THE BLOG
10/08/2014 04:30 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Los Angeles Unified Must Refocus: 5 Ways Bad Ed Tech Deals in LAUSD Hurt Kids Right Now

Recently released investigative reports by Southern California radio station KPCC have increased public scrutiny of Superintendent John Deasy's cozy relationships with Apple and Pearson executives in the period 2011 to 2013, before both corporations won the 2013 bid to supply Los Angeles Unified with iPads and software. This is the infamous "$1 billion iPad" deal that ambitiously sought to provide each child in the 650,000-student district with a tablet and educational software, and if implemented correctly, would've upgraded wireless technology to enable schoolkids to connect to the Internet. The problem-riddled program is currently on hold, and Deasy has sought to push the re-boot button by canceling the old contracts and launching a new RFP (Request for Proposals) for additional ed tech purchases.

Start over? Seriously? Deasy's gesture sparked a community petition with the title "Don't Throw Good Money After Bad" urging Angelenos to call for an independent investigation/audit of the iPad and other deals. The LAUSD Bond Oversight Committee recently turned down a request from district staff to purchase additional computers because it was accompanied by no documentation of projected need and no inventory of past devices acquired by the district.

Deasy has complained that he's the target of "political" attacks. Hardly. What has raised the ire of Angelenos everywhere is the stunning incompetence shown by this district in pursuing costly programs that ignore family priorities for public education.

1. Money diverted to the wrong priorities hurts kids. A Facebook page, Repairs Not iPads, has called attention to the use of school building repairs money being used to buy tablets, but not to fix plumbing, crumbling walls, broken water fountains, and decrepit HVAC systems. As Los Angeles often has 100-degree heat waves from the beginning of the school year in August through October, and hot temperatures again starting in May and June, this is dangerous. School facilities bonds are repaid over 25-years; iPads last for 5 years at most.

Questions of iPad bid-fixing aside, another bad ed tech deal marred the beginning of the school year: MiSiS, the classroom scheduling software that LAUSD was under pressure to launch in fall of 2014, was a spectacular failure.

2. The MiSiS student tracking and class scheduling software program STILL drops special needs students through the cracks.

An industry blog for IT professionals that tracks large projects called IT Spectrum provides a concise summary of the history of the need for accurate student scheduling and management software. A consent decree dating back to 1996 mandates that LAUSD put in place a system to accurately track the education of children with special needs:

However, LAUSD was slow to implement the changes it had promised, saying they were too expensive. In 2001, it was sued again, this time for non-compliance with the 1996 consent decree. In 2003, after much legal wrangling, a modified consent decree (pdf) was signed, under which LAUSD was to have made good on a new set of agreed improvements. The LAUSD promised these would be implemented by the end of 2006, including (once again) the implementation of a comprehensive student tracking system. The courts appointed an independent monitor who would assess and have significant power to say whether the LAUSD was indeed meeting the terms of the modified consent decree.

Progress on meeting the improvement objectives was steady, but still extremely slow. One of the bottlenecks was the implementation of that comprehensive student tracking system. From 2003 to 2009, LAUSD worked to implement an integrated student information system (ISIS), purchasing a commercial product called SchoolMax as a way to speed the process along. The LA Times reports that LAUSD spent $112 million on this effort.

However, LAUSD found, in its words, "many challenges with software development and SchoolMAX's performance." So, in 2012 LAUSD approached the independent monitor with a plan to internally redevelop the student tracking system used at the Fresno Unified School District, which he approved. The LAUSD claims that the new system, which the LA Times said cost $20 million to develop and now called MiSiS, would offer "greater flexibility, user-friendliness, and cost effectiveness."

LAUSD teachers were surveyed anonymously by their union, and asked whether MiSiS was working as needed. Some responses:

It was evident after using MiSiS during Summer School that we would encounter these problems. There has never been extensive training and even with training there are still time consuming issues that exist. The resources provided by MiSiS don't address minor problems that snowball into major problems. A major issue is information being deleted from the system. This problem has caused many students to have to wait the entire week to be programmed into classes. This was a problem I experienced during Summer School with grades. MiSiS is a very unpleasant reminder of the new payroll system instituted by LAUSD before all the kinks were worked out. Our school has work hard instituting changes to ensure a productive school year and MiSiS has proven to be a major stumbling block in moving forward as smoothly as we had planned.

...

I've wasted valuable instructional time trying to take attendance and log in to MiSiS.

...

I'm shocked and stunned how it was rolled out - all at once for everyone. My school piloted the grading part of MISIS last year, not the attendance part. With so many kinks on the grading part that had to be worked out, I do not get who thought it was a good idea to roll out MISIS the way they did. They should have piloted the attendance part, worked out the kinks, then mandate the system. By the end of piloting the grading portion of MISIS, I liked the system better than the grading system on ISIS. But this was after using it for many weeks and giving feedback to the person who accepted the feedback for weeks. I ended up getting a special certificate for my cooperation and help. I was satisfied spending the amount of work I spent on it. But this year, I haven't even gotten to the grading part as the attendance part isn't functioning.

...

