Superintendent John Deasy was a year into his tenure at the Los Angeles Unified School District when he started talking to the largest publishing company in the world, Pearson PLC, about working together on a digital transformation in public education.
He had inherited a school system in crisis: Thousands of Los Angeles teachers, counselors and librarians had lost their jobs during the recession; fewer than half of students were reading at grade level; more than 10,000 dropped out of high school every year. For Deasy, transformation was not just possible; it was an urgent mandate.
“I’m not going to be interested in looking at third-graders and saying, ‘Sorry, this is the year you don’t learn to read,’ or to juniors and saying, ‘You don’t get to graduate,’" he told KPCC in May 2012. "So the pace needs to be quick, and we make no apologies for that.”
That same month, emails show Pearson’s CEO and a sales rep met Deasy for lunch to pitch him on software under development that would harness the power of tablets. Using games, videos and other interactive elements, they said, it would revolutionize education and help struggling students like his.
Deasy jumped right in, documents show.
“Needless to say we have been in furious and exciting conversations since last Friday,” Deasy wrote in an email to Marjorie Scardino, then Pearson’s CEO, on Tuesday, May 22, 2012. “Looking forward to further work together for our youth in Los Angeles!”
He thanked her for lunch and said he was working with his staff on a “concept paper” on using her software and would have it to her in a week.
Scardino’s response was equally enthusiastic.
"Dear John, It's I who should thank you. My mind was racing all weekend, and I was so impressed by your intelligent and committed and brave hold on the moving parts of the opportunity. I really can't wait to work with you. I would love to think that we could together do this so well that in your Sunday visits to prisons you won't see one person who has been educated in LAUSD rather, you'll be meeting them as teachers, as contractors, as bankers (well, maybe not bankers), as poets all around the city. I'll stay by the mailbox. Sincerely, Marjorie”
Dozens of emails
Those emails and dozens of others obtained by KPCC through a public records request show Deasy directed his staff to figure out how to incorporate Pearsons’s software into the school system’s plan to transition to the Common Core standards.
Officials with Pearson were copied on communication between Deasy and Jaime Aquino, the district’s head of curriculum at the time, who expressed reservations at some of the costs and the speed with which the district was moving. Emails show Pearson weighed in on questions of how to finance software purchases.
Deasy also personally pitched Apple on working with Pearson, according to the emails.
Those meetings and conversations began nearly a year before L.A. Unified put the project out to public bid. Apple and Pearson won the contract on June 24, 2013, after committees made up of school district staff members picked them from among 19 bids.
Deasy and other school district officials have declined KPCC's requests for comment. In a written statement, a district spokesperson said they are still reviewing the emails.
L.A. Unified board member Steve Zimmer said he plans to question district staff about the emails at Tuesday’s board meeting. He obtained his own copies after KPCC first reported their contents on Friday.
“We have to make sure this is completely ethical and above board,” he said.
Deasy told the L.A. Times over the weekend that he was only discussing a pilot with Pearson in the emails.
After reviewing a report by L.A. Unified’s inspector general earlier this year, the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office declined to prosecute anyone at L.A. Unified regarding the iPad and software purchases. Two high ranking school officials told KPCC the emails were not in that I.G. report. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the district has determined the report is not a public document and has refused to release it to KPCC.
Officials had initially wanted to have all the devices in schools by the end of this year. Questions by school board members have slowed down the project’s rollout. Teachers have complained the software is glitchy. Schools didn’t have the Wi-Fi networks in place to support thousands of kids going online at the same time. Some teachers locked the devices away, according to interviews. And board member Monica Ratliff has pushed the district to consider laptops instead of tablets for high school students.
So far, the district has purchased about 75,000 iPads – enough for about 15 percent of its students and teachers. About half were preloaded with the Pearson software.
The project is estimated to cost about $1.3 billion by the time it’s complete.
"We’re telling the public that we’re investing in our kids," said Stuart Magruder, a member of a school district committee overseeing the use of school bond funds. "And you gotta think that all this money is really not making a difference in education.
"We’re misrepresenting what we’re doing to the public," he added, "which is just horrible."
A new market
The L.A Unified contract promised a big win for Pearson.
Authors of the Common Core – adopted by 44 states – created a national curriculum for English and math that calls for digital literacy. The Center for Digital Education, a trade publication, estimates K-12 schools will spend $10 billion on technology in 2014 alone.
Landing the nation's second-largest school district would be a big contract in its own right, but it would also give Pearson a strong lead in what is essentially a new market of digital common-core aligned materials.
Yet in seeking the contract, Scardino and Pearson sales representative Judy Codding were pitching L.A. Unified a product that wasn’t yet ready – and still isn’t. Only a few lessons for a few grades had been developed.
“The courses are being designed from the bottom up by some of the best minds in education—including several of the key developers of the [Common Core State Standards] and an international team of experts,” Scardino wrote in what appears to be her first pitch to L.A. Unified, in an email on April 10, 2012.
