FBI Investigation Leaves L.A. iPad Initiative in Further Disarray

By Benjamin Herold — December 03, 2014 5 min read
Students photograph themselves with an iPad during a class at Broadacres Elementary School in Carson, Calif.
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The original plan was ambitious, straightforward, and, as it turned out, unrealistic: A single computing device (Apple’s iPad) with a single digital curriculum (from publishing giant Pearson) rolled out to 650,000 students and educators over the course of two school years.

Sixteen months later, the Los Angeles Unified School District’s “Common Core Technology Project” is a fragmented, fractured mess. A seemingly endless series of problems, negative headlines, and high-profile resignations was capped Tuesday by revelations that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had raided district headquarters, carting off 20 boxes of documents related to the initiative’s procurement process.

The shocking news leaves the rollout of digital computing devices in the country’s second-largest district in disarray, with multiple disjointed parts, some of which are still moving, and some of which have been suspended.

Once described as social-justice effort to ensure that disadvantaged students have equitable access to digital technologies, the initiative remains under fire from critics who wonder whether the LAUSD’s massive technology expenditure can be salvaged to benefit schools.

“I think it can,” said Juan Ramirez, the elementary vice president of United Teachers Los Angeles, in an interview with Education Week. “There’s affordable technology that can be brought into the classroom, but we want to make sure that teachers, parents, and the community are included, so we don’t [again] have one person or one small group who are not familiar with classrooms making decisions.”

Other than a statement released Tuesday, the district is not commenting on the FBI investigation.

But Mark Hovatter, the LAUSD’s chief facilities executive, told Education Week on Wednesday that the district isn’t throwing in the towel.

“We’re still moving forward,” Hovatter said. “We don’t see this as a failed program. We still see it as necessary and important.”

Board President Richard Vladovic said in a brief statement Tuesday that the entire board pledges “full and complete” support to federal investigators, as well as for new Superintendent Ramon C. Cortines, who inherited the mess from the recently departed John Deasy.

For his part, Cortines indicated that he would “restart” the bidding process for the remaining schools that were slated to receive devices under existing contracts, but put the rest of the initiative on hold, pending a broad review.

Here’s where that leaves things:

  • 58 Los Angeles schools have received a total of 90,713 iPads preloaded with Pearson’s Common Core System of Courses curriculum. Forty-seven of those schools received their devices last year, as part of the initiative’s first phase. Eleven received their devices last Spring or this Fall as part of the initiative’s second phase. All of those devices were purchased under the district’s original contract with Apple. Total price tag: Approximately $70 million.
  • The LAUSD board has already approved the purchase of laptop computers or Chromebooks for 21 city high schools through “Phase 1L” of the initiative, created last winter in response to concerns about the appropriateness of using iPads in high schools. District officials say devices are currently being ordered for those schools under three distinct contracts, all of which are separate from LAUSD’s original agreement with Apple. One contract is for 624 Chromebook devices from Samsung. One is for 15,830 Lenovo laptops, and the third is for 1,762 Microsoft Surface laptop-tablet hybrid devices. (Each school was given the opportunity to choose from among a short menu of options.) Total projected price tag (including carts and extras): $29.6 million.
  • A total of 38 schools were approved to receive devices as part of the initiative’s second phase, but 27 of those schools have yet to receive their devices. Those schools are now expected to be given the opportunity to choose between iPads and Chromebooks, but not traditional laptops, and not until next school year at the earliest. District officials are initiating a new bidding process shortly. Total price tag: TBD.
  • Separate from the effort to give each LAUSD student his or her own digital device, the district is also purchasing devices to support administration of common-core online tests this spring. District officials are currently waiting on board approval to buy a total of 25,000 testing devices: 21,000 iPads and 4,000 Chromebooks. Total price tag: $22 million ($9 million in already-approved funds, and $13 million to be voted on the board later this month.)

All told, that adds up to 106 schools that have either received devices through the Common Core Technology Project or are in the pipeline to do so this school year or next.

That leaves more than 800 Los Angeles schools with no current plan in place—a staggering number given that officials’ original expectation was that all city schools would have received devices by the end of this month.

Even a revised plan from October 2013 now looks wildly unrealistic; at that point, officials had hoped to distribute tablets to 200 campuses this fall, 250 campuses this spring, and the remainder at the beginning of next school year.

It’s also important to note: All the deployment problems are separate from concerns over how the devices are used once they are actually deployed.

An interim evaluation by the American Institutes for Research, released in September, had dismal news on that front as well: The devices were not being widely used in the classroom. The most common use for the devices when they were given to students was for traditional whole-class instruction—not the types of independent research, content creation, and collaboration that experts suggest. And the unfinished curriculum provided by Pearson, estimated to have cost the district as much as $9 million, was being used in just one of the 245 classrooms that researchers observed.

For Keith Krueger, the executive director of the Consortium for School Networking, a Washington-based membership association for school technology professionals, the turmoil in Los Angeles is further evidence of the need for not just a big vision, but a smart strategy.

“There’s no question that when it comes to technology [initiatives in schools], the hardest part is the culture,” Krueger said in an interview. “To expect that you’re going to change large systems overnight, that’s not going to happen.”

And once an initiative is shattered, he said, it can be hard to put the pieces back together again.

See also:

  • FBI Seizes Records of Los Angeles District’s Massive iPad Purchase
  • In L.A. iPad Initiative, Pearson Curriculum Again Comes Under Fire
  • Hard Lessons Learned in Ambitious L.A. iPad Initiative

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.