iPad Program At L.A. Schools Needs Fine Tuning

Steve Inskeep talks to Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy about the district's $1 billion iPad initiative, which aims to put a tablet in the hands of every student over the next year. The plan has prompted questions about the role of technology in the classroom, and the extent to which it can enhance teaching and improve student achievement.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

A news item last week got us thinking about how American schools are changing. Many high school students in Los Angeles now have school-issued iPads. Some hacked the security on the iPads to surf forbidden sites on the Internet. School superintendent John Deasy weathered some awkward headlines and tried to turn this into a teachable moment.

JOHN DEASY: Met with the students, collected the devices, and began a conversation about so, you're smart, but we need you to be responsible.

INSKEEP: The incident was one of the bumps as John Deasy rolls out the plan, under which L.A. is spending $1 billion to eventually put an iPad in the hands of every student - 650,000 of them, grades K through 12. L.A. is not the first school system to try something like this, but is by far the largest.

Of all the things that you could do with your district budget, what made you think that an iPad for every student ultimately would be a thing that you'd want to do?

DEASY: All students should have access to technology. And all students should have access to live digital curriculum. I mean, what we would want for the most privileged students, it's our obligation to make sure that students who live in circumstances of poverty have exactly that.

INSKEEP: When you say live digital curriculum, are you essentially saying that the textbook is an iPad now, or you're heading in that direction?

DEASY: I think that's fair enough to say. I mean, the textbook is information that's static. So, like most people would assume, I know of no school district - and certainly not here in Los Angeles - where there is information in our textbooks about the Arab Spring, a very important part of understanding world history and our own history. Live digital content is constantly updated so that students could understand the Arab Spring.

INSKEEP: You know, help me think through some of the implications of having the text on an iPad instead of in a book. I'm thinking about issues in recent decades in education in which there is a national textbook market and we discover that if Texas, for example, sets a particular standard for its textbooks, it can influence the books that end up in the entire country, because a publisher wants to make sure the textbooks are acceptable everywhere.

I would imagine that, for better or for worse, that when your text is on an iPad, you could make it specific to a state, specific to a county, specific to a school.

DEASY: That's a very, very - I think, a very good insight, which means that the monopoly is no longer there around a largest state driving the textbook. In the Common Core for English Language Arts, for example, we're moving to a balance of 50 percent of the material being what would call traditional fiction text, like Shakespeare, and 50 percent being what we would call nonfiction text, like Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

You could have taken that in California and talked about the comments that Cesar Chavez made after breaking his fast and using that as an exact piece of nonfiction text. And that does not have to be the same in every state in the Union.

INSKEEP: Oh, the advocate for migrant workers, you might have included that in California.

DEASY: Absolutely.

INSKEEP: At the same time, I think about the flipside of that. It makes me wonder if, as this technology spreads, we might end up in a situation where there is a red state history of the United States and a blue state history of the United States, that takes different facts or things that aren't even facts, and could even make them specific to particular parts of states that are politically inclined one way or another.

DEASY: I think that that is a possibility. I don't think I'm equipped to make that judgment, will it happen. But you raise a point that is, I think, very legitimate.

INSKEEP: Can technology replace teachers?

DEASY: Oh, absolutely not. Absolutely not. We know both through the psychology of education and the sociology of education that the ability to learn is deeply, deeply dependent upon having an expert side-by-side coaching us, helping us make sense of information, helping us scaffold information, which is taking pieces we know and growing to a place which we don't know. That cannot be done through technology.

INSKEEP: We had an interview with Diane Ravitch, an education expert and author, who's very much a critic of a lot of changes in education in recent years, on the program a few days ago. And one of the things she said was this: That she's concerned that corporations are selling education technology, that ultimately that comes at the expense of teachers' salaries.

Could you envision a situation where there's more and more education that is automated, in effect? And you can do - not do without teachers at all, but reduce the number of teachers, increase the class size?

DEASY: I mean, I can't envision that. I don't find that to be a responsible direction to move in. I think that Ms. Ravitch's concerns are ones that she's expressing of the present, and she's a historian. So I would imagine we faced these things in the past: the monopoly on textbooks, the monopoly on school transportation, the corporate monopoly on buildings and chairs.

I mean, we certainly have seen this in the past. Every student seems to have to sit down in a chair. And those companies who had the monopoly on that was a corporation. And one could have made the same comments 50, 75, 25 years ago.

INSKEEP: John Deasy is the superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District. Thanks very much.

DEASY: Thank you very much.

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