Monday, July 07, 2014

LA Schools Realize Giving Every Kid an iPad Was a Costly Disaster, Will Give Every Kid a Laptop Instead

The Los Angeles Unified School District's plan to give every child an iPad—at a cost of $1 billion to taxpayers—drew universal criticism after numerous problems arose. For one thing, when the devices were broken, lost, or stolen, it wasn't clear whether parents, the schools, or the kids themselves were responsible. Tech-savy students easily broke through the firewalls administrators had installed to keep them from using the devices to visit social media websites. This prompted some schools to prohibit the use of the iPads at home, when students are away from teacher supervision, even though one of the major intended functions of the iPad program was to give kids a homework aid.

The entire thing was an unmitigated disaster—a clear example of real life trumping the good intentions of bureaucrats

But LAUSD has clearly learned its lesson, right? Wrong:

Los Angeles school district officials have allowed a group of high schools to choose from among six different laptop computers for their students — a marked contrast to last year's decision to give every pupil an iPad.

Contracts that will come under final review by the Board of Education on Tuesday would authorize the purchase of one of six devices for each of the 27 high schools at a cost not to exceed $40 million.

This story in the Los Angeles Times highlights that the new approach emphasizes choosing the devices that are right for each school, rather than expecting an iPad to be the answer to every kid's educational needs. Still, it's an awfully expensive plan, given that most of the options actually cost more than the iPad:

The initial money to pay for the technology is coming from voter-approved bonds. Officials have not yet identified funding to sustain the $1-billion-plus effort. Three of the laptops being tried in the high schools are likely to cost more than the iPads. A different style of laptop, called a Chromebook, would cost less.

Teachers and students at the high schools sent delegations to try out devices and meet with vendors at district headquarters.

It wasn't a perfect process. The curriculum, for example, was hard to assess in a process akin to speed dating, said one participant.

If I were an LA public school student, I would be pretty excited to get an iPad or a Chromebook or whatever. But if I were an LA voter, I would be skeptical that such things serve a worthwhile educational purpose and are a good use of my tax dollars.


A $2 million boondoggle—er, "security system"—placed in New Jersey's Belleville High School proved its merit and unerring wisdom when it locked a teacher in a bathroom

 According to

"Since school policy is to not allow the use of cell phones, no one knew where she was, or what happened to her until they went looking for her. Luckily, the teacher was carrying her purse, with her phone inside. When her co-workers retrieved their phones to try to call her, they found that she had been frantically trying to call and text people to come help her.

By the way, this is the same RFID system that the Board of Education pushed through as part of their controversial surveillance system, installed and managed by Clarity Technologies Group, at a cost of $2 million.

Even worse, when they actually discovered that she was locked in the bathroom, they could not open the door by swiping with their own RFID cards because the system had malfunctioned. Apparently someone had to come and pry open the door to finally get her out.

While this particular incident occurred in April, it was apparently just one of several such mishaps. The system was ostensibly put in place to prevent another Newtown, though how it would actually accomplish that, I have no idea. A gunman bursting into the school would show up on the monitors, yes, but would also be pretty visible even without monitors.

A malfunctioning security system is a danger in and of itself, as NutleyWatch pointed out:

What if this had been a child locked in a bathroom late on a Friday afternoon, just before everyone left for the weekend? Just imagine the fear and the trauma that child might endure as a result, not to mention the ensuing lawsuit.

What if this system locked 30 kids inside their own classroom during a fire?

What happens to all the doors in the school when a fire knocks out the network, or melts some of the cabling? Does the entire building become a deathtrap for everyone now locked inside?

It seems like this is what happens when a school suddenly decides it needs a security system and signs a contract with a particular company—the only one that managed to get in a bid—two weeks later. (You can read about that hasty business decision here.)

Note that while the school district managed to find $2 million for the safety of its dear children, the history books it provides those same kids are so old, they don't even cover 9/11.

Odd for a school so focused on terror, isn't it?


How Teacher Tenure Hurts Students

“Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program,” quipped Milton Friedman. The same could be said of teachers with tenure. Last year, just two – that’s right, two – teachers in California were dismissed because of performance issues, according to Parent Revolution’s Ben Austin. While it’s likely only a small minority of teachers is grossly ineffective, tenure protects those who are and prevents school leaders from making personnel decisions that are in the best interests of students.

That issue was at the heart of the June ruling in Vergara v. State of California, a decision which ultimately held that policies like tenure create barriers to equal education options for disadvantaged children.In Vergara, Judge Rolf M. Treu struck down five state laws governing school personnel decisions, including hiring and dismissal. Grossly ineffective teachers, Treu noted, have a “real and appreciable” impact on children. Disadvantaged students attending low-income schools are far more likely to find themselves in a classroom with an ineffective teacher than children from more affluent families.

Empowering school leaders to make personnel decisions can help ensure students have access to quality teachers – something that could pay off significantly, not only for the student but also for U.S. economic and educational standing. Stanford University economist Eric Hanushek found that replacing the lowest-performing five to eight percent of teachers with an average teacher would enable American students to catch up with students in higher-performing nations. Harvard economist Raj Chetty, along with colleagues at Harvard and Columbia, found that replacing an underperforming teacher with a teacher of average performance would increase the lifetime earnings of students in the average classroom by about $250,000.

It is difficult to encourage excellence in teaching when tenure is awarded in many cases after just three years of service, and step increases in pay are based on time worked, not the quality of instruction. Compounding the problem, “last-in-first-out” policies dictate that, in the event of staffing reductions, seniority, not performance, determines who receives pink slips.

The teaching profession is also constrained by union-supported policies that mandate aspiring teachers obtain paper credentials, often at a substantial cost. Requiring several years of certification work can be a significant deterrent for certain individuals, such as mid-career professionals who want to change jobs or an engineer who would like to teach later in life.

Once a teacher has obtained that paper credential and enters the classroom, policies like tenure effectively end that teacher’s evaluation process. This is exactly the opposite of how the teaching profession should manage personnel. Paper credentials are a poor indicator of future teacher performance. “The current system, which focuses on credentials at the time of hire and grants tenure as a matter of course, is at odds with decades of evidence on teacher effectiveness,” argue economists Douglas O. Staiger and Jonah E. Rockoff in the Journal of Economic Perspectives.

How can we ensure excellent teachers find their way to the classroom and are encouraged to stay? By making it easy to enter the profession, but rigorously evaluating teachers once they’re in the there.

States and local school districts should eliminate inflexible tenure policies that keep ineffective teachers in the classroom. Additionally, states and school districts should remove many of the barriers to entering the classroom – namely, requirements for certification – but should demand excellent performance of teachers in the classroom (measured in part by student growth on assessments). If performance is found to be lacking, principals should have the autonomy to consider whether that teacher is a good fit for their school.


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