Vegas Schools Hope iPad Program Will Boost Test Scores

By Paul Takahashi, Las Vegas Sun — October 18, 2011 6 min read
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Paper textbooks might soon go the way of the slide rule and the typewriter as the Clark County, Nev., school district launches a $790,050 iPad program, one of the largest of its kind in the nation.

Instead of receiving hefty books, about 1,150 Las Vegas middle and high school students were given thin iPad 2 tablets, each loaded with an interactive-textbook application for their Algebra 1 classes.

Four schools are part of the one-year pilot program that’s costing the district $687 per iPad, a price that includes an Algebra 1 textbook application developed by publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

The application is more than just a digital textbook. It is interactive, engaging students with touch-tap lessons and video tutorials, and has note-taking capabilities, said Josef Blumenfeld, the senior vice president of corporate affairs for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

“These are no e-books, or repurposed digital versions of textbooks,” he said. “These are reimagined, interactive books—the real benefit being we can now deliver truly personalized instruction. We’ve tried to craft something that 20 years from now will be the norm.”

The application allows users to learn at their own pace, Mr. Blumenfeld said. If students miss a class, they can tap into about 400 video tutorials led by textbook author Edward Burger, a mathematics professor at Williams College in Massachusetts.

“Videos allow for anywhere, anytime instruction,” Mr. Blumenfeld said. “For students who might have missed class or didn’t understand the lesson, you can push a button and have it explained again and again. You have a teacher available anytime, anywhere.”

Bold Move in Tough Times

In a society driven more than ever by digital technology, the iPad program is another way schools are trying to keep up with the times, said Jhone Ebert, the district’s chief technology officer.

“We’re focused on students and making sure they have 21st-century technology,” she said. “We shouldn’t be asking them to power down when they come into the school building.”

It’s a bold move by the cash-strapped district, which came under fire last year after purchasing $1 million worth of iPads for administrators. The school district faces a $56 million budget shortfall, which it plans to plug with concessions from its four employee unions.

District officials say it’s too early to tell if the pilot program will be cost-efficient or deliver higher test scores.

Technology is just one of many factors that affect test results. A New York Times article published in early September, however, called into question the billions of dollars districts are spending nationwide on technology without much proof it improves test scores or student achievement.

The Times looked at Arizona’s 18,000-student Kyrene school district, where classrooms boast latops, interactive “smartboards,” and educational software. The K-8 district had invested about $33 million in technology since 2005, but test scores in reading and math have remained stagnant since then, according to the article.

Early Results Promising

The 310,000-student Clark County district, which includes Las Vegas, is slowly adopting those technologies, filling classrooms with the interactive boards and digital projectors. The district will finish installing Wi-Fi in all 356 schools by December, which will allow for mobile devices—such as iPads—to be used in classrooms.

The new technologies are being implemented using leftover funds from a 1998 construction bond. It’s all done in hopes of raising Clark County’s test scores and graduation rates, which are some of the lowest in the country.

It’s a gamble, but one district officials think they can win.

“There’s always a fear of something new,” Ms. Ebert said. “We need to get over that fear. It’s our hope that all of these students [in the iPad program] will be successful.”

Last year, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt launched smaller iPad programs in California. The company is still crunching the data from those trials, but the preliminary results show major student improvement, Mr. Blumenfeld said.

Test scores in the Riverside, Calif., schools jumped 30 percentage points, from 60 percent to 90 percent proficiency in math, he said.

Clark County and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will study the effectiveness of the pilot iPad program in Las Vegas. The district hopes to have midyear results in February and full results by July.

While district officials acknowledge the technology is still largely unproven, they insist Clark County is not just jumping on the school technology bandwagon without good reason.

“We’re not focused on having the latest and greatest,” Ms. Ebert said. “We’re focused on, ‘Is this a tool that will help our students achieve?’ ”

Indeed, Algebra 1 is one of the most-failed courses in the school district, she said.

Only half the students in Clark County passed the math section of the High School Proficiency Exam on their first try last year. A quarter of students won’t pass the math section by their senior year and, as a result, will fail to graduate.

“We can’t continue to let this happen,” Ms. Ebert said. “Our students deserve to be successful. If it takes this technology to get them engaged, we’re going to try it.”

About 500 excited students and their parents waited in long lines in Las Vegas’ Silverado High School cafeteria one night in mid-September to receive their iPads.

Silverado Principal Kim Grytdahl watched as eager students fawned over their new “textbooks.”

Mr. Grytdahl started his career as a math teacher 21 years ago.

“At the time, the technology we used [in math class] was a graphing calculator,” he said. “Today, these kids have the privilege to learn math in a new, innovative way. ... I wish I were a student again.”

Before receiving the iPads, parents and students had to sign waivers acknowledging they are on the hook should the tablets break.

Each iPad is equipped with a locator application, which uses Wi-Fi signals to pinpoint its location should it go missing.

Only the algebra application and a few key tools are loaded onto the devices. At school, students are blocked from inappropriate sites via firewalls. The App Store, where iPad users can purchase games and other applications, is locked on the device, but school officials are looking at opening the online store in the future.

Freshman Catherine Rodriguez flashed a big smile as she received her new iPad. Math isn’t her strongest subject; she hopes the new technology will help her, she said.

Five Times the Tools

Passing math is a big concern for Ms. Rodriguez’s mother, who took three years to pass prealgebra, she said.

“They’re giving students five times the tools I had growing up,” Mary Young, 43, said. “If I had these tools, I might have done better in school.”

For sophomore Adam Barba and his father, Troy Barba, the new iPads are a promising development at school. While the Barbas are excited about the “textbook of the future,” they wonder what they are giving up for the new-fangled gadgets.

Adam’s choir class was on the chopping block earlier this year as the district contemplated budget cuts, his father said. It was saved when the state allocated additional funding to the district.

“I’m worried this is going to take away from the arts,” said Troy Barba, 41. “I know [iPads] are the wave of the future, but without art programs and other extracurriculars, kids are missing out.”

An AP Member Exchange. Copyright 2011 Las Vegas Sun. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
A version of this article appeared in the October 19, 2011 edition of Education Week as Las Vegas Schools Bet iPad Effort Will Improve Learning

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