With the departure of John Deasy, the future of the Los Angeles School District's controversial one-to-one technology program hangs in uncertainty.
Deasy’s successor, interim Superintendent Ramon Cortines, said he wants to provide students computers - but has reservations about tapping bond money. Under Deasy's vision, the program would have cost $1.3 billion and been financed by school construction bonds that were approved by voters years ago to build new schools and upgrade existing ones - including some of their technology needs.
"I think we will need to identify alternative sources to fund the [digital] curriculum ongoing," Cortines said in a written statement.
There is little doubt the technology program will be recast under Cortines.
Deasy scrapped the contract with Apple and publishing company Pearson in August after emails published by KPCC showed Deasy and top staffers planning with executives from those companies before the contract went out to competitive bid.
Some - including school board member Steve Zimmer - said the emails called into question whether the process was fair.
"I wasn’t an expert and I didn’t know all the right questions to ask," Zimmer said. He said he voted to spend the $61 million already invested in the program because he was overcome by the promise of academic transformation through technology.
"I somehow convinced myself that if I just trusted people, somehow it would work out OK," he said. "I’ve never been so wrong."
Deasy maintains nothing improper happened leading up to the contract, that he and his staff were discussing a pilot with Pearson that never came to be - not the full purchase - although details from some of those discussions appear to have shaped the bid requirements. In a settlement with the school board outlining his resignation, the board said it "anticipates" an ongoing Inspector General investigation, based in part on those emails, will clear Deasy of wrongdoing.
Still, board member Monica Ratliff, who lead a school board committee that was looking into the technology purchase, isn't a fan of the prior contract's one-size-fits-all approach.
"I think [schools] need to have some flexibility," she said. "I think that's really important. I think to force everyone to use the same curriculum may not be in the best interest of our students."
Ratliff's Common Core Technology Project Ad Hoc Committee was disbanded last spring.
RETHINKING IPAD SOFTWARE
Deasy insists his vision for one-to-one technology and an accompanying digital curriculum are the keys to student achievement in a district were most students are low-income and don't have the same access to technology at home as students from higher-income families. He said the program needs to continue without him.
“If it’s dead, we are doomed,” Deasy told NPR after stepping down earlier this month. “We have a long way to go in a very short time if we are going to be competitive internationally, let alone nationally.”
Pearson’s Common Core System of Courses was still in the development stages when L.A. Unified bought the digital lessons with the iPad over a year ago. The software promised a transformation in learning - and some at the school district still think it has that potential.
“Pearson is the doorway for a whole other world for the kids around critical thinking, creative thinking, computational thinking, research,” Bernadette Lucas, director of L.A. Unified's Common Core Technology Project, said in an interview in August.
But many teachers don't see it that way - at least not yet.
The school district hired American Institutes for Research to study the technology’s integration into classrooms. A survey conducted last May found only half of teachers with classroom iPad sets actually used them.
Researchers sat in on 245 classrooms and observed only one teacher fire-up the Pearson app. It was for a lesson on fractions. Principals from seven schools later reported the app had been used on campus.
Pearson's app "doesn’t back up their lessons very well; we have to go ahead and do our own on the side using other apps,” an unnamed teacher told researchers. Other teachers said Pearson's lessons were often incomplete and materials were missing.
Elementary teachers that used the tablets opted for other programs, including two that had bid for the district's contract, but lost to Pearson: a colorful reading software called Lexia and a game featuring an animated penguin called ST Math.
Older students gravitated to applications most people use at work or in college: word processors and presentation builders. They also used YouTube and video editing software.
At the time, the software was still being finished. Pearson said it is now complete.
Ratliff said the results of the study raised questions about the district's investment.
"People don't have a problem with technology," she said. "People have a problem with poor spending."
iPADS IN THE CLASSROOM
Ninth grade math teacher Ben Way has been trying hard to make the Pearson program work, but he's struggling. He said the application includes lively videos - like cells dividing - but doesn't provide the basics kids would need for lessons, like sample formulas.
“You need to make up your own problems that are similar. That kind of defeats the purpose of buying a curriculum,” said Way, who teaches at Alliance Cindy & Bill Simon Technology Academy High School in South Los Angeles, a charter school that also invested in Pearson’s iPad’s Package.
“[Pearson] missed the whole point of technology," he added, "individualized instruction, all the material in the palm of your hand."
Officials at Pearson would not discuss the absence of math problems, but said they are continuing to improve the product.
Problems with the technology program weren't limited to the Pearson software.
Last fall, students quickly bypassed security and logged on to Twitter. Devices went missing, and no one was sure if the students’ families or the district should be held responsible. Students struggled with small screens and the wifi often didn’t work.
District officials said the first year was a short pilot - a learning opportunity before a full rollout.
Officials would still have to buy another 600,000 iPads to outfit every student and teacher, as Deasy envisioned. The district only got around to buying 90,841 of them before the contract was canceled.
Many of those were put in storage over the summer and have yet to be delivered to schools, according to Lucas. District officials said they'll all be available to students before they leave for winter break in December.
In August, Deasy said Apple and Pearson would be invited to rebid – eventually. But the district has yet to request a second round of proposals for its one-to-one technology project.
As they reconsider how to move forward, some continue to push back on the idea of a single product – like an iPad – or curriculum.
“I wish they would have perhaps purchased a library from either the Apple Store or Google Play or maybe even commissioned the design of applications for both platforms,” Cal Poly Pomona education professor Teshia Roby said.
She said that would better allow teachers to decide what works for them, tailoring the selection – be it spreadsheets for data analysis or website development applications – to meet students needs.
“We want whatever is learned in the classroom to transfer to real life situations,” Roby said.
The idea is beginning to take hold in many L.A. Unified classrooms.
Jackueline Arreola, a junior at Diego Rivera Learning Complex in South Los Angeles, whispered as she flipped through the pages of young adult mega-hit, A Fault in our Stars.
“I prefer reading the actual book,” she admitted, but said she liked all the options of digital version.
She was using her district-issued iPad to read the book on LightSail, which has a library of 80,000 digital books - and something most books don't.
As she read, a question popped on to the screen. The app checks to see if students are learning. If she answered wrong, the computer would adjust and let her try again.
Lucas, the head of the iPad program, said teacher training this year is focusing less on solving early technological hiccups and more on introducing teachers to digital possibilities.
“This movement is bigger than this device," she said. "It’s about empowering a school site, a school community and everyone in that community.”