AI is tutoring and teaching some students, reshaping the classroom landscape

When you hear “AI” and “schools” in the same sentence, you might think ‘Wait a minute, isn’t that how kids cheat these days?’ Not exactly, say some of the nation's hardest working educators, now using new AI “edtech” tools to help overhaul a long-suffering public education system.

“AI and adaptive software have completely changed how our classrooms look, our school climate, and culture. The student engagement is absolutely magnificent,” Pease Elementary School Principal Micah Arrott said over video call from her office in Odessa, Texas.

Since taking the helm in 2021, Arrott’s one of a few thousand school leaders nationwide to go all-in on “blended learning.” Teachers now use tablets with programs like Age of Learning’s My Math Academy and My Reading Academy to provide tech-assisted one-on-one instruction tailored to every student.

“It has really changed everything, and it’s really magical when you experience our campus now compared to three years ago,” Arrott explains.

“This (My Math Academy) provides us a way to reach every single one of our kiddos where they are and how they learn best,” Pease Kindergarten teacher Shadiana Saenz adds. “They don't necessarily come from a background where they get what they need all the time.”

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Three years ago, students were just returning to classrooms in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Arrott was still relatively new to the principal role at the pre-K through 2nd grade school, with a student body of around 550 kids. And she faced even more challenges.

Odessa is on the westernmost borders of America’s heartland, the location of one of the most productive oil fields in the world. It’s also home to the football team that inspired the book, then movie, then TV series, "Friday Night Lights."

Elementary school student uses My Math Academy AI based education app
Elementary school student uses My Math Academy AI based education app

It’s also a region that knows the high highs of oil booms and winning streaks, and the low lows of busts and losses. The year 2021 was a low.

Between a series of oil industry bankruptcies and the pandemic’s impact on the already economically challenged area, Arrott had to fight to keep the majority of her student body – primarily Hispanic and financially disadvantaged – from falling even further behind.

The Texas Education Agency (TEA), which oversees public schools in Texas, gave Pease an “F” grade based on student achievement and test scores. Ironically, a poor grade can make it harder for schools to get desperately needed funding and support.

At a time when everyone was struggling – not just at Pease, but in similar public schools and communities throughout the country – educators needed a Hail Mary. And new AI tech tools delivered.

What are the benefits of AI in classrooms? 

“There are no classrooms where all of the students learn the exact same way and are at the same level,” Diana Hughes, Vice President of Product Innovation and AI at Age of Learning, said over a video call. “What we see in the more than 600,000 classrooms we’re in is that kids are all over the place, and few are where they’re supposed to be when we start.”

Hughes says there are several reasons for this, and she’s been working to solve it since first starting with the company’s flagship ABCmouse platform more than a decade ago.

“What we know from extensive research actually works, is to assess every single child to find out what they know, don't know and are ready to learn,'' she says. "Then, you go back and reteach anything that they don't understand – and then go forward. You don't move on unless every single kid in the class has mastered it. And then you do that all day, every day, for the rest of their education. And that's a bonkers thing to ask an individual teacher to do for all 30 kids in their classrooms.”

This, Hughes says, is where AI can change their futures.

“We introduce a new concept, give them some experience with it, and then we have games that are designed to assess what they understand,” Hughes explains. “So, they're playing a game, we're getting a lot of data about whether they've understood (what they’ve been taught) or not. And if we get a sense that they don't understand, for example, by getting wrong answers, then we can apply extra feedback.”

What sets this approach apart from “standard” classroom learning is that it only moves on to the next topic or idea when the student is ready. “The system is sort of going through this loop of teaching, assessing, assisting if needed, and then making a choice about what (the student) is ready for,'' Hughes says. "It’s completely different from the ‘one-size-fits-all approach of traditional models. This way, no one else gets left behind, and advanced students don’t get held back either.”

