During a recent visit to Los Angeles, I sat down with Stuart Magruder, a local architect and controversial watchdog of the Los Angeles Unified School District, to talk about public education in L.A., the iPad debacle, and the recent resignation of Superintendent John Deasy.
Reflecting on Deasy’s tenure, as well as the role of the local teachers’ union in another recent technology disaster, Magruder declared a pox on both their houses.
At the crux of the mess in Los Angeles, are “adults who don’t know how to play together,” explained Magruder, over lunch at a downtown Los Angeles eatery.
Magruder was on the front lines of a key, and contentious, Deasy initiative–an effort to put an Apple iPad in the hands of every teacher and child in the Los Angeles public schools. The strategy, which was devised despite the objections of many educators who believe the iPad is not “the right” device for schools, came to exemplify the top-down decision-making and lack of transparency that would, eventually, derail Deasy’s tenure in L.A.
There were also questions about the $1.3 billion cost of the iPad strategy and its funding, which is where Magruder comes in. Deasy planned to pay for the iPads with school construction bonds. And Magruder, who serves as a member of the School Construction Bond Citizens’ Oversight Committee, which was established to offer community stakeholders oversight of bond expenditures, didn’t think construction bonds should be used to pay for the iPads.
While others also have raised questions about the iPad strategy, Magruder was the most outspoken. For his efforts, he was briefly ousted by the school board from his committee seat.
Given the LAUSD’s grave fiscal problems—and the deteriorating condition of its schools–Magruder says he gave voice to local concerns about the wisdom of diverting scarce resources from school repair to purchasing technology devices that would last just three to five years. The LAUSD master plan calls for $40 billion to keep the schools up-to-date. Facilities maintenance will cost an additional $12.9 billion.
Another problem was what Magruder calls Deasy’s “technological determinism.” Magruder, who describes himself as a tech-savvy Luddite, says he was aghast to hear Deasy “denigrate” Shakespeare during a bond oversight committee meeting. Deasy suggested that preparing students for the realities of today’s world and teaching them, say, to read a newspaper is more relevant than reading Hamlet, Magruder recalls.
Magruder is convinced that Deasy saw iPads as a way to solve the “teacher problem”—an all-too-familiar refrain of ed-reformers. The plan was for Pearson, the education technology and text book giant, to load the iPad’s with curriculum materials and lessons that, Magruder says, “were aimed at making teacher’s “less pro-active and engaged” in the lesson-planning process.
Deasy was also responding to pressure from federal and state officials to “roll out a technology program” that would support the Common Core State Standards and related online tests, according to The Los Angeles Times.
Yet, pedagogically, the iPad is flawed. It’s essentially a “closed” device designed to make you a “passive consumer,” argues Magruder who uses a range of computer technology in his architectural practice. Magruder also questions whether kids in grades K-5 need any technology at all, noting that parents of young children struggle to negotiate basic rules around their use of devices such as cell phone. And, he points out, there is little research on what if any benefits technology holds for K-12 learning.
Maybe, says Magruder wrily, that’s why the late Steve Jobs had a no-iPad policy for his own kids. “They haven’t used it,” Steve Jobs once told a reporter when he was asked about how his kids like the iPad. “We limit how much technology our kids use at home.”
Other tech moguls also embrace a tech-free education for their own children. Execs from Google, Yahoo, Ebay and HP send their children to the Waldorf School which is famous for banishing all electronic technology from its classrooms. Waldorf, which has campuses around the country, promotes an approach to education that emphasizes hands-on experiential learning and physical activity designed to promote creating thinking, focus and collaborative problem solving.
As an architect, Magruder has a bias for hands-on work. Give kids a computer they can take apart. Teach them coding, which Magruder says should be a “core class” for every LAUSD student. Offer robotics classes.
LAUSD is now pursuing a new technology pilot project that allows each school to select its own technological solutions. An investigation is also underway into the fairness of the iPad bidding process, and close ties, and possible conflicts of interest, among Deasy, district officials and both Apple and Pearson, which was to supply the curriculum for the iPads. John Rogers, a UCLA education professor told the LA Times: “We view this moment as an opportunity to establish the sort of reflective and inclusive policy process that would have been helpful to have at the start…The rush and lack of meaningful public dialogue did not serve the district well.”
Deasy’s downfall, according to Magruder, was not the iPad fiasco, but a more recent debacle involving a new electronic student information system. The system was part of a response to a law suit, and subsequent consent decree, which found that the rights of special education students were being violated because the LAUSD routinely lost track of their records, which describe each students needs.
But the new information system, known as MiSiS, overloaded the LAUSD’s servers so that weeks after the start of school, kids still didn’t have workable schedules and many couldn’t attend class. (The head of the district’s technology division, Ron Chandler, abruptly resigned yesterday, the second official to leave in the wake of the technology crisis.)
Magruder recently instructed his own son, a high school student at a district magnet school (he also has a daughter in middle school), to camp out in front of the school counselor’s office until the problem was resolved.
This brings us to Magruder’s scathing indictment of the teachers’ union. He thinks it’s no accident that in the midst of the information-systems crisis, this fall, his son’s counselor left the school every day at 3 p.m. sharp, even though his son’s school day didn’t end until 4. “The teacher’s union is a joke—a stone wall to progress,” says Magruder whose wife is a union representative for the California State University, Dominguez Hills.
“You’ve got a crisis, and you’re a counselor, and you don’t log some extra time?” says Magruder. “I first get angry, then depressed.”
Magruder is convinced that the union deliberately chose not to do the extra work needed to help resolve the problem. “When adults decide to use kids as a pawns,” he says. “That’s unacceptable.”
Maybe so. But if you want kids–or grown ups–to play nicely together, it helps for one of them to be a leader. For all of Deasy’s zeal, his hostility toward the union–on full display during his star turn as a prosecution witness in the Vergara v. California trial–undermined any hope of building the kind of collaboration necessary for long-term improvement of the district. (The Vergara ruling, which is being appealed, marked a victory for those who wish to overturn the state’s tenure rules and teacher protections.)
“You take something that needs a scalpel and careful instrumentation and instead you take out the sledgehammer,” said Steve Zimmer, a member of the LAUSD school board who supported many of Deasy’s efforts, but criticized his handling of the Vergara case. “Deasy wasn’t careful enough to avoid the perception that he enjoyed using the sledgehammer.”
In Los Angeles, Deasy has been lauded for increasing graduation rates and test scores. But he failed as a leader, and admitted as much shortly after his resignation. While defending his tenure, Deasy said: “I wish I could have found a better balance between my feeling of urgency in my observation of overwhelming peril and poverty for kids and the ability to have built a more unified will to move quickly to do that.”
As Magruder spoke of Deasy defeat and the union’s intransigence, I was struck by an irony: My principle purpose in traveling to Los Angeles was to attend the annual conference of the Deming Institute, which was founded in order to continue to work of W. Edwards Deming, the management guru whose ideas about systems thinking and collaborative improvement–informed by statistical theory–helped turn around struggling American industries in the 1980s.
The unraveling in Los Angeles is just the latest example of education reformers who have yet to absorb the most valuable management lessons of the last half century–achieving lasting institutional change and improvement involves teamwork, collaboration among all the constituencies in an organization, and systems thinking. None of which have been on display in Los Angeles.
More on Deming in a future blog post.