LA School District's iPad Farce Reaches Nadir As Officials Demand Refunds From Apple, Answer Questions From The SEC

from the all-aboard-the-USS-Not-Our-Fault! dept

The Los Angeles school district’s headfirst leap into technological waters has turned into the ultimate cautionary tale. Rather than ensure everything was up to spec, the district chose to distribute 90,000 iPads bundled with Pearson software and hand them over to its students… who cracked the minimal built-in protections within a week and turned the devices into something they wanted to use, rather than something they had to use.

Why the full-on dive? Well, it appears at least part of it may have been motivated by low-level corruption — the sort of thing you’d expect to be present in a $500 million project, one that ballooned to $1.3 billion, even as most students went without new iPads or laptops. (Only 91,000 of the 650,000 iPads had been purchased by the point the program was shut down.)

Now, the district is facing an inquiry by the SEC — to go with its ongoing investigation by the FBI for some pre-contractual irregularities (i.e., wining and dining with eventual contract winners Apple and Pearson) by the then-superintendent overseeing the program.

The federal Securities and Exchange Commission recently opened an informal inquiry into whether Los Angeles school officials complied with legal guidelines in the use of bond funds for the now-abandoned $1.3-billion iPads-for-all project.

In particular, the agency was concerned with whether the L.A. Unified School District properly disclosed to investors and others how the bonds would be used, according to documents provided to The Times.

Now that the program is effectively dead and under intense scrutiny, the ineptness of the district’s rollout is under discussion. The district is claiming this debacle really isn’t its fault.

The Los Angeles Unified School District is seeking to recoup millions of dollars from technology giant Apple over a problem-plagued curriculum that was provided with iPads intended to be given to every student, teacher and administrator.

Apple may be in the headline and leading paragraph, but district officials seem more irritated with software provider Pearson. Under the terms of the agreement, Pearson was allowed to half-ass its way through the first year, providing only “partial curriculum.” It was expected to be at least as prepared as the students by the beginning of the following school year. It wasn’t, despite receiving $200 per iPad in licensing fees.

“Only two schools of 69 in the Instructional Technology Initiative … use Pearson regularly,” according to an internal March report from project director Bernadette Lucas. “Any given class typically experiences one problem or more daily. Teachers report that the students enjoy the interactive content — when it’s available. When it’s not, teachers and students try to roll with the interruptions to teaching and learning as best they can.”

The remaining schools, she said, with more than 35,000 students, “have given up on attempting regular use of the app.”

Pearson, despite having received millions of dollars (and possibly some preferential treatment during the bidding process), is flunking. It hasn’t created bilingual versions of its software — something of a necessity in Los Angeles. The analytic software it promised to the district (as part of the justification for the software premiums) has yet to arrive. It hasn’t even provided online versions of periodic achievement tests.

How much Apple and other device makers are really at fault is up for debate. As the device makers, they only needed to provide a device and operating system. The rest seems to be on Pearson, which at this point, should really be doing better at providing functional educational software. The LA school district may have erred in its decision to roll this out before ensuring everything worked properly, but the future’s not just going to sit around waiting for giants like Pearson to get their end of the equation in order. The field is ripe for disruption. Or, it would be… if entrenched interests (government entities) weren’t so set on bedding down with equally entrenched interests (textbook publishers).

But what comes across here is something more than just ensuring government contractors live up to the terms of their agreements. Above the better-late-than-never attempt at fiscal responsibility (always save your receipts!), you can hear the faint whinging noise of the district arguing that it shouldn’t be responsible for its own botched rollout, financial impropriety or inability to respond to problems with more agility. As much as I’d like to bash Pearson (and I really, really would), there’s definitely a hint of buck-passing in the air.

