Classroom Technology

Hard Lessons Learned in Ambitious L.A. iPad Initiative

By Benjamin Herold — September 08, 2014 8 min read
Sonny Jennings, an 8th grader at the Ocean Charter School, which is part of the Los Angeles Unified School District, showed what he could do with an iPad when the devices were first issued to students last school year.
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The Los Angeles school system’s ambitious effort to provide all its students with digital computing devices is again in flux, this time after complaints about possible conflicts of interest and bid manipulation by senior district officials.

Superintendent John Deasy late last month halted an agreement with Apple Inc. and the educational publisher Pearson, which in 2013 partnered to win a $30 million contract to provide iPads preloaded with a new digital curriculum to 30,000 students in 47 schools.

That nationally watched deal was for the first phase of a planned systemwide, billion-dollar technology initiative through which Apple and Pearson were expected to eventually provide tablets and curriculum to all of the 651,000 students in the Los Angeles Unified School District as part of an effort to prepare for the new Common Core State Standards and related assessments.

Mr. Deasy’s decision to restart the bid process came amid a fresh wave of criticism about what some see as cozy relationships between the superintendent, a key member of his staff, and representatives from Apple and Pearson.

In late August, Mónica M. Ratliff, a member of the LAUSD board, released a 118-page report from a committee charged with monitoring the Common Core Technology Project, as the initiative is formally known. Among the committee’s major concerns was the appearance of possible manipulation of the bidding process in ways that may have improperly advantaged preferred vendors.

Shortly after, radio station KPCC published a story based on emails between Mr. Deasy, then-Chief Academic Officer Jaime R. Aquino, and officials from Apple and Pearson. The reports showed extensive communications about how the companies might be involved in the pending technology initiative well before formal bidding began.

The KPCC story also detailed how Pearson’s charitable foundation paid for registration and iPads with Pearson content for district staff members who attended a retreat.

Mr. Deasy has bristled at the criticism. He wrote in a six-page letter to the school board that there is “not even a tentative hook upon which to hang allegations of wrongful conduct.”

After a review of the bidding process and contract award, the school system’s inspector general earlier this year declined to prosecute anyone in the district. Amid the acrimony, the effort to distribute digital devices goes on, albeit in a form that now differs considerably from Mr. Deasy’s original vision. District officials now say that the 47 schools that have already received iPads will continue to use them. Eleven more schools will receive the same tablets this school year.

But 20 district high schools are slated this school year to receive one of six different laptop computers or netbooks, and 27 additional schools are set to receive devices to be determined during a newly created bidding process.

For many in the field, the LAUSD’s effort—beset last school year by a series of implementation problems—remains an object lesson in how not to bring 1-to-1 digital computing to K-12 classrooms.

“This is really complex work,” said Leslie Wilson, the chief executive officer of the One-to-One Institute, a nonprofit organization based in Mason, Mich., that helps districts implement student-computing initiatives. “A ‘spray and pray’ strategy of showering schools with devices and hoping there is then some corresponding academic benefit isn’t going to get it done.”

1-to-1 Lessons Learned

Education Week asked experts on 1-to-1 computing initiatives to weigh in on the key lessons identified in the LAUSD committee report on the troubles in Los Angeles.

Lesson 1: Urgency Is No Excuse for Poor Planning

The first signs of trouble in the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Common Core Technology Project appeared within a week of the first wave of iPad distribution. Media reports said that hundreds of high school students had disabled the district’s device-management system and defeated its content-filtering software to gain greater access to the Internet through the district-provided tablet computers.

For the LAUSD school board committee charged with reviewing the project, the incidents were a sign that district leaders had rushed the deployment of the devices without adequate planning or realistic timelines.

The lack of a clear evaluation plan or metrics for gauging success also troubled the school board—even after the second phase of the initiative was dramatically scaled back.

Superintendent John Deasy has consistently defended the project’s aggressive rollout plan. He cites the need to get students ready for new digital common-core assessments and the moral imperative to provide disadvantaged students with the same learning technologies their more affluent peers routinely use.

