By Cynthia Liu, CEO/Founder of K12NN.
Two education technology disasters mark the former LAUSD Superintendent’s brief tenure: the iPad debacle, born from cozy relationships with vendors and dependent upon broadband infrastructure that, in irrationally exuberant Silicon Valley-speak, was a “plane being built as they were flying it.” The second is the ongoing malfunctioning of MiSiS software, a comprehensive computerized school records system which — to date — prevents students from enrolling in classes required for graduation and college applications.
Twenty-twenty hindsight shows John Deasy’s haste made LAUSD waste. His rush to buy iPads was to ensure that Common Core SBAC field tests could be administered via computer starting in the spring of 2014, mandated under AB484, the Pupil Assessments: Measurement of Academic Performance and Progress (MAPP) Act of 2013. It’s still unclear how many LAUSD students can actually use the iPads purchased for this purpose. A full-load trial run of the broadband infrastructure has never been performed to simulate hundreds of thousands of test-taking students in grades 3 through 11 during the spring 2015 testing window. Inventories of other devices are incomplete. Yet if school districts rushed to respond to legal mandates to change standardized tests, the same law provides a safety valve for districts like LAUSD.
In 2013, Governor Brown signed into law AB484 to shift testing from STAR to SBAC and it revised CA Ed Code SEC. 15. 60640. (a) (5) (F) (e) to state:
AB484 allows for SBAC tests to be given via paper and pencil in the spring of 2015, 2016, and 2017. Currently, the cost of fully outfitting Los Angeles Unified with devices and connectivity is estimated to be $1.3 billion even if it could be implemented immediately, and the MiSiS mess left behind by the Deasy administration will cost upwards of $100 million, including fixes.
We also know that paper and pencil STAR tests, a reasonable comparison, cost about $13 per student to administer in 2012. This is half or less of the estimated $24 – 28 per student (by some estimates, as high as $40 per student) to administer the computer-based SBAC MAPP tests, excluding the cost of hardware and wireless infrastructure.
Interim Superintendent Ramon Cortines should therefore move quickly to solve both the short- and long-term problems LAUSD faces and hand the baton to his successor:
- immediately call for a fast-tracked, Financial Crisis Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) tech review of LAUSD district resources to be completed by May 1, 2015 so recommendations can be incorporated into the 3-year projected budget all districts are required to have approved by the school board by June 30;
- immediately yield to a Civil Grand Jury investigation and audit of the iPad and MiSiS deals to restore trust in voters who need assurances that money for technology will be spent prudently under the next Superintendent;
- immediately institute paper and pencil tests in LAUSD for the next three years to give the next Superintendent the opportunity to act on the findings of both the FCMAT tech review and Civil Grand Jury investigation/audit
Switching to paper and pencil SBAC tests for the next three years could save LAUSD tens of millions of dollars. Putting the computer-based SBAC tests on ice will lessen the burden on the general fund, stop hemorrhaging of the facilities bond fund put to ed tech uses that angers voters, and put LAUSD on sounder financial footing while still providing paper state-mandated tests to students. With careful planning, the next Superintendent could develop a financially sustainable, long term vision for the district’s digital needs and also ensure that each and every school has a library staffed with librarians, public school arts programs that reflect true pride of place in the country’s most cutting edge arts city, and ensure that popular and proven career technical education programs continue to thrive in every school in LAUSD. It would put LAUSD schools on a better footing to restore the baseline of staff and services at pre-Great Recession 2007- 2008 levels.
Finally, let LAUSD’s painful missteps be a lesson to other large urban school districts looking to upgrade their tech capacity in order to teach digital literacy: first and foremost, do the “non-technological” hard work of seeking community, parent, and teacher buy-in. Oh, and try to stay within the law.
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