By then, L.A. Unified already had a plan to transition to the Common Core – and one high-level staffer expressed concern that the technology project was being jammed in: the head of curriculum at the time, Jaime Aquino. Aquino was familiar with Pearson. Before joining L.A. Unified, he had worked for America’s Choice, an education consulting company owned by Pearson.
“I am not comfortable in trying to merge Judy [Codding]'s plan with ours in a rush,” Aquino wrote on May 24, 2012. “Our plan was crafted very thoughtfully and over time and if we are entering into this partnership, I would like to take the same approach to ensure successful implementation.”
Aquino cautioned that district schools didn’t have the wireless infrastructure to allow every student to log on at once. (KPCC has found the massive rewiring effort is estimated to cost around $800 million.)
Aquino also bristled at what it would cost the district to pay 2,000 teachers for time at Pearson trainings. The five days Pearson was suggesting would run the district $2 million to $4 million, he wrote in an email. After years of budget cuts totaling $2.8 billion that lead to mass layoffs, Aquino said he didn’t think the school board would spend millions on technology and training.
“I am positive we will not have support from the board,” Aquino wrote.
In the weeks before his email, the L.A. Unified school board had just approved a “worst-case scenario” budget that would eliminate adult education, gut preschool and the arts and balloon class sizes.
Emails show Aquino – who left the district last year — may have been most concerned about buying software that was nowhere close to being done.
“I am not sure if legally we can enter into an agreement when we have not reviewed the final product for each grade and if the materials have not been approved by the state,” Aquino wrote to Deasy on May 24, 2012.
“I believe we would have to make sure that your bid is the lowest one,” Aquino added.
Deasy replied: “I want to not [lose] an amazing opportunity and fully recognize our current limits. But do not want these limits to be reason for us to turn away from this opportunity. Look forward to this planning."
Aquino pushed back: “I am not sure if we can develop a plan that makes sense overnight without still so many unanswered questions.”
Deasy replied to his subordinate: “Do you think I am on track with my thoughts… Or not?”
"The vision is the right one,” typed Aquino. “My major concern is that there are a lot of unanswered questions particularly financial/political/infrastructure implications.”
Copied on these emails was Codding, a Pearson sales representative.
“The most important thing to me,” she weighed in, “is that this would be your plan and that you think it would benefit the students and teachers of LA.”
Three days later, on May 27, 2012, Deasy put his plan to paper and emailed it to Scardino, who remained Pearson’s CEO until October 2012. (L.A. Unified has refused to provide that plan to KPCC, saying it’s not public record.)
Apple comes to the table
Emails suggest Deasy pulled in Apple in July 2012.
"Good Morning Marjorie, I wanted to let you know I had an excellent meeting with Tim at Apple last Friday,” Deasy wrote to Pearson’s CEO. “The meeting went very well and he was fully committed to being a partner. … He was very excited.”
Deasy is a fan of Apple technology. He appeared in an Apple promotional video in 2012, championing Apple’s iPad as an educational tool.
“We had decided to adopt iPad technology as we were trying to find ways of increasing student engagement,” Deasy said to the camera, a case of books and a view of L.A.’s gleaming downtown behind him.
“With these interactive textbooks, we are going to go huge leaps in what’s possible for students,” he said. The video cuts to shots of students sliding their fingers across tablets, a faint blue light on their faces. “They are phenomenally going to change the landscape of education. I think it will reignite the whole passion about why we came into teaching to begin with.”
For years, Deasy held a modest number of shares in Apple and even bowed out of discussions in school board meetings on contracts with the company. Deasy sold his stock earlier this year.
Of pools and iPads
Dozens of teachers got their first taste of the project over the 2013 summer break, poolside.
On July 16, 2012, the Pearson foundation – a related, but separate charity — offered teachers a three-and-half-day training called “Bringing Core to the Classroom.” Fifty L.A. Unified teachers and administrators drove to the J.W. Marriott Desert Springs Resort. L.A. Unified covered the $1,000 registration fee for each of them.
The Pearson foundation covered mileage, meals and rooms, which start at $150 a night for views spanning three pools and an 18-hole-golf course, according to the hotel’s website.
Pearson gave each teacher and administrator who attended an iPad. When they unlocked the screen, a square blue tile appeared. On it read the letter P.
Pearson staff showed off what the curriculum could be.
The weekend program occurred nearly eight months before L.A. Unified officials put the project out to bid.
Emails show Pearson and L.A. Unified staff originally considered buying the software with textbook funds – which can be used for software.
Early emails show Pearson’s Codding did not want the district to solicit bids from other companies – known as a request for proposals, or RFP.
“Everything would come out of the textbook fund,” Codding wrote to Aquino, L.A Unified’s head of instruction. “The price would be just as you and I discussed. … I don’t know why there would have to be an RFP. I just want things right. I cannot imagine anyone else able to do this as cheaply with all the PD [professional development] and all the materials for 25 courses for the price we discussed.”
L.A. Unified administrators had $47 million set aside to spend on books for the 2012-13 school year, which would be enough to pay for software for every student the first year — but not the hardware.
