LA Unified Board Sees a Digital Future, Maybe without iPads
Vanessa Romo | November 5, 2013
Over eight hours today, in another tedious LA Unified board meeting, members one-by-one pledged to forge ahead with the district’s ambitious technology program to bridge the digital divide for some of the nation’s poorest students.
But for the first time, some board members signaled that the way forward may not include Apple iPads.
The meeting featured a parade of staff reports supporting the Common Core Technology Project, as district officials painstakingly worked their way through a 95-page presentation for the board. They recapped the nearly-complete first phase of the troubled iPad program and projected what may or may not follow.
While board members refrained from badgering officials as they have done in previous meetings, and the six members in attendance committed to continue with new technologies – Tamar Galatzan was absent – questions arose as to how and when future phases of the technology program would play out.
Monica Ratliff, the newest board member and chair of the Common Core Technology Project Committee, was the most outspoken about switching gears. She had not yet been elected when the previous board voted to approve a billion-dollar program to give all the district’s 650,000 students a digital device.
Ratliff offered a resolution that would delay the board’s vote on the second phase of the iPad roll-out by six months to evaluate the instructional effectiveness of iPads as well as laptops and other digital devices used in district schools.
In her resolution, the board would vote to approve Phase 2 in June or July of next year, adding another six months to a timeline that Superintendent John Deasy has already pushed back. Just last month, he proposed extending the entire program by about a year, to conclude in the fall of 2015.
Deasy did not attend the meeting because of his financial holdings in Apple, makers of the iPad.
Based on responses to a recent survey of teachers and principals, Ratliff said, “What I hear most often from high school teachers is that their students need laptops more than iPads.” She questioned assurances from Superintendent of Instruction and Curriculum Jaime Aquino that an “iPad can do everything a laptop can do.”
Ratliff proposed that the district examine forms of technology and curriculum in use throughout the district, including charter schools. KIPP schools are now using Google Chromebooks, and Francis Polytechnic High School uses Springboard curriculum.
Board President Richard Vladovic provided her some support, saying, “At some point we may want to look at bifurcating what we’re doing with high school students and elementary students.”
The board will consider Ratliff’s resolution at its next meeting, on Nov. 12.
Bennett Kayser, who recused himself for much of the meeting because of his conflict of interest with Apple, returned late in the day and expressed other misgivings about proceeding with Phase 2. In a slightly contentious exchange with Aquino, Kayser said the district has taken a backward approach to the rollout by proceeding without data that validates effectiveness.
As a former science teacher, Kayser said he is devoted to the scientific method and what the district is doing is “some other kind of scientific method.”
Kayser asked if the district will produce hard data supporting claims made by district officials that the use of iPads has improved attendance, student engagement and even learning.
“In science you make a hypothesis and then you get data to support that,” he said with an air of frustration. “We need to see that Phase 1 is working before we can move on to Phase 2.”
Board member Steve Zimmer, who has vigorously supported the iPad program and the shift to the Common Core Standards curriculum, also warned of crediting the iPad as the only way forward. In an impassioned speech, embracing the need to provide all district students with new technology, Zimmer expressed some hesitation with the zeal for moving too quickly.
“There should be no doubt as we sit here today that we are moving forward,” he said emphatically. “I am deeply committed to making sure this happens. But I am also deeply committed to making sure this is right.”
The cost of the iPad program also came under tight scrutiny, as the district’s Chief Strategy Officer, Matt Hill, walked the members through the slide presentation of the district’s five-year technology plan, which includes the deal with Apple.
While insisting that the district did not overpay – “I challenge anyone in this country to find a better deal,” he said – he made it clear, nonetheless, that Apple and its software supplier, Pearson, might not be LA Unified’s partners in years to come.
Once the current program is complete, he said, the district plans to seek new bids for hardware and software for upgrades, starting in 2016.
Monica Garcia, who was president of the board when the members voted to approve the iPad program, made it clear she had no hesitations about keeping the iPad rolling.
After reminding her colleagues that her district included only a few of the 47 schools that received tablets in Phase 1, she said, “Phase 2 should be for the schools that want to participate. If you don’t want it in your district, I welcome it in mine.”