I had to hand address envelopes to 200 incoming 6th graders because I couldn't print labels. Half the kids didn't have parents' names listed. It listed [ANOTHER CITY] (not part of LAUSD) instead of [CORRECT CITY] for students' city. I can't get a list of the identified kids. I can't print a list of identified kids' schedules to see if they're in the right classes. The class titles don't have an H in front of them so about 100 kids came to see me the first day of school wanting to know why I had taken them out of honors. Then the parents started to contact me. The teachers with honors classes didn't know which periods were honors because the only thing that tells that is the course number which teachers, students, and parents don't see. The gradebook is a piece of garbage. The one I used in 1987 had more features and was more user friendly. Taking attendance is a pain. No screen to show what periods attendance has been submitted for. It doesn't tell you which students have been marked absent in other periods so you can keep a handle on truancies. You don't buy a car and then expect the basics to be added later - you'll get tires in a few weeks, the steering wheel will be installed within a month, etc. The district shouldn't brag about owning the code. They bought a lemon. They should have contracted with a WORKING system such as Jupiter Grades and left the maintenance to experts. The head counselor sat on hold for 3 hours and then tech support couldn't answer her question. I emailed a question to Jupiter and got an answer in 2 hours. You do the math. MiSiS makes BTS look better. As a teacher, I'd just like to know my students' CST scores - old I know but it's better than just their names. There is no way we should use the gradebook until it is at least as good as Jupiter Grades. Asking the parents to change systems in the middle of the year is unacceptable.

As of early September, the Los Angeles Daily News reports that about 45,000 students in Los Angeles Unified have no schedules, have the wrong schedule, have no privacy protection as all teachers can see all student info, and children who need special education in particular are no better served under MiSiS than before.

3. MiSiS failure endangers students' high school transcripts for college applications due in several weeks.

Guidance counselors are reporting that they have to resort to hand-recording the complicated dossiers they help high school students compile. This process has so many moving parts and is unfortunately so high-stakes that wealthy families pay thousands of dollars to private coaches to help their children and guide them through the process of securing letters of recommendation and grades and essays.

But public school high school seniors, especially those in a district where 79 percent qualify for free and reduced lunch and parents or guardians are often absent, need all the assistance they can get from the guidance counselors the school provides. Their parents may not be able to assist them. If students miss this opportunity, if they successfully graduate but are cut off from staff that can help them, their one window of opportunity to go to college may close.

4. The MiSiS meltdown could derail high school graduations.

Many LAUSD schools started August 11, 2014. Now more one month in, with students unable to get the classes they need to graduate, they may be delayed or denied the ability to graduate. Students and teachers will be pressured to squeeze a year's worth of material into less than a full academic year.

How will students make up lost class time? How will this affect their ability to do the classwork relative to other students in the state who had the full 180-day school year to learn? Will they have to take summer school?

5. The MiSiS meltdown deprives LAUSD of state and federal funding by yielding an inaccurate head count of students.

The Association of Administrators of Los Angeles has been documenting the experience of principals who must try to guide staff in the midst of this disaster.

Every year, "Norm Day" is the day the nation's second largest district uses to identify how many students are enrolled for purposes of determining an official enrollment number. This number is what's used to calculate Average Daily Attendance, or about $45 per student, which, combined with other pots of money, funds the school district. If 45,000 students are having difficulties showing enrollment in their classes and others aren't even in the system, that could mean several millions of dollars LAUSD misses out on. All from preventable mistakes made by LAUSD administrators.

In addition to accurate student head counts, Title I funding is calculated from the number of students signing up for free and reduced lunch, a federally-funded program that is open to low-income families. A single school might have $1 million in Title I funds due it, but if students are missing from the roster or families have fallen through the gaps and not applied because family contact information is not entered into the system, both students and schools could miss out and necessary teachers will not be hired to teach the students actually in the schools but missing from official records.

In addition to saving $2 a day on free sloppy joes, there are other benefits to students' participating in the program. High schoolers get college application waivers, SAT and ACT -- college entrance exams - fee waivers and substantial discounts on each Advanced Placement test.

While students can fill out an application for the lunch discounts throughout the year, the district only has one shot to report its numbers to the state to be eligible for the Title I money. Meanwhile, eligible students who fail to enroll, which they can do at any time, will have to pay for their own meals.

Part of the problem with MiSiS was that it could not differentiate students who had renewed their application from those who were enrolled in the program based on last year's eligibility. But district officials told LA School Report that the bug was fixed last week.

...

"There have been no emails from the district to Title I Coordinators and that's a little perturbing," she said. "We have a $1.5 million riding on this. That's 15 teachers."

Fingerpointing Is Not Stepping Up

What was the response of the top man - the Superintendent of Los Angeles Unified - when emails and other revelations about these bad ed tech deals came to light? He lawyered up and announced to the Los Angeles Times that via public records request he was seeking emails and other correspondence of Los Angeles Unified school board members with vendors who were trying to win bids with the district.

First of all, a follow-up investigation by the internal LAUSD watchdog, the Inspector General's office, is already taking place. If LAUSD school board members need to be included in this scope, then the IG is empowered to do that.

Second of all, the Superintendent's grandstanding (fingerpointing) is deafeningly silent on the actual needs of students and their families as a result of the MiSiS meltdown. Given the countdown clock for many students applying to college, you would think that the Superintendent would be laser-focused on making sure that updates, workarounds, and fixes were immediately communicated to school administrators, district families worried about their kids' needs, and especially to the public. So far, no statement of reassurance to parents or explanation to the public.

It's clear how little the Superintendent values the day-to-day experiences of students in his district, and how little class time to learn matters to him.

LAUSD must account for all the money spent so far on ed tech deals and how they were acquired before public trust can be extended to approve additional purchases or programs. And there is no way the LAUSD school board can miss factoring these ongoing bad ed tech deals into the annual review of Superintendent Deasy's performance later in October. This is the second failed rollout of necessary software and hardware. It's directly hurting kids. The failure is actively de-funding the district of much-needed dollars.

Fix MiSiS permanently, now. Get inventories of existing hardware and software before going forward on additional tablets or laptops. LAUSD families deserve no less. If it means a personnel change at the top, so be it.