Ohio Spending Millions on Online Math Program For Pandemic Recovery

State is latest to tap Zearn Math as a teaching and tutoring tool to overcome double-digit math score drops.

A student doing math on a whiteboard

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Ohio is joining a growing number of states looking to the online learning program Zearn Math to help students catch up after test scores plummeted during the pandemic. 

Gov. Mike DeWine and the state Department of Education are paying more than $7.5 million in federal Covid relief funds to make the online lessons available for all Ohio middle school students for the next three school years. Students can log in to over 1,000 digital math lessons in class, with tutors and even at home tailored to their abilities and learning needs.

Along with adding support for in-person tutoring at schools, Zearn Math is the state’s biggest new strategy for pandemic recovery for this upcoming school year. 

“One priority…is to provide students with tools to accelerate their learning, both for literacy and numeracy,” said Chris Woolard, Ohio’s interim state education superintendent. “Zearn Math is providing Ohio students increased opportunities to access grade-level math concepts no matter where they are.”

Though student test scores in all subjects fell during the pandemic, math has been a particular concern in Ohio and nationally. In Ohio, the statewide proficiency rate in math fell 14 points from 66 percent to 52 percent during the pandemic, compared to eight in reading from 67 to 59 percent. Though scores for middle schoolers have rebounded some, proficiency rates for sixth, seventh and eighth grades were all still down by at least 10 points in 2022 results.

Score drops are higher for Black and low-income students, as well as for students learning English as a second language.

Data from Ohio’s spring 2023 tests will be released next month.

Nationally, the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress scores from 2022 showed the biggest drop in math for 4th and 8th graders since 1990, sparking calls for better intervention to help students.

How much Ohio teachers will use Zearn is still unclear. It’s not required and has not been well-promoted. Officials of the Ohio Council of Teachers of Mathematics said DeWine and the state did not consult them before contracting with Zearn.

“The announcement was the first that we had heard about it,” said Bowling Green State University Professor Gabriel Matney, the council’s president.

Others said they were unfamiliar with the program, though the state has planned online webinars in September and October about how to use it and Zearn has since contacted the council.

Other Ohio educators are skeptical. Chad VanArnhem, superintendent of the Kirtland school district, an affluent rural district near Cleveland, said Zearn Math helped his students a few years ago — at first.

“We have found that online platforms and the gamification that comes with a lot of them, lose their luster after a few years,” VanArnhem said. “Students eventually became less interested and motivated so we moved to another program.”

A nonprofit company in New York City, Zearn claims to be used by one fourth of all elementary students in the U.S. and a million middle school students. It has gained prominence since the pandemic when the company made national news by providing some of the earliest national data about falling math scores and student recovery in the country.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is making Zearn part of its $1.1 billion push to improve national math skills over the next four years. And states like Colorado, Delaware, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Tennessee and Texas, along with Washington, D.C., are using Zearn in math tutoring and classes. And because the online program was readily available during pandemic school closures, Zearn’s sales grew 20 times larger from 2019 to 2021, according to one researcher.

Zearn has enthusiastic support from officials like Matthew Blomsted, Nebraska’s education commissioner, who told Congress last fall that it has been a big part of math recovery there since 2021, both during the school year and in summer programs.

The data on Zearn’s effectiveness is limited or not done by independent or accomplished researchers. Improvement results cited by Blomsted were partially prepared by Zearn. Boasts on its website of students in Washington, D.C.,and Louisiana making gains compared to non-Zearn users are backed by Zearn reports. A claim of students making 1.3 years of progress using Zearn in a single school year is attributed to a Harvard graduate student, not a professor.

A 2019 study by Johns Hopkins University researchers showed preliminary promising results, though cautioned that use of the program can be inconsistent, along with how well teachers are trained in using the program, so measuring gains can be hard.

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