In L.A. iPad Evaluation, Pearson Curriculum Again Comes Under Fire

By Benjamin Herold — September 18, 2014 4 min read
Students photograph themselves with an iPad during a class at Broadacres Elementary School in Carson, Calif.
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An independent evaluation of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s ambitious—and much-maligned—effort to provide digital devices to all students found that the new, multi-million dollar digital curriculum purchased as part of the initiative was seldom used last year because it had gaping holes, was seen by some teachers to lack rigor, and was plagued by technical glitches.

The curriculum, touted by LAUSD and Pearson officials as central to the effort to prepare students for new Common Core Standards and for the related online assessments that will be administered beginning this year, was in use in just one of the 245 classrooms that researchers observed.

Here’s how the evaluator, Washington-based American Institutes for Research, summarized the problem:

At nearly all schools, staff stated that the Pearson curriculum that was promised during initial [training] was not available during the school year. Administrators at three schools said that components of the ELA curriculum were missing (e.g., narrative writing, Grade 3 curriculum), and administrators at two schools said that mathematics components were missing... In addition to a lack of robust content contained in the application, respondents from two schools indicated that the application’s content upload was cumbersome and lengthy. Five schools indicated experiencing issues with login and accessing their Pearson accounts and reported these were barriers to using the application. Furthermore, one elementary school characterized the curriculum as lacking rigor and preferred utilizing the Treasures Reading Program...

Education Week first reported on the big problems with the Pearson curriculum, known as the Common Core System of Courses, in October of last year. At the time, LAUSD and officials from the company, which has headquarters in New York and London, defended the product and its rollout. They refused at the time, however, to divulge how much money had been paid to Pearson, who was a subcontractor to Apple on the $30 million first phase of the project.

Information provided in a report from the LAUSD board last month suggests that amount was somewhere between $4.5 million and $9 million.

In recent weeks, the LAUSD’s Common Core Technology Initiative has come under intense scrutiny, in part because of reports detailing the extensive email communications that Superintendent John Deasy had with officials from Pearson and Apple prior to the formal bidding of the project. Last month, Deasy halted the continuation of the district’s contract with Apple and Pearson, leaving future device purchases to go through a new bidding process. Deasy has since defended the initiative and his role.

The Los Angeles Times reported that the 651,000-student district has to date purchased 109,000 iPads, 62,000 of which have the Pearson curriculum loaded on to them.

The interim evaluation report from AIR contains a wealth of other information. In addition to running through the well-documented litany of troubles the LAUSD ran into while rolling out the devices to schools—"some of the data collected in spring 2014 suggest that the current deployment model is not sufficient to meet the goal of full-scale deployment throughout the entire district on the currently envisioned schedule"—the researchers go into tremendous detail as to how the iPads have actually been used in the classroom.

For anyone interested in getting a detailed snapshot of what the first stage of a 1-to-1 computing initiative looks like in real life, the full report (or at least the executive summary) is a must read.

Some highlights:

Device usage: During May 2014 classroom observations at 15 schools that were part of the first phase of the Common Core Technology Project, AIR researchers found iPads were present in 79 percent of classrooms, but in use in just 48 percent of classrooms. For context, at four non-CCTP schools, laptops were observed in 60 percent of classrooms, but were in use in just 28 percent of classrooms. Three of the 15 schools—20 percent—had made the decision by spring 2014 to stop using iPads altogether. Elementary schools generally demonstrated the highest usage levels, and high schools the lowest.

Type of use: Despite the frequent talk of digital devices being a vehicle for personalized learning, the most frequent use of iPads and other devices in LAUSD classrooms was for whole-class instruction (observed in 26 percent of classrooms). This chart from the report shows what that meant in practice:

Internet research (16 percent of classrooms) and math or reading practice (12 percent) were the next most frequent types of use.

In just 25 of the 245 classrooms observed did students use technology to “create or present a product or project.”

In just 20 of the classrooms observed were students using their iPads as a “learning resource"— i.e., for activities like notetaking, making calculations, image creation, and the like.

In only 12 of the classrooms observed were the devices used to present a text or stream a movie to support instruction.

And in just two of the 245 classrooms AIR researchers observed were teachers using the technology to support collaborative student learning efforts, such as jointly writing and editing a document.

Apps: Students and staff downloaded and used apps fairly widely, the AIR researchers found. The most commonly used were iPad tools apps, such as PowerPoint, Word, and iMovie. ST Math, an instructional math app featuring a wildly popular animated penguin named JiJi, was the most commonly observed instructional app.

I’ll present the researchers’ final takeaway for the LAUSD in their own words:

The challenges discussed above should be addressed promptly, as they impede progress in Phase 1 schools and are likely to impede implementation and subsequent progress in the next phases. Of greatest importance is making sure that adequate support structures are in place, both at school and district levels. Adequate support occurs at three levels. First, it is crucial to ensure that schools are technologically ready (i.e., that adequate infrastructure is in place) before deploying devices. Second, school- and district-level support systems and individuals should be prepared to handle technological issues that arise (e.g., nonworking devices) and should provide training to teachers and other staff who are not familiar with using the devices. Third, to move toward the goals of transforming instruction with technology and ensuring that students have access to 21st century technology and innovative applications of technology to teaching and learning, it is not sufficient to simply provide classroom access to devices. Teachers must be prepared to integrate the technology into instruction, redefining how they present and design instruction. School- and district-level training and professional support must therefore be geared toward developing teachers’ skills in this area. Finally, as the district brings CCTP to full scale, it will be important to have a fully developed communication and feedback plan in place to ensure that these support structures are happening as planned in every school, and are perceived to be effective by various stakeholders.

Chart from American Institutes for Research September 2014 Evaluation of the Common Core Technology Project, Interim Report.

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