Strategies to Address Unfinished Learning with Technology: An Opportunity for Providers of Digital Math Learning

MDRC, in collaboration with RAND Corporation, Digital Promise, Westat, and Public Strategies, announces an upcoming Request for Proposals (RFP) seeking qualified entities to provide digital, adaptive math products that complement core teacher-led instruction and supports elementary school students with unfinished learning to “catch up” to grade-level content. The selected providers will participate in a large-scale, national evaluation project funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES). The purpose is not to evaluate individual products but rather to evaluate catch-up strategies implemented by such products.

A central goal of Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), as amended by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), is to help schools ensure that all children meet challenging academic standards. Recent national and international assessments show persistent gaps in mathematics performance between student groups. Disruptions to schooling caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have led to students falling further behind. Consistent with the goals of ESEA and ESSA, the objective of this project is to provide evidence about the effectiveness of competing approaches to improve student math achievement, particularly among students with unfinished learning.

The RFP will seek providers of existing digital technologies that support math learning. Products must include the following four core components:

  • Math content covering key upper elementary grade standards and prerequisite skills and knowledge. Products align with state math standards with an emphasis on number sense and operations with respect to fractions.
  • Frequent adaptive assessments to identify each student’s unfinished learning. Products have a methodology for diagnosing students’ unfinished learning in math, directing each student to math content that addresses their specific needs, reassessing if learning needs were addressed, and directing each student to the next appropriate content area.
  • Targeted math activities and lessons to address each student’s unfinished learning. Products use instructional practices that align with the What Works Clearinghouse Practice Guide for Assisting Struggling Students with Mathematics and provide engaging and motivating content to improve each student’s math achievement and provide them with timely feedback on their performance. ​
  • Progress monitoring systems. Products include the capability to collect information about (1) individual student-level usage (e.g., time using the product; activities and lessons accessed, completed, successfully completed) and (2) individual student- and classroom-level reports or dashboards for the teacher to monitor product usage and student learning.

The RFP will further seek entities with products that are currently able to support both of the following two separate instructional approaches or could build on their existing technology to support both of these approaches in the future:

  • The Sequential approach helps a student build mastery in each topic area for which they have unfinished learning. This approach uses a diagnostic broad enough to create an initial map of unfinished learning and identifies a starting place for each student. The product then moves adaptively through all areas of unfinished learning following a learning progression aligned with state standards, building the student’s mastery in each topic area. The product instruction operates independently from the teacher’s full-class instruction.
  • The Just-In-Time approach helps a student with unfinished learning that directly supports their understanding of the grade-level topic currently being covered in class. Based on input from the teacher about the current grade-level topic being taught during full-class instruction, the product identifies any unfinished learning that is foundational to that topic and identifies a starting place for each student. The product then moves adaptively through any unfinished learning related to the current grade-level topic. The teacher inputs when the classroom instruction moves to a new grade-level topic, and the product adjusts the lessons and activities it provides students as needed, moving the focus to unfinished learning that is foundational to the new topic.   

Each product selected for the study must be capable of providing both instructional approaches. To contrast the efficacy of these two approaches, individual students will be randomly assigned to one of the approaches, and the product will maintain that assignment for the duration of the study. IES will, if needed, include resources to support providers to make modifications to their products to meet these specifications. However, a product that can do both instructional approaches must be fully operational by the 2023-24 school year.

Products will be used during the regular classroom math instructional time for approximately 60 minutes per week. Selected providers must support start-up of product usage in participating schools, including integration of the product software into the districts’ systems and initial training for all study teachers and up to two other staff members per school on how to use the product. The provider must also support the study team in monitoring student usage and help address technical or usage issues when they arise. Each provider will serve elementary grade students in approximately 75 elementary schools during the 2023-24 and 2024-25 school years.

Proposals will be evaluated based on the quality of the product, including its ability to fully implement each of the core components as specified in the RFP and the soundness of its methods in operationalizing both instructional approaches (Sequential and Just-In-Time); the quality of proposed start-up procedures, trainings, and monitoring and support; a research-based rationale and previous evidence of the product’s efficacy; and the organizational capacity to deliver the product, conduct trainings, and collaborate with the study team on monitoring implementation and addressing challenges.

The RFP was released on May 18, 2022, and can be found here.