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Colorado offers K-12 schools Zearn digital math learning platform at no cost

Two young women sit at desks in a classroom with laptops open, looking to a teacher who sits between them going through a textbook.

Experts in math instruction said teachers need good training to make the best use of online tools.

Allison Shelley for EDUimages

Colorado is making the digital learning program Zearn Math available for free to schools statewide as part of a broader effort to address gaps in math learning that widened during the pandemic. 

Gov. Jared Polis has set aside up to $6 million in pandemic relief money to pay for licenses for the digital program and to pay for printed materials for schools that adopt Zearn’s math curriculum Training also will be available to teachers in how to use the new platform.

Math scores on state and national standardized tests declined during the pandemic, with sharper drops in math than in reading and writing. Both educators and policymakers are focused on how to help students gain skills they missed out on during three disrupted years. 

Last month, Polis and lawmakers unveiled a bipartisan $25 million proposal to offer widespread after-school tutoring in math, expand teacher training, and encourage districts to adopt high-quality curriculum. In addition, the initiative included plans for the state to pay for licenses for a digital math accelerator and make them available at no cost to schools statewide. 

Polis announced this week that Colorado has selected Zearn Math as the state’s online math program. The state did not request proposals, instead choosing Zearn based on studies and reviews and purchasing it from a software reseller at a set price.

“We are taking an all-hands-on-deck approach to boost student math achievement and make sure Colorado kids have the support and practice they need to excel in math,” Polis said in a press release. “This new access saves school districts and families money and is part of our ongoing work to provide high-quality education for every Colorado student.”

Polis spokeswoman Melissa Dworkin said the governor’s team considered several programs and chose Zearn Math based on studies provided by the company that showed students who used Zearn regularly made substantially more progress than those who didn’t. 

Educators who study math instruction and ways students learn through gaming and online platforms said Zearn has positive elements but cautioned that teachers need training and time to learn how to use it well. It shouldn’t be used as a substitute for in-person instruction by well-trained teachers, they said, and teachers need to make sure students are engaged and supported in their learning.

Started by New York teachers and backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the program is used widely in states like Tennessee and Texas. Many New York City schools also use Zearn Math. The program is intended to be used in conjunction with in-person, whole class instruction. (The Gates Foundation is a funder of Chalkbeat. See our funders here. Read our ethics policy here.)

Mary Pittman, president of the Colorado Council of Teachers of Mathematics, said she feels “hopeful excitement” about the plan.

“It is new for Colorado to have access to a program like this across the board,” she said.

She described the platform as offering flexible, high-quality materials built around Common Core State Standards, which are the basis for Colorado’s academic standards. She said Zearn was originally used most often for intervention with students who were far behind in math, but that it also offers a well-regarded comprehensive core curriculum, data that can inform teachers’ daily instruction, as well as lessons that can be used during tutoring or at home. 

David Webb, an associate professor of math education at the University of Colorado Boulder who also heads a research consortium on math instruction, said Zearn seems to have good content and be based on solid ideas around math instruction. He worries, though, about relying too much on digital platforms, when it was the lack of interaction with teachers and peers that contributed to learning gaps during online and hybrid school. 

“To see it resolved through digital platforms, it rubs me a little bit the wrong way,” he said. “I understand the desire to get back on track and come up with personalized interventions. But to say we’re going to have you spend more time on technology, I think we need a more holistic fix.”

A 2019 Johns Hopkins study found students in some subgroups using Zearn made statistically significant progress but overall results were less significant. Students in schools that used Zearn for more hours a week generally saw more improvement than those that used it for fewer hours. Teachers in the study generally liked the program and felt it supported student learning.

Even so, many teachers reported the format of Zearn — which requires students to work independently and to read, listen, and type responses — made it hard for some students to use.

Meanwhile, students who used Zearn in the study were less likely to express confidence in their math skills compared with students at schools that didn’t use Zearn. A potential explanation, the study authors wrote, was that students may have found the Zearn material “more challenging than previously experienced, which may have affected their feelings toward mathematics in general.” 

Webb said these types of findings underscore the importance of coupling digital platforms with instruction from teachers and opportunities for students to work through math problems with their peers. It’s also critical for teachers to get training — something that has become much more challenging as teachers lose their planning periods to cover for colleagues or can’t go to conferences due to substitute shortages, Webb said.

Arturo Cortez, an assistant professor of learning sciences and human development and director of The Learning To Transform (LiTT) Video Gaming Lab at the University of Colorado, said the teachers he works with who already use Zearn love it because it helps them see quickly which students got the lesson and which need more help. 

Zearn also has the potential to bridge divides between the home and the classroom and help parents better support their children’s learning, Cortez said.

He cautioned, though, that teachers need opportunities to learn how to use the program, play with it, and think through how it can help their students — not just a perfunctory session to get familiar with the interface. It’s also important to see how — and whether — students engage with the tool.

“With a lot of digital tools, we sit kids in front of them and don’t spend time with them while they are using them,” he said. “What makes them engaging? What makes kids have that commitment? And how do we create environments like that in the classroom?” 

Colorado schools can sign up for Zearn Math for the 2023-24 school year. 

Chalkbeat Senior Reporter Ann Schimke contributed reporting.

Bureau Chief Erica Meltzer covers education policy and politics and oversees Chalkbeat Colorado’s education coverage. Contact Erica at emeltzer@chalkbeat.org.

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