remain relatively stable compared to diesel, which varies with the fluctuation of crude oil prices. There are also a variety of savings from maintenance costs. These buses use less oil and cheaper filters, and unlike their diesel counterparts, they do not require additional treatment to meet federal vehicle emissions standards, potentially saving thousands of dollars in maintenance each year.

Electric buses that use vehicle-to-grid technology — which allows vehicles to communicate and interact with the overall power grid, rather than just draw a charge from it — can even become “prosumers,” meaning they return energy to the grid. The energy stored in the buses’ batteries can be tapped to lower a facility’s electricity bill.

A SIB model for bus replacement could work as follows:

Graphic by authors

SIBs are not without criticism: they may limit the savings that governments could reap from traditional means of public investment. This is the other side of the equation when privatizing potential risk: governments also privatize some of the reward.

However, to date, most districts have not been able to invest the initial capital needed to replace their diesel fleets. Implementing a SIB model could help speed up this process without further draining district budgets. Such a program would not only benefit the environment: districts could also reinvest the savings to improve other aspects of their school transportation systems, or funnel those dollars back into classrooms. It could be a win-win.

To learn more about the current state of the school transportation sector, including how it impacts the environment, read Bellwether’s new report: “Miles to Go: Bringing School Transportation into the 21st Century.”

Toddlers and Touchscreens: What Does the Research Actually Say?

You walk by an outdoor restaurant and see a toddler watching a movie on an iPad while his parents eat dinner. Your first thought is:toddler with iPad

  • a) those parents deserve a break
  • b) screens don’t belong at meal time
  • c) is the video educational?
  • d) alert: bad parenting

Is there an app to help us decide how to respond? No. But a quorum of pediatricians might be able to help.

From 1999 till 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) discouraged the use of screen media by children under two (which might have led an informed passerby to loosely circle answer d while feeling slightly judgmental). But just last month, the AAP departed from its previous strict restriction on screen exposure for this age group.

There was a lot of media attention heralding the departure from the “no screens under two rule.” Some celebrated the beginning of the end of the “screen wars.” In reality, while the new guidelines offer a more nuanced view of screen exposure, the debate will likely rage on. Screens continue to pervade modern life so rapidly that research can’t keep up.

Let me fill in some background on why the AAP changed its recommendations. The “no screens before two” rule was first issued in 1999 as a response to interactive videos for infants such as Baby Einstein. Research showed these videos decreased children’s executive functioning and cognitive development. In October 2011, the AAP reaffirmed its original statement regarding infants and toddlers and media. The AAP’s statement cited three reasons: a lack of evidence on children learning from television or video before age two, studies showing a link between the amount of TV that toddlers watch and later attention problems, and studies pointing to how parents and playtime are affected by always-on TV. Since this statement was developed through  a lengthy internal review process, it was drafted before the iPad was first introduced to the market in April of 2010. So for the last five years, the strict restriction on screen time included touch screens even though the committee hadn’t evaluated the emerging research on this media.

In the intervening years, many doctors and scientists urged the AAP committee on children and media to revisit their recommendations and take a more balanced approach to media. In 2014, Dr. Michael Rich, the director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital, urged experts to base their recommendations on evidence-based decision making instead of values or opinions. He criticized pediatricians for focusing too much on negative effects and overlooking the positive effects of media on children. Later that year, Dr. Dimitri Christikas, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior, and Development at University of Washington, suggested rethinking the guidelines to distinguish between TV and interactive screens. Dr. Christikas was one of the first researchers to determine that the time babies and toddlers spend in front of the TV was detrimental to their health and development. He posited that the time young children spend interacting with touch screens is more analogous to time playing with blocks than time passively watching a television. In 2015, a trio of pediatricians published an article offering further support for the idea that interactive media necessitated different guidelines than television. In the same article, they recognizing the need for further research and argued that doctors should emphasize the benefits of parents and children using interactive media together.

So what are a quorum of pediatricians saying in 2016? Continue reading

Are Bad Online Charter Schools the Canary in the Coal Mine?

Online charter schools are getting a lot of bad press recently. While their critics cheer the bad news, we might consider whether this actually signals broader problems within public education. The persistent failures of these schools aren’t just failures in accountability — they could point to larger ills in the education ecosystem.

Here are just three state-level online charter school stories from the past few weeks:

  • Canari_jaune_lipochrome_intensifK12 Inc.*, which manages a network of online schools enrolling 13,000 students in California, will pay $8.5 million to the state and forgo $160 million to settle claims it misrepresented student achievement, financial records, and more. Organizational finances and governance are also under scrutiny.
  • In Aurora, Colorado, the local school board attempted to end the district’s relationship with HOPE Online Learning Centers due to persistently low achievement, but the district was overruled by the state because “we have to give these parents options,” and “now’s not the right time” for accountability.
  • Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), which enrolls 15,000 Ohio students and ranks among the worst performing schools in the state, lost a recent attempt in court to stop a state audit of their actual online attendance last year. The audit will check if student learning hours match up to what ECOT billed the state.

Add these stories to the results of a recent CREDO study, which found overwhelmingly negative learning effects in online charters the opposite of positive learning trends in charters overall. Even charter advocates know something has gone very wrong in the world of online charters: a “National Call to Action” from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, and 50CAN called out “well-documented, disturbingly low performance by too many full-time virtual public charter schools.”

Almost everyone agrees that authorizers and regulators should do a better job holding virtual schools accountable for results and protecting taxpayer funds from fraud and mismanagement. But when schools of choice with bad learning outcomes continue to grow, they are a canary in the coal mine, alerting us that things have gone awry in the school system as a whole: Continue reading

Education Technology Could Change the Game for Incarcerated Youth, But Students in Custody Don’t Have Access

This week, the education technology community is gathering in San Diego, CA for the 2016 ASU GSV Summit, a conference that the New York Times calls a “must-attend event.” There’s one group of students who will get very little airtime during these three days — and who generally get little airtime at all: young people attending school in locked correctional facilities.

EdTechEducators, innovators, and investors tout the power of technology to personalize learning, provide access to real-world experience, engage students, and accelerate skill development — four things that incarcerated students need most and get least. Most schools in secure facilities have no internet access of any kind, and some of them do not allow students to use computers at all.* For anyone who’s seen the power of good technology used well, the contrast in these settings is heartbreaking.

There are good reasons to be cautious about deploying technology resources in secure facilities. The concerns holding up technology integration are real and serious, but they’re not trump cards.

Continue reading

What Does the NCLB Rewrite Mean for Personalized Learning?

On Monday federal lawmakers released the final text of the bill to replace No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which expired in 2007. While this week’s buzz on the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) has revolved around state accountability (or lack thereof), it’s also worth looking at how the billNCLB—over 1,000 pages long—affects other aspects of schooling. Education technology, in particular, has undergone dramatic changes since the last reauthorization, but federal and state education policies haven’t kept up and have even created barriers to tech-based innovations.

Will the long-awaited rewrite of NCLB create an opportunity for personalized learning? Yes, but only for states willing to take charge. Here are four takeaways:

  1. A proposed edtech program that was hailed by personalized learning champions didn’t make the cut.

Previously, the Senate version of the bill established the I-TECH program (in the House bill, it was called the Schools of the Future Act) to create dedicated federal funding for edtech, with an emphasis on professional development for educators. In October nearly 20 senators and representatives voiced strong support for keeping this standalone edtech program in the final bill.

Personalized learning advocates will be disappointed that I-TECH didn’t make it into the final bill. Continue reading