October 2, 2013

Chaos in (local) government

The ongoing billion dollar iPad fiasco in Los Angeles public schools ought to be a good moment to reflect upon why public schools tend to suffer from such poor management. 

From today's Los Angeles Times:
L.A. Unified's iPad rollout marred by chaos 
Confusion reigns as L.A. Unified deals with glitches after rollout of ambitious an-iPad-for-every-student project.
View of Van Nuys DMV from Vanowen

In contrast, I've been going off and on for 38 years to the Van Nuys Department of Motor Vehicles. You may remember it from such television shows and movies as The Simpsons and The Simpsons Movie. It used to be that you never knew which endless line was the right one to wait in. And the employees (see below) liked it that way. 

Van Nuys DMV staff
Yet, guess what? Over the years, even the Van Nuys DMV has gotten better organized and more helpful. 

Strikingly, I've never read anything about DMV reform, yet it seems to have sort of happened.

In contrast, I've read thousands of articles about Education Reform. Titans of industry like Bill Gates and Eli Broad have devoted themselves to Education Reform. The LAUSD is run by certified Education Reform stars from the Gates Foundation and other prestigious organizations.

And still ... chaos. Why?
... Schools Supt. John Deasy, who has pushed for the iPads, remains undeterred and said the project is essentially on track. 
"It's an astonishing success," Deasy said in an interview Tuesday. "I couldn't be more pleased to get [the iPads] in the hands of students and teachers. The feedback has been extremely positive. 
"This is a civil rights issue," he said. "My goal is to provide youth in poverty with tools that heretofore only rich kids have had. And I'd like to do that as quickly as possible." 

Perhaps one reason why DMV reform has progressed but Education Reform is so prone to confusion is because DMV reform is not a civil rights issue. It could have been called one: the long lines always seem to have disparate impact upon the Latino population of the San Fernando Valley, much of which could be found standing in line at the Van Nuys DMV any workday between 9 and 5. But it wasn't.

In contrast, Education Reform always turns into a "civil rights issue," which causes the Brain Freeze characteristic of anything having to do with race, IQ, and children in modern America. In turn, this attracts fad-mongers and the professionally gullible to the ranks of education management, and repels people who know what they are doing and are capable of projecting the consequences of proposed policies.

Hence, iPadGate.

That said, I'm not all that against iPads in public schools with competent managements. A lot of education ought to consist of drilling at each individual student's level of competence. Individualized tutoring works better than anything else, but it's always expensive. Computers makes possible individualized drilling. The iPad, with its printing recognition capability (it has that right, like a 1998 Palm Pilot?), sounds like a good form factor for drilling in math. Non-touch screen traditional PCs work okay with the right math drilling software, but math has evolved over the years to work best with chalkboards or paper and pencil. Keyboards can be made to work okay with math programs, but the iPad-like tablet resembles the kind of slate that Abe Lincoln worked Euclid's proofs upon.

However, I have no idea whether good software is available for the iPad yet. Most educational software is junk.

In the past, computers in the classroom have mostly been a waste. About a decade ago, the public school where Glaivester taught got a laptop for each student. He found 50% of his teaching time was suddenly devoted to troubleshooting PC problems.

Over the years, though, operating systems have gotten better (Windows Vista excepted), and now computers, especially Apple products, have high uptime rates.


Anti-Democracy Activist said...

In Springfield, it's: "Monorail, Monorail, Monorail..."

In Los Angeles, it's: "iPads, iPads, iPads..."

Expect similar results.

Anonymous said...

I remember I was drilled by a computer program.

It was a pointless waste of my time.

If a kid can't get it the normal paper textbook route, they ain't going to get it on a computer.

Moving on.

Anonymous said...

IPads do have print recognition software, but it doesn't yet work great. This is especially a problem for young kids, who can't print very well yet. I've got an educational game for my kids that requires one to 'print' letters with the tip of a finger, and at their age, the Ipad has difficulty recognizing their off-kilter letters.


Anonymous said...

The IPads will be used to surf porn or sold by relatives for quick crash. Liberals don't know a lot about their wards apparently.

marco lalo said...

Over the years, though, operating systems have gotten better (Windows Vista excepted),


even you, steve?

Hunsdon said...

Our host said: Keyboards can be made to work okay with math programs, but the iPad-like tablet resembles the kind of slate that Abe Lincoln worked Euclid's proofs upon.

Hunsdon said: Euclid's proofs? That's just because Lincoln couldn't get Sasha Grey on his tablet.

rightsaidfred said...

My goal is to provide youth in poverty with tools that heretofore only rich kids have had.

Wow. Schools as wealth distribution centers. How long until we just hand the kids a check?

Bostonian said...