The district could have handled this better, but there was just too much money at stake. Hundreds of millions of dollars in expeditures can’t guarantee working tech, but it goes a long way towards ensuring a certain level of mismanagement. Large contracts tend to bring out the worst in people. Not only will there almost always be some level of impropriety, but there will also be a compulsion to do everything fast and hard so the public can see where its money’s being spent. Doing something, even if it’s clumsy and questionable, is almost always preferable to doing it the right way. The LA school district wanted to win the race to the future, but only managed to knock over every hurdle before collapsing several hundred iPads short of the finish line. And now it wants the same companies it allegedly allowed to seduce it into handing over more that $500 million to give some of it back.

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Comments on “LA School District's iPad Farce Reaches Nadir As Officials Demand Refunds From Apple, Answer Questions From The SEC”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Pearson is a joke

As a technology coordinator for multiple school districts over the years, I can tell you what a joke pearson is. Currently, we are unable to test in Minnesota due to problems with pearson not being able to keep their servers running. The state of MN just shut them down and told them they were not allowed to continue unless they straighten up their act. If I had a choice I would never work with them again. They even force schools to run caching servers because they cant handle the draw on their systems.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Pearson is a joke

The irony is that there is probably a good half dozen perfectly usable open-source replacements for everything Pearson does, but no administration or board will sign-off because “it doesn’t come with support.”

Meanwhile, the dollars poured down the Pearson, et al, drains could have payed for how many teachers?

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re:

How exactly can they demand a refund from apple?

That’s what I’m wondering too. Why Apple even gets mentioned in this cockup, I don’t know. They’re taking a shitkicking in the press for this debacle (notice it’s Apple in the subject line here too; not Pearson) for having supplied a software vendor’s contract with the school district.

Apple should just refuse to have anything to do with deals involving Pearson, and maybe even try to sue the bastards out of existence.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

How exactly can they demand a refund from apple?
That’s what I’m wondering too.

A typical lawyer ploy is to sue anyone who has deep pockets or name them in a lawsuit.

That is why the old Microsoft licences used to say if they were named in a lawsuit where you used their products and you got sued, you agreed to defend Microsoft….just by using their software.

Apple has deep pockets. So they got named.

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

If You are Going to Spend Money, You Should at Least get Something Suitable for Your Money.

Well, my understanding is that the manufacturing cost of an IPad is on the order of $200-300. The sticker price reflects advertising, high pressure salesmanship in showrooms, etc., A competent purchasing agent would have insisted on a price which reflected the manufacturing cost, not the sucker list price. I am communicating with you via a computer I bought in 2004, whose fair market value cannot be more than $50.

Some time back, I saw a picture of some nice classroom computer cabinets. I suppose they were made by a local carpenter. The idea was that the desktop was made of plexiglass, with a lockable compartment underneath, and the screens (glass CRT) were set in a position underneath the desktop, almost vertical, say, about 70 degrees. The arrangement is pretty well childproof, and does not obstruct the teacher’s field of view. On that basis, you can use cheap desktop computer components. I’ve seen cheap Bluetooth keyboards in the local Walgreens for $20, for use with IPads– on a bulk-purchase basis, you ought to be able to get them for $5, and bulk-purchase mice don’t need to cost more than a dollar each. A good plastic-moulding shop ought to be able to design you a package sufficiently waterproof that you can serve children lunch on top of the table (*), swab it down with a hot sponge, dry it with a paper towel, and resume class.

(*) Best lunch-serving practice is that you serve meals at a table, from carts, preferably in the classroom, Japanese-fashion, in three courses, viz., salad, entree, and dessert, so that the children naturally finish off most of their salad before they see the meat and potatoes, let alone the sweet.

It might be convenient to power the table with a single automobile battery, which the janitor can swap out every night, and use Bluetooth to connect to a classroom-level server.

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

It hasn’t created bilingual versions of its software — something of a necessity in Los Angeles.


I say this as a bilingual person, fluent in both my native English and in Spanish, who has lived in both LA and (a predominantly Mexican area of) San Diego. I have never personally been in a situation in either place where my Spanish was “a necessity.” Sure, it makes things easier when dealing with people whose English isn’t so good, but even then, most people either speak enough English to get by or have someone (frequently one of their own teenage-or-older children) on hand who can interpret, because English is the lingua franca of the country they’re living in.

