For my recent story on the fresh controversies surrounding the new digital curriculum that is embedded on the iPads being distributed to tens of thousands of Los Angeles students, I sat down to talk with Jaime Aquino, the deputy superintendent of instruction for the 651,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District.
Aquino explained how and why the district selected the brand-new—and untested—curriculum from education publishing giant Pearson, and how he thinks it will help the district with its transition to the Common Core State Standards
He also addressed head-on criticism that his prior employment with Pearson led the district to make an unsound purchase and called the ongoing questions over the district’s iPad initiative “the icing on the cake” of his recent decision to step down.
The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity.
What about this new curriculum has you excited?
I’m excited about the shift to the common core and how those standards are reflected in the Pearson Common Core System of Courses. For example, in mathematics, the common core calls for the mathematical practice that is called mathematical modeling, which means more of the students’ ability to apply their mathematical knowledge to the real world. If you look at that Pearson Common Core System of Courses, you see that many of their lessons begin with a video, in terms of having a problem for students to explore, that is a real-life [problem]. And students then say, “OK, how would you graph the speed of this student riding the bike?” That was exciting in terms of how it aligns to the real world.
How did LAUSD select this curriculum?
We knew that there were not a lot of digital materials available that were aligned to the common core, and we didn’t want anything that was repurposed...When we issued the RFP, we were very clear that we were using the publishers’ criteria that was put out [to guide] the selection of materials that are aligned to the common core standards. The committee used that to determine what was there.
Is the new digital curriculum from Pearson meant to replace the existing instructional materials for LAUSD, or supplement them?
It’s just another tool to teach the common-core standards...Do we intend it to become what would be considered the core instructional material? Yes, to be supplemented with many other things, at the discretion of the teacher.
There’s lot of concern that this product is being rolled out even though it’s not finished.
In the RFP, we said that we understand that the common-core [standards] are new. And because we’re asking [publishers] to present [content] in a digital format, many might not have it completed. In the RFP, we said [vendors] would have up to the fall of next year in terms of having it completed and having it approved by the state. But [they] had to give us a very clear description and a prototype of what [they] want to accomplish and what it would look like. Because if not, I can tell you that we were going to be getting something that was repurposed, and that was not truly aligned to the common core.
Why not hold off until you could evaluate a completed product?
We knew we were going in phases...It gave us an opportunity to learn some lessons [and] also to be in the driver’s seat, in the sense that we wanted to also have an opportunity to shape [the curriculum], based on the lessons learned in [the initial phase of the project] from our teachers... And we embedded that into our contract negotiations. We were very clear that if at any point, this did not meet our requirements, did not meet the publishers’ criteria, there was some consequence...It’s a unique opportunity for a school district to have that type of leverage and input, as opposed to the traditional way that we’ve done in education, that the publishers just produce what they want...and we have to take whatever they do.
Some experts say that giving out sample lessons in a scattershot way can actually be disadvantageous to students and teachers.
Right now, there is actually no curriculum out there that I know of, in print or digital, that is completely aligned to the common core. So are these experts saying that we should wait and not transition to the common core until something is produced in its final format, and the exams are going to be administered in the spring of 2015? Isn’t it better to have our teachers begin to practice with some units? As professional development, they become familiar, and they inform the publishers about what the actual field needs.
What will the process be like for gathering and incorporating that feedback from the field?
We have staff...that are always in the field, they get feedback in terms of what’s working, not working. We collect that. My curriculum team here, my content area experts, do the same thing. They go and visit. They look at the curriculum. They have been working with Pearson in terms of our scope and sequence, which units should be taught when...We have already provided a lot of the feedback. In addition to that, at every school, Pearson has assigned [staff], and they go and get feedback.
Some school board members say that they were under the impression before voting that the curriculum was finished and were surprised to subsequently learn that it was not.
The administration does not control what [board members] read or don’t read...There was constant communication provided to the board. The board had access to the RFP. Board staff attended the industry forum where I clarified that we didn’t expect anything to be completed...We provided daily information, and then they act as if they have never heard any about this.
I did not want to leave...As an immigrant and second-language learner, I’m honored and humbled to be the deputy superintendent of the second largest district in the nation...That’s the dream I have for all students in this district, particularly those who look like me. Who come from immigrants, who are Latino, and who speak English as their second language. And I can tell you they’re not going to achieve the American dream if they don’t have access to technology...
The reason I’m leaving is because in this hostile political environment, I cannot lead a student-centered agenda. This has been a place where I feel the board has micromanaged. People think I’m leaving because of this? This was just the icing on the cake...
I came here with an impeccable, unblemished national reputation. In places where I have left, even my vocal critics would say we disagree with some of his positions and perspectives, but he was an amazing leader. Here, there have been innuendos that this contract was because I worked for Pearson...First, history. I worked for America’s Choice. And America’s Choice was acquired by Pearson around December of 2010. I left in June of 2011 to come here. Do people wonder if maybe my reason for leaving Pearson was because I didn’t want to work for a big [corporation]? When I came here and we were going through this, I disclosed [my work history], I went through legal and procurement [and asked] should I be involved? They said your cooling period has sunsetted. You can be involved. But even still, I was not involved in the process. A committee reviewed all the applicants. The only thing I did, I said here’s the publishers’ criteria. I trained them. I was not [privy] to which were the applicants, their applications. I came on board at the end when they had done the screening and said these are the last three. The last three happened to have Pearson. The others were discarded.
Is there anything else you’d like to add about LAUSD’s iPad initiative?
The level of excitement in terms of our teachers, our parents, our students and our principals has been overwhelming. I think the media coverage on this has been very discouraging and very biased...To call students hackers was totally inappropriate. [These problems have] been blown out of proportion by the media.
Photo of Jaime Aquino, courtesy Los Angeles Unified School District.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.