There has been good math software such as EPGY by Stanford professor Patrick Suppes since the 1960s -- see http://suppes-corpus.stanford.edu/browse.html?c=comped . But the schools are usually not interested in letting some students get much ahead of others and in saving labor.

Art Deco said...

An amended hypothesis as to why school reform fails:

1. Administrators who are not fad mongers are still coping with a bureaucratic architecture they cannot alter much, state regulations they cannot alter much, and recruitment pipelines they cannot alter much.

2. The recruitment pipelines have the teachers' colleges as their well, and what the teachers' colleges traffick in is largely humbug.

3. By convention, the academic year takes its dimensions from agricultural cycles (in a country where less than 2% of the population earns their living farming).

4. The professional ideologies of the teacher-training faculties (transmitted through administrators and some teachers) and the lawyer left (enforced by the usual asses in robes) inhibit discipline, inhibit the segregation of incorrigibles from the rest ("teach every child") and inhibit proper academic tracking.

Dahinda said...

The DMV (Secretary of State office) in Illinois has also gotten much beter in the past few years. I feel weird telling people how helpful and speedy it was, but it is a lot better!

Anonymous said...

For the price of the iPad you could buy lots of books, paper and pencils. Actually I think that is about what a year of Kumon goes for and they provide the real estate and un-pensioned staff.

Public education did not work from the start when John Swett invented it after the civil war. All the problems today were there at the start. You can read about them in Zachariah Montgomery's Poison Fountain books, written in the 1870s. His unreconstructed Southern style of writing is fun to read.

John Taylor Gatto writes on school history and even ancient history and especially how public school was modeled on societal tools used to enforce the Hindu class system.

Black Death said...

I have a friend whose husband teaches in an "alternative" high school in a rural county here in the Upper Midwest. The student body is almost entirely white, except for a few Hispanics. No blacks. They tried the I-Pad thing at this school. The students loved them - they used them to play games, surf the Net and send messages. But not for learning. The teacher's I-Pad had to be replaced three times because his students stole it.

Anonymous said...

"This is a civil rights issue".

I'm sorry but whenever you hear that phrase, the phraser must be called out and the phrase exposed for the utter, utter bullshit that it is.

The notion seems to be that the magic words 'civil rights' seem to confer a key to absolute equality whenever uttered, and somehow this 'right' has to enforced by some sort of supernatural agency ie the belief is semi-mystical/religious in its scope and thus is more suited for primitive life than modern civic society. The only difference between uttering these particular magic words and ancient superstition is that 'civil rights' seems actually to have a mythic bogeyman big enforcer who does show up when he is called - and it's all the worse for that.
Basically the premise in modern civilisation is one of equity and individuality ie civic individuals strive to make their own life and own space in the world by the use of the own talents and freedom in making bargains and agreements as they see fit - this space is untainted by favoritism.
But if the blessed ones can at the utterance of a magic word evoke 10ft blue genie in a turban out of a bottle - a genie with pounding fists that can crush opponents to pulp, it does rather fly in the face of a free civil society.

Anonymous said...

Based on what that John Deasy person is saying, it sounds like this entire thing is a scheme by bureaucrats to pad their resumes.

Anonymous said...

I don't know how the DMV works in Cali, if you go to the RMV in Mass. it's all NAMs. White people, Asians and NAMS with a clue do it online. I haven't been in so long my license picture is starting to look like my son.

International Jew said...

Amusing that to the LATimes, it's such a big deal that the ipads have been "unlocked". The real scandal, I think, is yet to come: that'll be when ipads start going "missing". Then what are they going to do? Charging the parents for the loss will be "disparate impact".

Allan Folz said...

A lot of education ought to consist of drilling at each individual student's level of competence...

That whole paragraph sounds exactly like our company philosophy. Interestingly, we are running into problems getting our app approved to Google Play for Education. It's a special, curated app store for schools to buy educational software. Google, being their typical terse selves, hasn't been forthcoming as to why we're not approved, but we suspect some Reform Math true-believer is offended by something as retrograde as computer-automated drill. (Scroll down to the Education Value section.)

For those curious as to what might be too scandalous to trust with impressionable 6 to 12 year olds, here are our apps at the standard, consumer-side Google Play:
Blackboard Math
Blackboard Math: Decimals


pat said...

Yes it's true the DMV has certainly improved - much to my astonishment.

I used to be a professional DMV victim. When I was a driving teacher we always spent the final lesson in the local DMV accompanying the driving student through the process of getting their license.

We were of course compromised ethically. We were paid by the hour so we welcomed all the delays, confusion and rudeness. If it took an hour or more longer than it need have, all the better. We just billed the poor schmuck student for the extra time.

