The Los Angeles Unified School District has been lauded -- and scrutinized -- for its trailblazing efforts to reform teacher evaluation and include student achievement in hiring and firing decisions. But the $1 billion push to provide every student and teacher with an iPad may be attracting the most attention.
School board members have questioned the costs and benefits of the investment. Parents and teachers have good cause to be skeptical of technology. Schools have been overwhelmed in recent years by oversold, ill-designed and frustrating new gizmos. Questions about whether dollars allocated to new technology are being spent wisely deserve serious consideration.
While these concerns are warranted, they should not hold students back from a 21st century learning experience.
Skeptics fear that the district’s investment in education technology is “anti-teacher,” that it represents some kind of insidious plot to replace teachers with machines. This strikes us as bizarre. Why? Try to remember the last time a doctor viewed an MRI or needle-free diabetes care as “anti-doctor.” We just don’t talk that way; we understand that these things are not a substitute for skilled care but tools that allow professionals to do their jobs better.
New technologies have made it possible for professionals of all stripes to tackle routine chores more quickly and precisely. This has allowed roles to evolve over time, creating new professional paths and the opportunity for them to spend more time putting their expertise to work. It would be terrific if such changes came to schooling, but this will be a gradual process and one in which teachers will have a large say.
Skeptics have also expressed doubts about the wisdom of introducing technology into high-poverty schools. They wonder if students will respect the devices, or can use them. They argue that any available funds should instead be spent on teachers. At a philosophical level, we reject this premise. Children who grow up in poverty will have to negotiate a wired world, alongside their more privileged peers. The students of South Los Angeles should have access to the same learning tools that suburban students enjoy.
More prosaically, early evidence suggests that students treasure these devices, use them and master the skills they’ll need for college or career. In Riverside, one of the first California districts to try to put a device in every student’s hands, the “destruction” rate was less than one-fifth that of textbooks, keeping the costs well within the budgeted range. Technology that lets teachers spend more time coaching and mentoring, and less time collecting paper, can be a powerful way to support great instruction.
Finally, skeptics worry that digital learning creates a slippery slope where students will not need to be physically present in school. The fear is that kids will be off on their own, potentially unsupervised. There are grounds for sensible discussion here, but warehousing disengaged students in schools is not the answer. L.A. high schoolers can today enroll in a Stanford course while sitting at Starbucks. Our focus should be on helping students excel as thinkers and citizens -- not on the where and when.
With all that said, education technology will not magically improve test scores or make learning more “fun.” But it can help professionals and parents support student learning and growth. In the case of LAUSD, iPads are one tool, not a solution, to help educators engage students and provide students the support they need. It creates new opportunities for students to learn and grow; these opportunities should not be driven by community politics, grand promises or state procurement deadlines, but by helping students learn and teachers teach.
A version of this column, co-authored with L.A. Unified’s Schools Chief John Deasy, ran previously in the Los Angelos Daily News. If you’re interested in all this, check out by new book with Bror Saxberg, Breakthrough Leadership in the Digital Age. For more context on LA’s troubled roll out, see here.
The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.