And the place where it is the least necessary, to the point of being actively harmful, is the education of little children. Kids whose parents won’t or can’t teach them English are the ones most in need of English language education. It’s a necessity to get by in an English-speaking country, and trying to pretend otherwise does a disservice both to them and to their communities. It leads to isolation and alienation in the long run.

This is actually a tremendously important topic. The word “barbarian” means “uncivilized person” in the modern lexicon. But the original term comes from ancient Greek. The Greeks would mock people who spoke an unfamiliar language, calling it gibberish and saying that they went around saying nothing but “bar bar bar bar” all the time. The new meaning came about because if you can’t communicate effectively with someone, then no matter how rich and well-developed their culture may be–or your own, for that matter–you are as barbarians to each other, unable to work together to build civilization.

Is that really what we want to inflict upon children entrusted to our care?

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I think this is where a “conservative” steps in and starts ranting about “liberals” multi-cult pandering.

I cannot imagine why anyone would want to encourage non-English speakers to keep their foreign learned culture (to the exclusion of the traditional local culture) once they’ve emigrated to the US. The US was once known unabashedly as a melting pot for good reason. Why anyone would want to encourage enclaves of various minorities which are only barely able to communicate or understand each other, I don’t understand. I’ve been in stores in these enclaves where there were no English speakers working there. A local govt. here had to step up and complain to a whole town that there seemed to be no English signage left.

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

It’s in British Columbia, Canada, just North of Washington state. I believe it was in a town called Surrey. There’s a huge amount of Asian and South Asian immigrants there. It was recently determined that Surrey’s 52% non-caucasian. I’ve seen lots of rice-paddy style coolie hats in the fields while driving around on vacation, and that was decades ago. BC produce is practically a delicacy here; lots of berries, cherries, apples, asparagus, … The unofficial name is “The Wet [sic] Coast.” It seldom snows, but rains a lot (don’t tell California! :-). Excellent agricultural climate due to the rain and the Alaskan current offshore.

Canada’s history is littered with horrible racist incidents mostly caused by pro-British (obviously) sentiments. BC’s past is one of the worst of them. They appear to be trying their best to atone for them, mostly, but it’s slow going. They’re still heavily racist in a lot of ways.

A ship showed up there around the turn of the last century (18nn – 19nn), filled with Seikh refugees. BC refused to let them come ashore! After months suffering appalling conditions on board, it eventually sailed back to India, where the British Raj essentially murdered them all. Pretty disgusting all around. Canada’s treatment of Native Peoples wasn’t much better. They/we have a lot to apologize for.

yankinwaoz (profile) says:

What about the financing?

I’ve mentioned this every time the subject of the LAUSD iPad program comes up. The major crime is not incompetent vendors. It is how the LAUSD paid for the program. This article hints at this, but does not come out and say it.

The district floated bonds to pay for this. In other words, they borrowed money. Let that sink in. They are financing consumer electronics with bond money.

School bonds are for building schools, and other capital expense with long service life.

I found this article about the bonds used in this program. In it, the LAUSD claims that they are allowed to use a blend of long and short term bonds to pay for technology. And they also claim that the bonds won’t exceed the expected service life of the iPads, which they estimate at 5 years.

I get the sense that this is all smoke and mirrors, and that at the end of the day, the taxpayers are going to be stuck paying interest for years on iPads that no longer exist, or are usable.

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Free OC Cheese Pizza!

I’m pretty sure it was the school’s IT guy who was busted for that, not the teachers. I’ve not bothered to care what eventually happened to him. I hope he’s breaking rocks, but shoveling pig shit for a living would be fine with me too.

That’s not to suggest that there aren’t paedos working as teachers (there are, and there appears to be a lot of them, especially in Britain, and especially female teachers; they’re giving priests a run for their money).

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