Curriculum Prompts New Concerns in L.A. iPad Plan

By Benjamin Herold — October 25, 2013 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 11 min read
Students photograph themselves with an iPad during a class at Broadacres Elementary School in Carson, Calif.
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect name of the Barack Obama Global Preparation Academy.

Education officials here tout the new digital curriculum embedded on iPads being distributed to tens of thousands of students as a key piece of their half-billion-dollar effort to transform teaching and learning in the nation’s second-largest district.

But the new software from the publishing giant Pearson that has been rolled out in dozens of schools is nowhere near complete, the Los Angeles Unified School District is unable to say how much it costs, and the district will lose access to content updates, software upgrades, and technical support from Pearson after just three years.

The situation is prompting a new round of questions about an initiative already under withering scrutiny following a series of logistical and security snags.

The Common Core Technology Project, as Los Angeles Unified’s iPad initiative is formally known, is among the first attempts in the country to marry digital devices with a comprehensive digital curriculum from a single vendor. The ambitious effort makes the 650,000-student school system a bellwether for districts seeking a soup-to-nuts solution that implements the new Common Core State Standards, increases students’ access to technology, and moves away from paper textbooks.

“I think it’s the front end of a wave,” said Karen Cator, the CEO of the Washington-based nonprofit Digital Promise and a former director of the U.S. Department of Education’s school technology office.

But just weeks before the Los Angeles school board decides whether to authorize the initiative’s second phase—expected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars—implementation problems related to the new digital curriculum are rearing their head.

Pearson’s Common Core System of Courses, meant to eventually become the district’s primary instructional resource in both math and English/language arts for kindergarten through 12th grade, currently consists of just a few sample lessons per grade, resulting in widespread frustration and confusion among classroom teachers.

In addition, the amount the district is paying to Pearson remains a mystery, leading to increasingly pointed questions from the school system’s divided school board, which called a special meeting to discuss the overall iPad initiative next week.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of scrutiny on how we came to Pearson and what we think of Pearson’s quality,” board member Steve Zimmer said.

Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy sends a text before addressing administrators early this school year. He has championed the use of iPads in city schools.

For their part, LAUSD officials are frustrated, too. Jaime R. Aquino, the district’s deputy superintendent for instruction, who is stepping down at the end of this year, said in an interview that the district’s plan to roll out the new digital instructional materials gradually was spelled out in clear terms months ago. He emphasized the importance of getting original, rather than repurposed, content and argued that the district will have unprecedented input into the development of a publisher’s curriculum.

The future of Superintendent John Deasy, who has championed the technology initiative, also appears uncertain. The Los Angeles Times reported late this week that Mr. Deasy may resign this winter, although nothing formal has been announced.

And despite the questions about the project’s implementation, education technology advocates say that taking a comprehensive approach to integrating hardware and software makes sense. Officials from Pearson, a London-based company with headquarters in New York City, agree.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do for kids in this country what high-performing countries have been doing for their kids for a long time,” said Judy Codding, a managing director at the company who is overseeing development of the new curriculum from her base in Los Angeles.

Ambitious Plan

At the Barack Obama Global Preparation Academy, a sprawling middle school in a tough section of south-central Los Angeles, roughly two-thirds of the school’s 870 students are Latino and one-third are black. All are from low-income households, and 25 percent are learning English as a second language.

It’s the kind of school that LAUSD leaders have in mind when describing the Common Core Technology Project as a social-justice initiative.

In July, the school board approved a $30 million contract with Apple Inc. for the project’s first phase, resulting in 31,000 iPads being distributed to 47 schools, including Obama Prep.

After much initial enthusiasm, the school struggled to develop rules and protocols to guide use of the devices. Now, staff members are wrestling with how to use the iPads for classroom instruction—a challenge, given the extremely limited scope of the digital curriculum Pearson currently has to offer.

“As the Pearson pieces are being built, we are excited about using them,” Principal David E. Bell said diplomatically.

Mr. Aquino, the district’s deputy superintendent, said the urgency to implement the Pearson software is being driven by the common core—the new academic standards for math and English/language arts that emphasize conceptual understanding and the application of knowledge—and by the coming common-core assessments, which California schools will be required to administer for the first time next school year.

Mr. Aquino said that rolling out the new curriculum in phases would allow LAUSD educators and content-area experts the opportunity to test Pearson’s materials and offer feedback.

Major Transition

In making the transition to the common core, experts say it’s smart for districts like Los Angeles to focus on curriculum, frequently described as the missing link between the new standards and the new tests.

“What makes or breaks a student’s learning are how concepts are introduced and developed, how [teachers] check for understanding and follow-up with kids, how students practice, and how concepts are linked,” said Beverlee Jobrack, a consultant and a former educational publishing industry executive.

But Ms. Jobrack, who wrote the book Tyranny of the Textbook, a scathing look at how low-quality, poorly implemented curricula have undermined efforts to improve schools, said that asking teachers to overhaul the way they teach while simultaneously learning new standards and embracing new technology is a tall order for any district.

Pearson hopes to help districts comprehensively address those challenges with its new Common Core System of Courses. Currently being implemented by the LAUSD, a Los Angeles-based charter school network, and districts in San Jose, Calif.; Ardsley, N.Y.; and Hamilton County, Fla., the brand-new software will eventually consist of between 145 and 150 lessons per subject and grade, organized by units and building sequentially year to year.

Designed specifically for tablet computers, the lessons make heavy use of videos, games, and interactive elements and focus on engaging students in solving problems. The final software will include assessments, supplemental materials for students of different skill levels, and tools for taking notes and annotating texts.

