Is Common Core Technology Worth It?

This piece was originally published on Fox and Hounds:

California’s transition from its previous STAR program to the Common Core State Standards has been slow and more costly than expected. With the first Common Core tests scheduled for this spring, school districts are still struggling to provide all of the necessary technology and bandwidth for the new assessments, which are required to be administered electronically in lieu of traditional paper-and-pencil tests.

State Budget Solutions, a nonprofit research organization, released a report last week on the technology spending for Common Core in California’s top five districts: Los Angeles, San Diego, Long Beach, Fresno, and Elk Grove. The study revealed technology cost overruns, controversial funding plans, and a myriad of problems that accompanied the new technological devices in multiple districts.

The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), for example, has been heavily criticized for using public bonds to finance its iPad program that is estimated to exceed $1 billion. Immediately after the first batch of iPads was distributed, LAUSD dealt with additional challenges of students breaching firewalls, missing and stolen devices, and confusion over accountability. Last month, the district officially suspended its contract with Apple due to high costs and ethical questions regarding Superintendent Deasy’s relationship with Apple during the bidding process.

Other districts, such as Fresno and Elk Grove, are facing problems of technological readiness. Fresno Unified found that the new tablets are difficult to use for students who are unfamiliar with touch-screen keyboards and do not have computer access at home. Elk Grove Unified would like to incorporate more online content in the classroom, but lacks adequate funding after spending the majority of its Common Core money on installing wireless access, replacing obsolete computers, and buying over 8,200 Chromebooks.

These findings raise an important question that states and school districts ought to consider: is Common Core technology worth it? Advocates often talk about closing the “digital divide” and providing students with the skills and technology necessary for the 21st century workforce. Ideally, every student in the country will at least have access to a personal computing device in the near future. But to ask states and school districts to finance this massive technological overhaul in a limited time span of a few years is not only likely to fail, but also fiscally irresponsible given the deep cuts in education during the recent recession.

The report lists a handful of the many solutions available that can offset technology costs for districts. Among them include a tax credit to incentivize low-income families to buy computers or tablets for students to bring into schools. California education leaders have a tough job of implementing Common Core ahead of them, but ensuring the state’s financial stability and focusing on student learning and growth (as opposed to standards-based exams and technology purchases) are essential for the future of the state.

Hannah Oh is a Visiting Analyst at State Budget Solutions, focusing her research on education. 

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