Requests for proposals
The district had a larger pool of money that could be used for technology: its nearly $20 billion school construction and modernization program, which is funded with voter-approved bonds.
The district must use competitive bidding for most bond-funded purchases over $10,000, according to a district purchasing manual.
On March 1, 2013, L.A. Unified published a request for proposals for the technology project – requiring software and hardware companies to team up and provide a completed product. They had less than a month to put in their bids.
Among the competitors: Google and IBM.
L.A. Unified’s requirements for vendors in March 2013 resembled what Pearson was offering in 2012.
The software had to provide interactive course work in English for every grade level and for most grades in math.
To partner with any software provider other than Pearson, hardware companies had to vet dozens of products and puzzle together a package of them because most education software programs, like paper textbooks and their digital adaptations, are tailored to one grade or skill level or a few grades – like elementary school.
L.A. Unified also asked for add-ons at no additional cost: a data management system to track students’ progress, on-site tech support and five years of professional development – all promises made by Pearson in emails in 2012.
The original request for proposals called for devices that would be able to capture video and have touch screens measuring 9.7 inches in diameter – the size of the original iPad.
When Apple and Pearson won the contract, competitors privately grumbled.
As KPCC reported earlier this year, L.A. Unified bidding score sheets show fully interactive math software by a Pearson competitor was dismissed as a digital textbook. Some bidders either weren't scored or the district lost their score sheets.
The Apple/Pearson bundle was not the lowest among the original bidders.
The pairing was among three “finalists” chosen by committees of district staff (Deasy was not on the selection committees) that were allowed to lower their price and strip away some of the requirements in the original RFP.
The school board’s Common Core Technology Project Ad Hoc Committee said in a draft report that those “11th hour” changes open the “door to the appearance of manipulation."
Free and Fair
It’s unclear if Pearson got the price it had offered L.A. Unified in its 2012 emails: $50 per student per year for math and English. Prices for hardware and software were bundled together, and Apple officials said they don’t have to disclose subcontractor costs.
Kathay Feng, an attorney with California Common Cause, a group that advocates for greater civic participation and government transparency, said state law requires agencies to solicit bids in a “free and fair” competition, but does little to define “free and fair.”
“Legally what’s allowed is very different ethically what should be allowed,” Feng said.
Feng sits on a committee overseeing the use of bond funds for neighboring San Gabriel Unified School District.
She likens it to being wooed by the pharmaceutical business, which spends billions annually to wine and dine doctors, reward them for participating in trials, provide free samples and other perks.
“In a similar way, when you have limited number of contracting companies, they will develop very strong relationships with school administrators and not because there is even necessarily corruption, it’s just because they have special access others don’t they are considered at the front of the line,” Feng said.
Feng pointed out administrators and the school board providing oversight are often at an “information disadvantage,” and turn to the private sector for insight.
In her role on San Gabriel’s oversight committee, Feng recommended iPads and purchasing mobile iPad carts in classrooms there, but after a year with the tablets, the committee is exploring the option of switching to the less-expensive Google laptop, Chromebook.
A year after the purchase, the software on L.A. Unified iPads still doesn’t include many of the simulations, games and interactive tools promised. Officials gave Pearson until November to deliver the finished product.
Also, California education officials have only approved Pearson’s math courses for grades Kindergarten through eighth grade. And the state found errors in every grade, from simple problems, like typos, to bigger issues, like learning standards that were not correctly applied.
District emails show teachers complained to administrators about web links leading to nowhere, menus that wouldn’t pull-up and other frustrations.
“Each child today alone, not counting yesterday, had to log in at least two times,” Hyde Park elementary school teacher Thuong Ha wrote to administrators in October 2013.
One student had to keep entering his password every five minutes because the system kept crashing. She calculated her students at Young Empowered Scholars Academy los 46 minutes of instructional time that day.
“Tell Pearson that we are abandoning their digital books for utter negligence of consideration for end users,” she wrote.
L.A. Unified sent the complaints to Pearson.
“The instructional time lost is very powerful stuff to show the technology is taking away from learning,” wrote Rick Hassler, a coordinator for L.A. Unified’s iPad rollout.
"I think Pearson didn’t put any thought into the software," said Oscar Menjivar, a software developer and former high school computer teacher who now runs a summer camp and afterschool program near USC where he teaches kids to code – many of them from L.A. Unified. He reviewed the software for KPCC last school year.
Some school board members, administrative staff and teacher have been pressuring the district to scrap the Apple and Pearson contract.
Deasy originally planned to have iPads in the hands in every student this fall.
He told KPCC earlier this year, he planned to request the next shipment from the board in June, but no request was put before the board this summer.
Despite setbacks, Deasy told KPCC in March he was confident the technology project will ultimately be completed.
"I don’t promise something to students and then not try to deliver on it," he said.
Clarification: An earlier version of this story indicated that the Pearson foundation offered teachers a weekend program about eight months before the contract went out to bid - but stated an incorrect date of the training, July 16, 2013. The contract went out to bid on March 1, 2013. The event was July 16, 2012, eight months earlier.