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Despite Bad Press, LAUSD's iPad Curriculum Is Impressing Educators

Pupils using digital tablets in class

Pupils using digital tablets in class

LAUSD Supt. John Deasy's plan to give an iPad to every student has been ridiculed by the teachers union, press and some school board members as a costly and inept effort to bridge an illusory "digital divide" in a city where even the poor are awash in personal devices.

Unanimously adopted by the LAUSD Board of Education in June, the project's warts have been detailed by the Los Angeles Times and pilloried by United Teachers Los Angeles as an untested classroom tool and exorbitant waste of taxpayer bond money. Detractors have driven the iPad debate.

Now the project is at a crossroads, with the Board of Education pulling back on it last month by approving delays and cuts to its implementation. On the other side, numerous educators and public-school reformers, who want to remake LAUSD's curriculum and student academics so that they meet the Obama administration's push for the so-called Common Core, are not backing down.

"I wish I could tell you why there is all this hostility toward making sure poor kids have access to technology," says LAUSD board member Tamar Galatzan, a city attorney and the sole vote against the implementation delays won by board member Monica Ratliff.

Mitch Aiken of Caltech's Center for Teaching, Learning and Outreach calls the iPads "a great program" that will help L.A. students crack science, technology, engineering and math. Asked when students should get it, Aiken says, "Yesterday."

But Deasy and his team badly fumbled the iPad rollout, a relatively small pilot project for LAUSD at 47 of 1,000-plus schools: Only a fraction of the district's 34,000 teachers got to see a working iPad; high school students sailed past Apple's security features; and the pilot iPads, supposedly embedded with Pearson's Common Core System of Courses (the first tablet-based, English and math curriculum created to satisfy the Common Core State Standards), contained a less-developed version.

Apple's $500 million contract came under repeated attack, and then it became clear that the cited long-term price of $1 billion would rise whenever software licenses had to be renewed.

Deasy, lacking support from the independent citizen Bond Oversight Committee, now has backed off his plan to quickly supply iPads to all teachers — a $20 million effort to ensure that they acquired early expertise with an unfamiliar curriculum and, for many teachers, a new technology.

But now, the iPads, embedded with what proponents call a promising, interactive process for acquiring core knowledge and thinking skills, may be gaining ground with teachers, if not the public.

This central aspect of the iPad — its interactive curriculum aimed at boosting core knowledge — has barely been reported on by L.A.'s news media. When the Weekly sought a demonstration, it learned from Pearson that few L.A. journalists have asked to see the program on which they've been reporting for months.

The Weekly reviewed a more extensive demonstration than even LAUSD board members have seen. The thin curriculum offered during the pilot rollout has been replaced by a detailed curriculum of English, language arts and math lessons, which meshes with Common Core standards adopted by the state Board of Education.

Deasy says the learning process embedded in the iPads is meant to teach critical thinking skills to hundreds of thousands of L.A. youths — something many teachers have struggled to impart.

Some principals, including Fern Somoza at Paul Revere Charter Middle School, David Bell at Barack Obama Global Preparation Academy and Liam Joyce at Daniel Webster Middle School, say that teachers are embracing the iPads, and demand for the technology has arisen at schools that don't have it — not the resistance UTLA activists predicted. Moreover, the state Department of Education is expected to approve Pearson's curriculum as an alternative to textbooks.

But UTLA president Warren Fletcher says teachers doubt that student learning will improve. He likens the iPad to a "telephone" kids already know how to use.

"iPads are mainly used to consume media," Fletcher declares. To get the right tools for students, "We're not going to achieve [it] by buying expensive equipment without applicability in the classroom."

In fact, LAUSD spent two years developing a "request for proposals" to find a hardware/software team whose package was applicable to classroom learning. After the search, a 41-person committee, including 14 current or former teachers, chose Apple/Pearson's proposal over 11 other tech teams.

To work out the inevitable kinks, the board in June approved iPads with Pearson's curriculum at 47 pilot schools. (Board member Bennett Kayser abstained because he owned Apple stock, which he has sold. Deasy recently sold 15 Apple shares, held in his retirement account since 2009 and worth about $7,800, for some $5,000 in profit — but not before damaging his standing among the iPad rollout's critics.)

In the curriculum reviewed by the Weekly, lessons are highly individualized, challenging the student at his or her own level. One sixth-grade math unit on expressions and equations began with how to find a counterfeit coin in a bag of coins, using a weight scale displayed on the interactive screen. Students who got stuck received digital hints and could interact via their iPads with other students and the teacher — who might ask one of them to share his or her ideas. The approach, somewhat patterned on math in Japan, continued on to the mathematical concepts.

John Slavin, an eighth-grade teacher at Paul Revere Charter Middle School, incorporated iPads without the Pearson curriculum into his English honors unit about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Student groups built a Google map of Huck and Jim's travels and all had access to the same map, excitedly adding literary citations and elaborations of key events.

Slavin says, "It was an awesome brain exercise to learn a new interface while analyzing the book."

Now he's eager to try out Pearson's interactive curriculum on his English-language development classes and others. "In no way do I feel threatened by this," Slavin says. "It will enhance and make me a better teacher."

In South L.A., at the iPad pilot school Barack Obama Global Preparation Academy, principal Bell says they're now well past the troubled rollout, which he views as old news. His teachers are using Pearson's curriculum, even in special ed.

"If one person has facility in the use of technology and another one doesn't, who's going to get the job?" Bell asks. "We're not making a mistake putting technology in the hands of students."

But there are still problems. For example, school board member Ratliff wants to review the embedded Pearson curriculum that the Weekly saw. But Sherry King, vice president of Pearson's Common Core System of Courses, insists that because Apple controls the contract, Apple and LAUSD have to approve a look-see by elected official Ratliff.

Deasy, asked about this by the Weekly, said he'll intercede to fix the issue. Ratliff's volunteer media coordinator, Chuck Kanganis, says Ratliff won't be available for comment until next year.

An even more important group left out of the loop is the district's 34,000 teachers, many of whom are not tech-savvy. Most "have not seen it in operation," Deasy says. "Teachers helped to select it, but I think we could have gotten people on board earlier."

As a result of the board's November vote to slow down planned rollouts, only five extra schools in board member Monica Garcia's highly urban district will be given the iPads during phase two — not the 60 schools promised. "Fifty-five schools will be disappointed," says Garcia, who backs the program. "If we were talking about [an area with] 80 percent affluent Anglo kids, would we be having this discussion?"

Some of the board's retreat goes back to Deasy. He doesn't typically approach the L.A. Times editorial board or other prominent media for support in tapping public bond money, as his savvy predecessor, Roy Romer, did for his dizzying plan to build 131 schools. "I'm not going to go to an editorial board every time I launch an initiative," Deasy says.

But Deasy lost control of the iPad narrative, then complained to Times education reporter Howard Blume that Blume was writing "the same [iPad] article over and over again." In truth, almost no L.A. journalists have seriously reported on how the actual curriculum program works as it gains ground in real classrooms.

West Valley board member Tamar Galatzan, the dissenting vote last month against Ratliff's slowdown, says, "I'm afraid that if folks want to stop the rollout until there's never another problem, then kids will never get access to technology."

Reach the writer at bbarr223@yahoo.com.