Undeterred by high-profile problems experienced by other large school systems attempting to put digital devices in the hands of their students, the Houston Independent School District began distributing more than 18,000 laptop computers to high schools last month.
Officials from the 210,000-student district point to several elements of their plan as reasons for optimism: Unlike the troubled iPad initiative in Los Angeles, for example, Houston will give students laptops instead of digital tablets; rely on “Web 2.0 tools” rather than a pre-loaded digital curriculum; and offer extensive training for students and staff members before the devices are deployed.
The Houston initiative is the largest, but not the only, student computing effort in an urban district to take a significant step forward in recent weeks, a sign that districts may be overcoming the skittishness that emerged in the wake of well-publicized missteps in Los Angeles, Guilford County, N.C., and Fort Bend, Texas.
“I find [Houston ISD’s] planning to be admirable,” said Leslie Wilson, the chief executive officer of the One-to-One Institute, a nonprofit based in Mason, Mich., that provides assistance to districts implementing student-computing initiatives. “I think a lot of these hiccups that we’ve seen have really helped refocus districts on teaching and learning, rather than on hardware and publishers who are trying to sell you a bill of goods.”
For almost a decade, K-12 schools have been embracing 1-to-1 computing as a means for increasing students’ access to technology and preparing them for college and the workforce. When examined from a wide view, said Ms. Wilson of the One-to-One Institute, that trend continues unabated.
Series of Skirmishes
But last fall, the 651,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District became the symbol for 1-to-1 initiatives gone awry. Almost from its inception, the effort was plagued by security issues, confusion about who is responsible for the tens of thousands of iPads being distributed, criticisms around cost and the use of bond financing, and concerns about the readiness and price of the pre-loaded curriculum purchased along with the devices.
Following a series of skirmishes, with the district’s board and teachers’ union, Superintendent John Deasy was forced to slow the pace of the rollout. In January, the district’s board voted to continue with the initiative’s second phase, in which iPads will be distributed to 38 more campuses.
A major 1-to-1 initiative in North Carolina’s 72,500 student Guilford County district also ran into trouble last year when hardware problems were reported with thousands of tablets provided by New York City-based Amplify, an independent subsidiary of the global media conglomerate News Corp. that is headed by former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein. Guilford County officials ultimately decided to delay that program for a year.
And in Texas, the 70,000-student Fort Bend district shelved its initiative after a scathing report from an outside consultant said the project had “unrealistic goals” and “insufficient planning and project management,” among a host of other shortcomings.
Those troubles had a ripple effect: In November, Florida’s 354,000-student Miami-Dade County school district paused its much-anticipated 1-to-1 initiative, citing the troubles in Los Angeles and elsewhere. Superintendent Alberto Carvalho proposed in January a cautious approach to restarting the program.
Word of such difficulties made its way to Houston, said Lenny Schad, the district’s chief technology officer. “Every time one of those [other] districts made the paper, we got questions from the school board and community,” Mr. Schad said. “But we were able to come back to them and say, ‘Here’s what we’ve done, here’s what we’re doing, and here’s what we’re planning to do.’ That gave everyone a sense of comfort.”
By the 2015-16 school year, Houston aims to distribute roughly 65,000 laptops, enough for every student and teacher in the district’s 45 high schools. The initiative is expected to cost about $18 million annually.
This school year, the district is paying $6 million for PowerUp’s first phase, in which devices will be distributed to students and staff members in 11 schools. All of those dollars are being reallocated from existing pots of money, including federal Title I and Title II funds to be used for disadvantaged students and teacher training.
Mr. Schad said extensive training time is key to the PowerUp initiative. Houston teachers and principals received their laptops in August in order to allow for extensive professional development. Also, a group of principals and district officials took an extended field trip to Mooresville, N.C., to observe that district’s acclaimed 1-to-1 program firsthand. An initial group of three Houston high schools received their devices in October to give them time to test the district’s deployment plan. All Houston students will also be required to complete a digital citizenship course before receiving a device.
“It’s so important to go into something like this with realistic expectations, and to have a pace of implementation that is linked to those expectations,” said Mr. Schad, who previously oversaw the making of a successful “bring your own device” initiative in Texas’ 66,000-student Katy Independent School District.
While some “early adopters” are expected to embrace the digital tools immediately, Mr. Schad said his district will be patient while other educators adjust, a stance that Ms. Wilson of the One-to-One Institute praised.
“It takes a teacher three years to truly change their craft to engage with ubiquitous technology,” Ms. Wilson said, and successful 1-to-1 initiatives “honor where each individual is and help them along from their point of entry.”
Ultimately, however, Mr. Schad said Houston officials want to see a “huge” shift in how teaching and learning occur in their high school classrooms. He pointed to the decision to lease laptops loaded with digital tools, rather than tablets loaded with a complete curriculum, as key to providing students with greater opportunity to solve problems and search out answers, collaborate with each other, and generate more of their own content.
Ms. Wilson was again laudatory: “Just purchasing curricular content from a publisher,” she said, “is the kiss of death if you’re trying to transform schools.”
Other districts have moved forward with 1-to-1 initiatives recently, as well. In late January, for example, the board of the 27,000-student Madison, Wis., district approved a $28 million plan to put a mix of digital tablets and notebooks in the hands of most of its students. The initiative is part of a five-year “Information and Technology Plan” that also includes network and server upgrades and the rethinking of school learning spaces.
“There are now a lot more people who care about doing [1-to-1 initiatives] well, rather than just doing what’s fashionable,” said Ms. Wilson, who pointed to the Houston and Madison districts’ decisions to provide older students with keyboard-enabled laptop computers as an example of smart thinking.
The Houston district is leasing HP 9470m EliteBook laptops under a four-year term that officials say works out to roughly $260 per year, per student.
Mr. Schad said the district found savings in its existing budget lines for print textbooks, software, and professional development to help pay for the initiative this school year.
Eighteen more high schools are expected to receive laptops through the PowerUp initiative next school year, and 16 additional high schools will join their ranks in 2015-16. Mr. Schad said the district has not yet finalized how subsequent years of the program will be funded, but bonds will not be considered as a funding source.
Despite the careful planning and cautious approach, he said, problems are inevitable. But Mr. Schad confidently predicted that Houston’s strong foundation—including a steering committee consisting of heads of the curriculum, technology, and professional development departments, as well as school leaders—will allow the district to weather any such storms.
“When bumps in the road occur,” he said, “we will be able to react, address the problems, and move on.”
Coverage of entrepreneurship and innovation in education and school design is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the February 05, 2014 edition of Education Week as Unfazed, Houston Embraces 1-to-1 Student Computing