Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy has trumpeted his $1 billion iPad project as transformational. As with many reformers, Deasy sees data as a pillar of his administration.
But when asked for evidence that points toward a transformation, Deasy said in an interview that it's all too new. Instead, he listed imperatives.
“If it's good enough for the wealthiest kids, it’s good enough for every kid,” said Deasy, who often compares the project to a “civil rights” issue. “They deserve exactly the same. I’m sick and tired of us being concerned that because of the zip code you live in you could possibly have something less.”
Some parents, teachers and researchers are questioning the district's rush toward equipping every child in every school with the pricey tablets. They said the research doesn't back the hype.
“When films came in the 1920s, Thomas Edison predicted there would be no more textbooks at all,” said Larry Cuban, Professor Emeritus at Stanford University. “Teaching and learning would be transformed. Then the radio came in, and teaching and learning would be transformed.”
Then there was instructional television, like "Sesame Street," he said, followed by desktop computers.
Cuban said words like “transformation” and seeming imperatives – such as saying students need iPads to take new end of year exams – make it hard for parents and school board members to push against projects. Even when the data are less than solid.
“Policymakers are spending a lot of money technology and not considering other policy choices about how to improve schools and how to improve teaching and learning,”Cuban said.
USC education professor Patricia Burch said peer-reviewed research on digital learning is mixed at best. Often, digital lessons work about as well as traditional pen and paper methods – no better, no worse.
A recent study by Rachel Cole, James J. Kemple and Micha D. Segeritz out of New York University looked at a digital math program used by sixth graders in New York City. It found students who used the program didn’t learn any more than those who didn’t use it.
“The more I learned, the more frustrated and angry I got about the program,” said David Rodriguez, parent of a student at Hancock Elemenatry in West Hollywood. “When money and resources are scarce as they are in this day in age, we need to spend it on what we know works.”
No iPads yet
His school doesn’t yet have iPads — and Rodriguez would like to keep it that way.
The district's project has hit several roadblocks since it started this school year. When students quickly bypassed Internet security, administrators pulled iPads from several classrooms; five devices have recently been reported missing from various schools. That's small potatoes compared to the 69 stolen last year from Academy of Arts and Sciences in Granada Hills.
By the end of next week, 30,000 devices will have arrived at L.A. Unified schools. That’s just the $30 million pilot purchase. The full rollout of 650,000 iPads – which has been slated for next fall — comes up for discussion at special school board meeting at the end of the month.
Pearson, the educational materials powerhouse, claims the project will result in a better education for L.A.’s kids. In its winning bid to provide software for L.A. Unified’s iPads, Pearson said its software is “proven to improve student outcomes.” Pearson didn’t cite any specific studies, and the company did not return calls for comment.
To be sure, some educators — and many kids — love the devices.
KIPP Comienza Community Prep elementary school in Huntington Park used the help of donations two years ago to buy enough portable devices for about a third of its more than 300 students. It rotates Chromebooks and iPads among groups of students so everyone gets a turn.
During a recent morning, Teresa Rodriguez, 7, was sitting cross-legged on the carpet of her classroom, doing a math assignment – an iPad square between her knees.
“You have to count flowers in the hundreds,” said Rodriguez, barely looking up from the screen. “You have type it in up here.”
Theresa counted flower petals. When she got a question right, a new bunch of flowers bloomed instantly, and she started counting again.
“It’s more like learning than play,” Rodriguez explained. “It teaches us hundreds, tens and ones.”
Her teacher, Mariella Magaña, is a big believer in giving students access to technology. She loves to use the devices for quick daily quizzes to make sure kids are on track.
But a review of that morning's assessment came up with a surprise. One child, who she knows is expert at primary colors, said blue and green make yellow.
“Two things: Either she is not paying attention to the question or, two, she wasn’t looking at the video,” said Magaña. “A lot of this format because this is so new.”
When kids get tripped up on the technology, it calls into question whether the software can reliably measure and improve reading and math skills — and kids can get left behind, said Burch of USC.
“That means for that kid where it’s not working – the tablet isn’t working, technological challenges, curriculum isn’t great – a lost year or years,” Burch said. “That’s huge.”
She said that in the era of high-stakes testing, digital education programs grew from supplementary instruction to remediation. Schools began meticulously tracking each students’ education performance data, and those who fell behind were labeled failing and faced serious consequences.
That's when schools began purchasing “a la carte” programs that claimed to improve the math and language arts scores of students who were having trouble keeping up, she said.
L.A. Unified’s board is discussing the possibility of their own study of the implementation of the iPad rollout, district officials said. That could influence the project's future. The board has yet to approve the expenditure for the full, district-wide rollout.