The results speak for themselves. Age of Learning has a track record of success in some of the country's most at-risk and low-performing schools, including Jefferson County in Tallahassee, Florida. After 15 years of “failure,” with students often five years behind their grade level, assessment scores increased after as little as 12 hours of AI-assisted learning.

Will AI replace teachers? 

At a very different sort of school, Austin’s $40,000 per year private Alpha High School is filled with students using app-based “AI Tutors” to score an average of 1545 (out of 1600) on their SATs. The national average is 1030.

“AI is a great equalizer,” MacKenzie Price, co-founder of 2hr Learning and Alpha School, says over the phone. “AI is infinitely patient; it doesn't care how fast or slow it takes you to learn a concept, which is impossible in a traditional classroom. It doesn't care if the student is Black or white or brown. It doesn't care if the student is rich or poor. And it also doesn't care if a kid is in the 10th or 99th percentile. It can raise the bar of what's possible.”

In “Alpha School,” students spend two hours in the morning focused on personalized education supercharged by AI, with instructors taking the role of “supportive guide and counselor” rather than “traditional teacher,” Price says. Students spend the remaining hours of the school day on life skills, arts, sports, and even entrepreneurship.

“It has made learning a lot more fun,” says 18-year-old Peyton Price, a senior at Alpha High (and MacKenzie Price’s daughter). One example Peyton shared is recently using AI to replace lyrics to the Taylor Swift song “Blank Slate” to help her study for her AP U.S. Government final.

“Nice to meet you, let's begin, explaining AP Gov, where to begin? Declaration of Independence, set the stage, for American democracy, a turning page Natural rights, sovereignty, social contract, it's true, these are the principles that guide what we do.”

She also uses another of her mother’s latest tech tools, a new “TikTok for studying” called TeachTap. In the app, students learn from AI-generated versions of Albert Einstein, Harriet Tubman, Marie Curie, and hundreds of other historical figures who speak to – and interact with – them. TeachTap starts free but runs anywhere from $20 for “discounted course access” to $250 for “unlimited AP test prep.”

“A lot of adults and educators are like, ‘TikTok is bad, or social media is hurting you,’” Peyton explains, “but what’s working for my generation is people who ask us, ‘What are the things you find interesting, what do you enjoy,’ and then figure out how to make a version of that to help with our education.”

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MacKenzie Price adds, “That’s what we’re doing here, taking all those potential negative effects of screen time and turning that into learning. We’re taking the power of AI and using it for good.”

Can AI help all the kids at public schools?

Back in Odessa, 8-year-old second grader Trip Galloway tells a similar story. Trip is an advanced student at Pease Elementary. “He’s in the second grade but already reading at ninth grade level,” his mother Savannah said over the phone. “He learns so quickly that he was getting bored and just kind of tuning out in school. Once they started AI learning, he’s able to excel, concentrate, and work more to his ability.”

“It’s important because it teaches us things the teacher wouldn’t normally (be able to) because the apps teach you when you need it,” Trip chimes in. “Most of my friends are a grade level under me, and it didn’t used to be any fun. Now it’s fun.”

Trip Galloway enjoys AI learning
Trip Galloway enjoys AI learning

When I ask Trip what it would be like to return to how things used to be in his classroom, he groans and says, “It would feel boring because, with the (AI), we’re doing our things faster and more fun. It’s way better than doing worksheets all day and having the teachers teach us all day.”

That’s a tough sentiment for veteran teachers like Carlton Conn-Oquendo to hear. She’s taught various grades and subjects at Chicago’s Hawthorne Scholastic Academy for some 42 years and knows firsthand that for all the help AI tools can give students and teachers, they won’t ever replace the single most crucial part of her job.

“Technology is a great tool, but it can’t replace the human connection,” she says over the phone. “Most of us still remember that one teacher who really spoke to us and influenced us. You can augment all you want with technology. But it really, really makes an impact on children to have that connection.”

Jennifer Jolly is an Emmy Award-winning consumer tech columnist and on-air correspondent. The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY. Contact her at

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How can AI be used in education? From ABCs to SATs