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Cost of a new-age curriculum

As schools give students computers, price of L.A.’s technology program stands out

Published: Monday, Jan. 6, 2014 1:15 a.m. CDT
Caption
(MCT New Service)
Pinacate Middle School students Raul Curil (left), 13, and Marco Fuentes, 12, work on Chromebook devices producing their electronic newspaper the Puma Press in journalism class in Perris, Calif.

The Perris Union High School District is paying $344 apiece for a Chromebook for every student. Nearby, Riverside Unified purchased a variety of devices, including the Kindle Fire and iPad Mini, for as low as $150 each. In San Diego Unified, some students are using a $200 tablet.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, however, is paying $768 per device for its students, teachers and administrators, making it one of the nation’s most expensive technology programs. The reason: L.A. Unified selected a relatively costly product – a higher-end Apple iPad – and also paid for a new math and English curriculum installed on the tablets.

School districts across the country are embarking on technology upgrades, with the latest trend toward providing each student with a computer, such as a tablet or similar device. These school systems are attempting to replace traditional textbooks as much as possible and ensure that all students have access to technology. The devices also are intended to encourage students to be more engaged in learning.

Other districts are finding ways to buy or lease computers that are less costly but still aligned to educational goals. Some school systems, for example, are giving younger students a different device from those used in high school. Although many are using iPads, they often are buying less costly models without the additional cost of curriculum software.

“It’s a huge, huge marketplace that is only going to grow,” said Brian Lewis, chief executive of the Washington, D.C.-based International Society for Technology in Education, which focuses on the effective use of technology in schools. “Everyone is trying to figure out the best solution in the constantly changing landscape.”

Los Angeles’ $1 billion technology effort stands out in part because California has lower per-student funding than most states. L.A. Unified is using money for the tablets that other school systems are unable or unwilling to tap: voter-approved school construction bonds.

L.A. Unified could not name another district using bonds to purchase curriculum. When L.A. is finished, the portion of the bonds that can be spent on technology will be exhausted, officials said.

L.A. schools Superintendent John Deasy said it was important to buy a computer-based curriculum that fully incorporates learning standards recently adopted by California and 44 other states. And he wanted each student to take upcoming tests, linked to those standards, on a tablet that is permanently assigned to them.

“Our youth deserve the best we can afford,” Deasy said.

The tablet chosen by L.A. Unified – the iPad 4 with 32 gigabytes of storage – has since been discontinued as a retail product, but the price under L.A. Unified’s contract with Apple Inc. was locked in.

Other school districts, meanwhile, have found different ways to provide the latest technology to students.

“The iPad is the gold standard,” said Jay McPhail, a Riverside Unified School District senior administrator. “Our problem is we don’t have any gold.”

Riverside Unified has purchased about 28,000 computers over 5 years, and about 11,000 devices were provided by students.

That district also gauges which device is best for a campus, conducting a survey of parents on what they already own or would buy. The district provides computers for students who don’t supply their own.

Perris Union officials described Chromebooks as not only less expensive but a better instructional fit. The Chromebook, for example, is a laptop-style device with a larger screen, keyboard and multiple input ports that can connect to thumb drives, printers, cameras or CD players. Such features are useful for students who are researching online and writing papers, said Superintendent Jonathan Greenberg.

“We didn’t pick Chromebooks and try to make it work,” Greenberg said. “The device was picked after we decided what is it we need to do.”

Among the many districts opting for tablets, the vast majority have chosen iPads. The iPad’s early dominance has encouraged developers to create education applications for it.

There’s also a confidence factor with Apple, officials said. A North Carolina school system that went with a lower-cost tablet-maker suspended its program after too many of the glass screens broke.

San Diego Unified is paying $551 for the iPad 2, a less expensive model, which includes a three-year warranty but no curriculum. The district is saving more by giving younger students a Lenovo IdeaPad 7-inch tablet, at a cost of about $200 per device.

Township High School District 214 in Illinois is paying $429 per iPad 2, $300 less than L.A. Unified is paying for an iPad 4, although the Illinois tablets do not come pre-loaded with curriculum software. That district didn’t want a set curriculum that every teacher had to use.

“What we’ve seen is that there isn’t one piece of curriculum that fits the needs of every teacher,” said Keith Bockwoldt,- director of technology services.

Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, a group of local charter campuses run independently of L.A. Unified, also chose iPads. Alliance could not match L.A. Unified’s purchasing power — when the cost of curriculum software is factored in, it paid a little more per student. But the group also reaped a benefit from buying them in smaller batches. The price fell by $50 per device in one month, merely because the iPad 4 was quickly dropping in value.

School officials in Huntsville, Ala., were concerned that Apple products were too much of a “money pit … you’ve always got to buy the next thing,” said Chief Financial Officer Jason Taylor. And the Chromebook, part of a Google system, was judged as too limiting for students without Internet access at home. And the district didn’t want to be locked in to Google products.

“We want to give students the best and biggest screen possible and as much visibility to the curriculum they can have,” Taylor said.

Huntsville is leasing HP laptops for $750 apiece over three years. District officials said they believe the laptops will be much less expensive over time than Apple devices.

Huntsville also has moved to an online curriculum in all subjects, for which it pays Pearson $200 a year per student. Textbooks are being replaced: in middle school math, for example, the curriculum is online.

More than anything else, it is the Pearson curriculum that is driving the higher overall cost at L.A. Unified. A three-year license for math and English software added as much as $200 per device to the price tag, according to documents reviewed by the Los Angeles Times and people close to the bidding process.

Absence of curriculum helped keep the price per Chromebook to $308 at KIPP L.A., another group of charter schools.

At KIPP, previously purchased Apple computers are valued for multimedia projects. And the iPad’s touch screen is ideal for some disabled students, said Matthew Peskay, KIPP’s director of technology and innovation. But lower-cost options are fine for most students and most purposes, he said.

The Chromebooks are used for supplementing instruction and remedial work. They also allow students in the same class to work at different paces, Peskay said. Teachers and schools choose which curriculum to use.

Instructors in Perris and Riverside typically use online curriculum and resources, much of it free. That allows students to use their own computers; in Riverside, that has saved the district considerable funds.

Teams of Perris educators also have developed their own lessons that incorporate technology – which may be delivered on a different kind of computer in the future.

“The device itself is a short-term thing,” said Perris Supt. Greenberg. “New devices are always coming out.”

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