Corrected: An earlier version of this story misidentified the grades in which Huntsville city schools distribute laptops to students. They are distributed in grades 3-12.
For Superintendent Casey Wardynski of the Huntsville city schools in Alabama, it made sense to rely on a single curriculum provider to help facilitate his district’s conversion to digital instructional materials and 1-to-1 computing.
Like their counterparts in the Los Angeles Unified School District, a system roughly 30 times larger, officials in the 23,000-student Huntsville district are relying on Pearson for everything from curriculum to professional development as they ramp up technology and implement the Common Core State Standards. It’s a decision that puts both systems out front of what many observers say could be a wave of districts purchasing devices and curriculum in a coordinated fashion.
“This is obviously a big undertaking for a school system, so you want to remove as much risk as you can,” said Mr. Wardynksi. “The beauty of having an integrated system is you don’t have the problem of trying to learn 15 different systems and five different user interfaces. It all hangs together.”
But there are also big differences in the two districts’ approaches.
For starters, Los Angeles Unified is distributing iPads systemwide, while Huntsville has given out iPads only in early grades and Hewlett-Packard laptops in grades 4-12.
Los Angeles is also among the first districts in the country to test Pearson’s all-in-one Common Core System of Courses, which is still being developed, while Huntsville is using almost 50 different existing curricular materials, all developed by Pearson, covering different grades and subjects.
And while Los Angeles is slowly phasing in its curriculum, Huntsville went from paper to digital almost overnight.
“I think it’s much stronger when kids are working in that [digital] environment continuously,” Mr. Wardynski said.
Outside observers say the jury is still out on the benefits of districts’ marrying digital devices and curricula, as well as on the specific contractual arrangements being tested. Those arrangements can include a single point of accountability with one vendor or separate agreements with multiple vendors, with different levels of responsibility for loading curriculum into devices.
Those arrangements can include a single point of accountability with one vendor or agreements with multiple vendors, with different responsibility for loading curriculum into devices
“These all-in-one packages are really smart and help address real implementation issues that many districts have,” said Douglas A. Levin, executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association. “But there’s a lot of money at play here, and people are placing really big bets on new and novel approaches.”
Getting Into the Act
For their part, Pearson officials say that “holistic decisionmaking” by districts when it comes to software and hardware is “certainly on the rise,” and that the company is flexible in meeting districts’ needs.
Other publishers are trying to get into the act; McGraw-Hill Education, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Discovery Education were among those bidding for the LAUSD contract.
Amplify, an independent subsidiary of News Corp., is also pushing its new tablets, which can be preloaded with the company’s own digital curricula. (Larry Berger, the president of Amplify Learning, the company’s curriculum division, is a trustee of Editorial Projects in Education, the publisher of Education Week.)
Mr. Wardynski said Huntsville is shifting from focusing on the technical challenges of implementation to focusing on classroom practices, including expanding teachers’ freedom to experiment.
“Pearson was our foundation to help our teachers get going,” he said. “Once [educators are] good at it, they can begin embellishing with their own content.”
A version of this article appeared in the October 30, 2013 edition of Education Week as Alabama District Merges Tech, Curriculum