But educators and digital learning experts such as Mark A. Edwards, the superintendent of the 5,600-student Mooresville Graded School District in North Carolina, who has overseen one of the most widely acclaimed 1-to-1 student-computing initiatives in the country, say that rushing digital devices into classrooms without an effective plan for how they will be used to improve learning does students no favors.

“I can certainly understand the moral urgency around equity of access,” Mr. Edwards said in an interview.

“But you have to balance that urgency with the necessity of due diligence.”

Lesson 2: Be Wary of One-Size-Fits-All Solutions

The central idea behind the Common Core Technology Project was to give all students in the Los Angeles Unified district a single device preloaded with a standard digital curriculum.

In its report, the school board committee aggressively challenged that approach, stating that “no evidence was offered that tablets or iPads are the best device to meet the needs of all LAUSD’s students.” The committee also sharply criticized Pearson’s curriculum—for which the district paid between $4.5 million and $9 million, based on information provided in the report—as incomplete.

Now, in large part due to the committee’s urging, a mix of laptops and Chromebooks is to be tried in high schools, with time for evaluation scheduled before subsequent purchasing decisions are made.

“It seems like a good idea to try out different things,” David M. Zlotchew, the interim chief of staff to school board member Monica M. Ratliff, said in an interview.

Not everyone agrees that deploying multiple devices is a wise course of action for districts.

Mr. Edwards of North Carolina’s Mooresville schools said that having a “standard piece of equipment is essential” to providing equitable access and implementation, as well as delivering consistent professional development and technical support.

Leslie Wilson of the One-to-One Institute agreed—so long as the single device to be distributed districtwide (or at least in grades 3-12) is a laptop, not a tablet, a device that she does not believe is sufficient to help older students meet current expectations related to critical thinking and content creation.

But both Mr. Edwards and Ms. Wilson were adamant that purchasing a single digital curriculum for all grades from a lone publisher does not make sense, given the breadth and depth of digital instructional materials now available.

Ms. Wilson said she was particularly “appalled” by Los Angeles’ decision to spend millions on Pearson’s Common Core System of Courses even though it consisted of only a few sample lessons per grade at the time of purchase and remained incomplete more than a year later.

“Who in their right mind would purchase something for millions of dollars that is not yet constructed and that you have not yet seen?” she said.

Lesson 3: Don’t Play Favorites With Vendors

In constructing its original request for proposals for the Common Core Technology Project, the Los Angeles system largely followed the hardware guidelines put forth by the multistate consortium behind the new digital assessments aligned with the common-core standards that will be used in California beginning this school year.

In its report, however, the board committee that reviewed the project noted with concern that the district had added an unnecessarily detailed specification regarding screen size, touchscreen functionality, and compatibility with a stylus that “risked creating an appearance that such specification may have been included for an improper anti-competitive purpose” by effectively favoring Apple’s iPads and excluding most laptop and netbook options.

For similar reasons, the committee also worried about the district’s requirement that any digital instructional content be originally designed to meet the Common Core State Standards, rather than retrofitted or adapted. In its report, radio station KPCC detailed how the bid requirements related to curriculum closely tracked with specifications suggested by Pearson during private email exchanges before the formal bidding process opened.

The board committee also wrote that a last-minute change in the bidding rules to allow three finalists to submit proposals that included a three-year instead of five-year warranty “opens the door to the appearance of manipulation.”

In a letter intended to “set the record straight,” Superintendent Deasy defended himself and the bidding process and derided the notion that such interactions between a district chief and a vendor are a sign of wrongdoing.

Nevertheless, the LAUSD is reopening its bidding process, and the 1-to-1 initiative is again in a state of uncertainty.

The lesson, said Ms. Wilson of the One-to-One Institute, is that district leaders often have to go above and beyond to ensure public trust when making large technology purchases.

“A lot of people knock on superintendents’ doors, because they’re key decisionmakers,” she said. “The kinds of relationships they develop peak to their integrity and ethics, and they have to be careful about making decisions based on the needs of children, not who has the slickest device or the greatest salespeople.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 10, 2014 edition of Education Week as Hard Lessons Learned In L.A. iPad Initiative


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