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Education innovation: A case study in what not to do

This photo taken Nov. 25, 2013 shows Isabelle Fontana, 7, working on two iPads for an e-book about Thanksgiving in her second grade classroom at Jamestown Elementary School in Arlington, Va. Isabelle was working on the text as a classmate made drawings to be photographed and inserted in the e-book. Needed to keep a school building running these days: Water, electricity _ and broadband. Interactive digital learning on laptops and tablets is, in many cases, replacing traditional textbooks. Students are taking computer-based tests instead of fill-in-the bubble exams. Teachers are accessing far-off resources for lessons. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

The $1 billion initiative by the Los Angeles public schools district to give an iPad to all 650,000 students and teachers for home use has been nothing short of a mess, plagued by poor planning and bad execution. You can read about it here. Here’s a new look at what went wrong from  Larry Cuban, a high school social studies teacher for 14 years, a district superintendent (seven years in Arlington, VA), and professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, where he has taught for more than 20 years. His latest book is “Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice: Change without Reform in American Education.” This post appeared on his blog.

By Larry Cuban

The rollout of iPads in Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is becoming a classic case study of what not-to-do when implementing any innovation whether it is high-tech or low-tech.  I wrote about the adoption of the innovation six months ago.

What is clear now is that teachers and principals were excluded from the decision-making process. The Total Cost of Operation (TCO) was a mystery to the Board of Education who made the decision. And the initial deployment of the devices was so botched that the pilot project was put on hold.  Phase 2 and the eventual distribution of devices to all LAUSD students remains to be decided once errors have been sorted out.

Called The Common Core Technology Project, each iPad costs the district $678,  higher than the price of an iPad bought in an Apple store, but it comes with a case (no keyboard, however) and an array of pre-loaded software aimed at preparing students for the impending Common Core standards and the state online testing system. The Board of Education and Superintendent John Deasy want each student to have access to an iPad. With  mostly Latino and poor students in LAUSD, the eventual cost of this contract with Apple Inc. could run over $400 million.

Were the board and superintendent to have paused and examined the history of using technology in public schools, they might have thought twice before major bollixes occurred.

1. There is no body of evidence that iPads will increase math and reading scores on state standardized tests. There is no evidence that students using iPads (or laptops or desktop computers) will get decent paying jobs after graduation.

These are the most common reasons boards of education and school administrators across the nation give for buying tablets for K-12 students. But not in LAUSD.

Acquiring 1:1 iPads for students, according to the LAUSD press release is to: “provide an individualized, interactive and informative-rich learning environment” for every student. One would have to assume that such an “environment” would lead to gains in test scores. But it is an assumption. Since many low-income families do not have computers at home or Internet connections, providing iPads is a worthy reason — what used to be called “closing the digital divide“ — for the large expenditure.

On what basis, however, will the district determine whether to move to Phase 2 of the plan? Again, according to the official press release, the assessment of this first phase “will include feedback … from teachers, students, parents and other key stakeholders.” That’s it. No hard data on how often the devices were used, in what situations, and under what conditions. Nor mention of data on student outcomes.

Now, informal surveys of teachers and school administrators show mixed reactions, even disaffection for iPads in classrooms.

2. Apart from “closing the digital divide,” the main reason for the Apple Inc. contract is that Common Core standards and accompanying online tests are on the horizon and due to arrive in 2014-2015. LAUSD wants teachers and students to be ready.

3. The true cost of this experiment runs far higher than the projected $400 million to give iPads to 655,000 students. That is what Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) means. The cost for the iPad is given as $678 per unit (remember, there is no keyboard usually listed at $100 which will have to be bought eventually for secondary school students).Now, budget-watchers discovered that the devices will cost even more. An Oops! that surprised the Board of Education.

Funds to hire school technical assistants, providing the wireless infrastructure, loss of tablets, and repair of broken tablets, insurance, professional development for teachers, costs for replacement devices when three-year warranties expire—I could go on but these numbers double and triple the published hardware and software costs. Consider that the reports of the $30 million contract with Apple Inc. omitted that the Board of Education approved $50 million for this first phase to accommodate some of these other costs detailed above.

And just a few days ago, a major Oops! was announced when the Board of Education, in questioning a top administrator, discovered that the software license to use the math and English curriculum expires after three years—the clock began ticking last July when the Board approved the contract. Renewal of the license in just over two years will cost another $60 million. Add that to the TCO.

Intel, a company with a vested interest in Microsoft tablets and a losing competitor in the LAUSD bid for a contract, produced a white paper that pointed out that TCO runs from two to three times higher than the announced price of the device. No one said a word about that.

The point is that administrators and school boards eager to buy devices hide TCO in separate documents or glossy verbiage. In other instances, they simply do not know or care to find out in their enthusiasm for the innovation.  LAUSD experienced a perfect storm of mistakes in plunging into iPads without much forethought and a glance in the rear-view mirror for earlier reform debacles in putting into practice a high-tech innovation.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.



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Valerie Strauss · December 7, 2013

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