The L.A. schools’ excellent iPad adventure

Arne Duncan explains why Johnny can't read. Does he know he's the problem?
(Bryan Bedder / Getty)

... Well, maybe not so excellent.

In the latest installments of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s $1-billion marketing venture with Apple Inc. -- excuse me, I meant its visionary effort to equip every pupil with 21st century educational technology -- the district has found that scores of its $678 tablets have gone missing. Students have been able to hack their way easily past security software designed to keep them off prohibited websites.

As my colleagues Howard Blume and Stephen Ceasar have documented, students at three schools have been told to surrender their iPads, though they say they haven’t been told why. At other schools, they’re forbidden to take them home.

The iPad rollout, they say, is in “chaos.” LAUSD Supt. John Deasy, who pushed this program (and appeared in an Apple promotional video as the program was being formulated), declares it “an astonishing success.”


The biggest problem with the iPad plan isn’t the hands-on misuse of the tablets by students, however. It’s that no one can explain what educational problem the iPad is supposed to fix.

Resources? Did it really make sense to use a school construction bond to buy 10,000 fragile, inevitably obsolescent electronic devices instead of, you know, building or upgrading school facilities? Or buying books (which don’t tend to go astray even when they’re taken home)?

As we’ve pointed out before, school administrators are often fascinated by advanced technology because they’re technological rubes. Teachers, who have to deploy these things in class, are often less impressed, for good reason.

One person we have to blame for this misplaced devotion to technology is U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who pushes tech as an imperative in U.S. schools, wringing his hands about being outpaced by places such as South Korea. “We have to move from being a laggard to a leader” is his sound bite.

His own agency disagrees. In 2009, the Education Department studied how math and reading software influenced student achievement. The study found that the difference in test scores between the software-using classes and the control group was “not statistically different from zero.” (I’d link to the study, but it’s offline -- government shutdown, you know.)

The factor that always gets forgotten in the misty glow of educational tech is how to pay for it and keep it upgraded. It’s also forgotten who really benefits from the expenditures -- the manufacturers. Is it any surprise that the most relentless promoter of tablets as learning tools is, um, Apple?


Educational technocrats like Duncan and Deasy invariably take their eye off the ball. What’s needed for educational progress is good teachers, and more of them, with adequate supplies and comfortable school environments.

And not just any technology, but the right technology. As former Los Angeles Deputy Mayor Austin Beutner observed Wednesday in an Op-Ed in The Times, some 250,000 L.A. schoolchildren need eyeglasses. Without them, they can’t read a blackboard.

Do you really think it’ll be better for them if they’re squinting at an iPad instead? Teachers attest that equipping a nearsighted child with glasses makes an instantaneous improvement. Give that child an iPad, and you’ve accomplished almost nothing.