A $1.3 Billion Question: What's The Future Of LA's iPad Program?
This time last year, students in Los Angeles were squealing with delight as boxes of new iPads rolled into their schools. It was the first phase of what was touted as the largest technology expansion in the country.
The program has run into a host of problems since then, leading to this month's resignation of its biggest advocate, Superintendent John Deasy.
Which leaves the question: Does this mark the end of the effort?
Deasy told NPR's Steve Inskeep he doesn't want Los Angeles Unified's iPad program to leave with him. "If it's dead, we are doomed," he said.
But now the program's future is out of his hands.
And the district's top administrators, including Interim Superintendent Ramon Cortines, are now rethinking classroom needs.
School board member Steve Zimmer says the technology expansion isn't over, but it will be different. "I think that we'll get there by looking at the technology needs of each school and figuring out a personalized package for each school site."
A Troubled Program
Deasy had canceled the iPad contract in August — under mounting scrutiny over the fairness of the bidding process. Only 15 percent of students got iPads.
And just as uncertain is the future of the educational software developed for the tablets by Pearson publishing.
Bernadette Lucas, head of LA Unified's initiative, says it's revolutionary:
"Pearson is the doorway for a whole other world for the kids, around critical thinking, innovation, creative thinking, computational thinking, research."
Interactive lessons on tablets promise to engage students — and real-time feedback, if it works, should speed learning for those falling behind.
But a recent survey of 15 LA schools that were using the tablets found only one classroom using the Pearson app.
Teacher Ben Way sees the software as more of a roadblock than a doorway. His students at Simon Tech Academy in South Los Angeles are mostly Latino, many are from low-income homes, and they're often behind in math.
Way fires up the Pearson app to show me how it works. "This is the grade nine math, which I am currently teaching," he explains.
The lesson begins with a short video showing cells dividing; soon the whole screen is filled with moving bacteria. The students are supposed to track, mathematically, the process of cell division and to see how it changes over time.
But Way says the tool doesn't give them the step-by-step examples and math problems to practice that they need. "I get a lot of blank stares," he says.
In the big picture, though, officials in LA Unified and school leaders nationwide remain firm in their belief that technology can transform classrooms.
The bigger question is simply: How to pay for it? Next week, voters in New York state will decide whether to buy $2 billion in bonds for school tech.
In LA, the district was planning to use bond funds, too, says Monica Ratliff, a school board member. "The reality is," she says, "we need a long-term plan for how we are going to sustain this program. I haven't seen it yet."
The iPad-for-every-student program would have cost more than $1.3 billion.
Almost half of that — $500 million — would have gone for the tablets and software.
They've got the money now. But Ratliff wonders what will happen with the next big bill that would come in a few years — when 650,000 devices would need to be replaced.
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