The Los Angeles Unified School District spent nearly $50 million on a computer reading program that failed to improve student reading skills and in some cases hindered achievement because schools did not use it properly, according to records and interviews.
The district bought the Waterford Early Reading Program four years ago to supplement language arts instruction in kindergarten and first-grade classrooms.
Supt. Roy Romer, calling Waterford “the Cadillac of all systems,” promoted it as a promising new tool for raising test scores at low-performing elementary schools with large numbers of children who spoke limited English.
But two district evaluations found that teachers didn’t have enough time for the demands of the computer program as they struggled to cover a rigorous reading curriculum, introduced by the district only a year before. Teachers were forced to devote most of their mornings, and some afternoons, to those scripted lesson plans.
Many teachers, moreover, did not know how to fully use the Waterford system, which came with computers, videos, booklets and additional materials. Other instructors couldn’t use it because the computers froze or headsets broke.
In their 2002 and 2003 reports, the district researchers found that Waterford made no difference for students who used the program, and that it had a “negative impact” on some kindergartners whose teachers were using it in place of their primary reading lessons.
These findings and others were presented to school board members and senior district officials last year. As a result, the district ordered schools to drop Waterford from daily language arts instruction and instead reserve it only for students who needed extra help.
Some board members now are questioning the decision to equip classrooms with the costly Waterford computers. With $50 million, the district could have built three new elementary schools, kept primary grade class sizes at 20 students for a year or refurbished all middle and high school science labs.
“It hasn’t been a good use of money,” said Los Angeles school board President Jose Huizar, who took office shortly after the board approved the Waterford contracts. “How could anyone continue to argue that it’s working when it’s not? It’s underutilized and ineffective.”
Other board members, including Jon Lauritzen and Julie Korenstein, believe that the district might have embraced Waterford too quickly.
“I think it really needed to be looked at closer before it was fully implemented,” said Lauritzen, who was elected in 2003, two years after the district bought the system. “Obviously, [we] didn’t get the full teacher buy-in or we would have gotten better results from it.”
School board member Marlene Canter said she wants to take a closer look at Waterford before committing more funds to it. “I don’t know if programs like Waterford are where we should be spending our money, or if we should be investing in other programs,” she said.
The school board last fall approved the latest expenditure for Waterford, a $741,000 technical support contract that expires in June. The board will have to consider whether to renew the contract in the coming months.
While Romer remains committed to Waterford, he acknowledged that it didn’t live up to expectations. After the evaluations, the superintendent said he and his staff reconsidered how to use the program more effectively and offered additional teacher training.
“As I looked at this, it didn’t provide as much bang for the buck as I would have liked,” Romer said. “I think right now it is still the right program for certain kids at certain times of the day. But we need to be thoughtful in how we use this asset.”
Officials from Pearson Digital Learning, which distributes Waterford, said the school district’s evaluations were not surprising given the limited amount of time teachers devoted to the program.
“The findings confirmed what we already knew: you have to turn it on to have an impact,” said Andy Myers, the company’s chief operations officer. “If you don’t get all the way through the program and cover all of the material, then you can’t expect the student gains.”
The district’s relationship with Pearson Digital Learning has raised questions about the reliability of its evaluation results.
Pearson paid for the district’s studies. The two sides met regularly to discuss findings through a partnership coordinated by the nonprofit Riordan Foundation, said foundation President Nike Irvin.
School district evaluators said they remained objective throughout their research, pointing to their discouraging findings as proof.
An outside researcher paid by Pearson to review the school district’s evaluations did not address their objectivity, but challenged their validity based on the district’s implementation.
“The fact that usage was so low made it hard to conclude that the program doesn’t work,” said former UC Irvine education professor Richard Brown, now at USC. “You could only conclude that it wasn’t used properly.”
The Los Angeles school district is the nation’s largest user of the Waterford technology, which in 10 years has spread to schools in all 50 states.
Other school districts that use Waterford on a consistent basis say the program has contributed to increased test scores and improved literacy skills.
In Idaho, computers were installed seven years ago for kindergartners in nearly all of the state’s 380 elementary schools.
A 2001 evaluation of eight Idaho school systems found that Waterford produced “striking” results, particularly for the students who were most behind.
“This is a very promising program,” said the study’s author, Herbert J. Walberg, a visiting research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. “It showed good effects on all groups.”
Waterford arrived in Los Angeles with similar endorsements.
The California Department of Education had reviewed the program and determined that it matched well with California’s academic standards -- a review that amounted to an official stamp of approval.
Meanwhile, teachers in L.A. Unified and in other districts who had been part of a pilot program raved about what they saw as its virtues, including regular student progress reports and the ability to customize lessons.
The teachers said that children enjoyed the program, which called for students to sit at computers for up to 30 minutes a day -- reciting the ABCs, learning nursery rhymes and practicing phonics drills set amid animated scenes that include magical kingdoms and circus big-tops.
Teachers said the Waterford system was particularly useful for students who spoke English as a second language, a major selling point for Los Angeles school officials.
Romer predicted that the combination of Waterford, Open Court -- the district’s primary reading program -- and new elementary school literacy coaches would jump-start test scores.
What he did not anticipate, however, was the time crunch teachers would experience.
In some cases, students spent less than a third of the recommended time on the computers, evaluators found.
Though the order went out last year to stop using the system except to help the lowest-performing students, teachers at several schools said they never received that message.
Many described Waterford as a valuable addition to their classrooms, saying they use it as much as possible.
Waterford’s appeal, kindergarten teacher Kamille Maslon said, is evident in the students who skip recess to work on the computers in her room at Rosemont Avenue Elementary west of downtown.
One boy sat in front of a computer screen on a recent day, using a finger to trace the R in “robot” and clicking on words to complete sentences.
“I think it’s wonderful,” Maslon said. “Very motivating. Sometimes we have to quiet the kids down because they’re so excited singing the songs. It’s constantly stimulating them.”
On the other side of the campus, first-grade teacher Alejandra Perez also praised Waterford -- when it’s working. Her three computers are on the fritz, collecting dust in the back of the room.
“It’s a good program,” Perez said, “if the children get to use it.”