“We’re providing the entire instructional system for kids. The whole package,” said Ms. Codding, the Pearson representative.

At Obama Prep, though, that’s not the current reality. Some teachers, including Catherine Proctor, an 18-year veteran and a director of the board of United Teachers Los Angeles, the district’s 35,000-member teachers’ union, are frustrated at being handed what she calls a “half-baked” curriculum and software.

For her 6th grade math classes, said Ms. Proctor, just two sample lessons are available now, and a tool to prevent students from playing games or surfing the Internet during class is not yet functional. As a result, she’s been reluctant to use the devices in her classroom.

“I get that it’s supposed to be tool,” Ms. Proctor said, “but who wants to use a screwdriver without a handle?”

Standardizing Tech

UTLA President Warren Fletcher described that as a common lament and criticized the district for “purchasing the promise of software that hasn’t yet been developed.”

The lack of buy-in from veteran teachers and the confusion on the ground are red flags, said Ms. Jobrack.

“I’m not saying the stars won’t align and it won’t all turn out great,” she said, “but the problem with curriculum reforms is always implementation.”

Many LAUSD educators are integrating the new iPads into their instruction, but their limited use of Pearson materials has raised questions about the district’s approach.

During a recent afternoon at Obama Prep, for example, three students in Diane Burton’s class for children with intellectual disabilities learned arithmetic using Khan Academy, a popular website that offers thousands of free instructional videos; two students completed a spelling lesson using Notability, an app for multimedia notetaking that was included in the deal with Apple; and three students practiced identifying and sorting shapes using one of the sample kindergarten lessons from Pearson.

It’s a scene that reflects best practices from more established 1-to-1 computing initiatives, in which districts have tended to piece together curricula and software tools from various sources.

Douglas A. Levin, the executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association in Glen Burnie, Md., said he understands why districts like Los Angeles—faced with pinched budgets, limited information technology capacity, common-core deadlines, and teaching staffs with widely varying skill levels—are pursuing more standardized approaches.

“It’s absolutely the case that if you standardize on a particular platform, like Apple, and a particular set of software tools, like Pearson, it’s much more cost-effective and easier to provide technical support and professional development,” Mr. Levin said.

But there are also potential downsides to that approach, he added, including the possibility of stifling innovation among content developers.

“It’s really difficult to imagine that one company is going to offer the best in breed for every subject, grade, and type of kid,” Mr. Levin said.

Many districts are weighing the various approaches—and the various contracting arrangements that come with them—and looking to Los Angeles for possible lessons.

One problem, however, is that LAUSD officials say they do not know how much they are paying Pearson because the company is a subcontractor to Apple. Pearson officials referred questions to Apple, which declined to comment.

It also remains to be seen how the district’s ultimate vision—Mr. Aquino said Pearson’s Common Core System of Courses is to become the school system’s “core instructional material, to be supplemented with many other things, at the discretion of the teacher”—will be put into action by teachers like Tiffany DeCoursey, a 15-year veteran at Cimarron Avenue Elementary School.

One morning earlier this month, Ms. DeCoursey, who teaches 3rd grade, deftly led her 18 students from a fictional story about a child entrepreneur, to a nonfiction article the children had to analyze for evidence about whether youngsters can start their own businesses in real life.

From there, the children turned to their iPads, using an app called Pages to create fliers to “market” their own business ideas.

Ms. DeCoursey said that her focus was on supplementing her “good old best practices” with new digital resources, not the other way around.

She expressed surprise at the notion that Pearson’s curriculum—which she used once, before a glitch bounced her students out of the software—is meant to become the foundation of her instruction.

“I did not gather that,” she said.

Ms. Cator of Digital Promise said that when it comes to figuring out the relationship between digital devices and digital curricula, it’s important to give a variety of models a chance to play out.

Compressed Schedule

But in Los Angeles, time appears to be running short.

To save money, the district scaled back its initial desire for a five-year contract with Apple and accepted a three-year deal, leaving a narrow window to ease in the new curriculum as it’s being developed. District and Pearson officials say they expect to renegotiate at the end of the current term.

Superintendent Deasy told the Los Angeles Times that he would provide word on his status following the school board’s official evaluation of his performance, scheduled for next week. Mr. Aquino, who is leaving the LAUSD at the end of this calendar year, in an interview expressed deep frustration with the Los Angeles school board, saying some members had failed to read key documents related to the district’s plans with Pearson.

He also angrily dismissed “innuendo” that his previous employment with America’s Choice, an education research company acquired by Pearson in 2010, had influenced the LAUSD’s decision to select Pearson.

“In this hostile political environment, I cannot lead a student-centered agenda,” Mr. Aquino said.

Meanwhile, Mr. Zimmer, the school board member, called it “stunning” that the company’s software is being rolled out in Los Angeles in its current state. He indicated that the district would face a new questions about the Common Core Technology Project at the board meeting next week and into December, when the panel is expected to vote on whether to approve the initiative’s second phase, recently scaled back by Mr. Deasy in response to criticism.

Mr. Zimmer said he stood by the district’s overall aims and its approach of matching up devices with comprehensive curriculum and said that he had expected rocky patches during the deployment of iPads to students. But he expressed deep concern over the issues surrounding the new curriculum.

“I voted for something that I thought would be ready,” Mr. Zimmer said. “It isn’t. That’s a big problem.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 30, 2013 edition of Education Week as Concerns Over Curriculum in L.A. iPad Plan


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