But that's largely a thing of the past. The last two times I went to our local DMV in Oakland, the process was well run and efficient. I'm sure that somewhere along the way they hired a consultant to devise a system for them. Probably the same consulting firm that organizes fast food services.

Yesterday my handyman asked me what was the deal with Obamacare. I replied that a lot of it was the customer service issue. I said you get better service at McDonalds (a private company) than you do at the DMV (a public monopoly). But I knew even as I repeated an example I have used for decades in these kind of discussions, that that was no longer true. Both the DMV and McDonalds now have crowd control systems and software from the same consultants. The new DMV is pretty efficient.

I guess I'll have to develop some new material.


Glossy said...

The best app for memorizing stuff is Anki. I've been using it daily for at least 5 years. It's like flashcards, but smarter. If you fail a card, you're going to see it again soon. If you answer a card correctly several times in a row, you're not going to see it for a while. The frequency of a card's appearance depends on how well you've learned it. That's a real improvement on the age-old flashcard model.

Anki is available for Windows, OSX, iOS, Android, Linux. I mostly use it with my iPad. You can use LaTeX to enter formulas, you can put sound files into cards (if you're learning a foreign language, you get pronunciation that way). You can put pics into cards too.

Of course schools and colleges are never going to push flashcard apps. There's not much for a teacher to do in that kind of learning. There's more to learning than memorization of course, but it's a substantial part of it.

Anonymous said...

Funny, as a so called wealthy parent, I am always trying to get that Ipad out of my child's hands, and get him away from the computer so he can do his homework.

Anonymous said...

DMVs are also generally (I would think) headed by political appointees who are subject to being leaned on to get things done, while education decisions tend to be subject to input from many more parties. For example, in South Carolina former Governor Sanford achieved one of his few tangible successes when he brought the DMV under one of his cabinet agencies and was able to whip it into shape. However, despite being a strong advocate of vouchers/choice/etc. he accomplished virtually nothing in this arena, I think at least in part bc there was a Secretary of Education (elected himself) in addition to teachers unions, etc.


Evil Sandmich said...

If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail; but if all you have is nails, everything gets a turn at being a hammer.

Anonymous said...

Besides the fact that there's very little you can do with an IPad other than take crummy pictures and surf the web, the question about educators and financial management has always puzzled me. Are people who are drawn to the field just naturally irresponsible when it comes to finance, or do they learn it?
Our school district -- 15,000 students -- hired a new superintendent last spring at a salary of $185K. In his application he had asked for a starting salary of $155K. Oh, and he was given a moving payment of $7500; he lived about fifteen miles from his new job.
They just don't seem to give a damn about other people's money.

Anonymous said...

Those who have the most to gain, financially, from pushing project X are going to label it as a civil rights issue.

carol said...

Students need to learn to write, too. Tablets are terrible for any kind of sustained writing.

But they can still LOL.

Luke Lea said...

Wasn't there a story about this guy, John Deasy, when he was hired? Something about a fake PhD and an unrealistic promise to LAUSD school board that every child would be prepared for college? Was he ever vetted for the job?

Anonymous said...

OT: World War T

Public University To Launch Transgender Studies Program:


Anonymous said...

Non-touch screen traditional PCs work okay with the right math drilling software, but math has evolved over the years to work best with chalkboards or paper and pencil.

And chalkboards and paper and pencils have heretofore been exclusively available to the super-rich. In fact, I hear that some northeastern boarding schools actually have multiple pieces of paper for each student. Such extravagance!

Seriously, Steve, you sound a bit like an educational romantic yourself here. You're praising iPads for their revolutionary ability to simulate...a slate.

Yeah, I guess you can use them to tailor problems to different ability levels, but then again, putting kids in the classes that they're suited for should not be that hard to begin with.

No, iPads-for-all is a wasteful policy, a combination of the technocratic dorkiness and real-world cluelessness that characterize SWPLism.

In fact, if I were a billionaire interested in educational issues, I would bribe parents in some Super Zip to send their kids to an understaffed, stove-heated, one-room schoolhouse, just to demonstrate that lavish funding, facilities, and gadgets are not what makes smart kids smart.

Anonymous said...

"Computers makes possible individualized drilling."

Steve, you've got to do better proofreading. If nothing else, take some more care on the posts about education. Writing a sentence like this in an education post is just setting yourself up.

"Computers make individualized drilling possible" would be better. On the other hand, maybe you are trying to appeal to the youth by imitating that cat who wanted the cheeseburger in that internet meme from a while back.

"I can has Ipad?"

Geoff Matthews said...

The iPads, even w/o technical problems, will be a waste of money. There are too many distractions, its too easy to remove restrictions that the school may have placed (the alleged hacking), and it 'shrinkage' is way too easy to happen.
Let's remove biology from the equation. Let's assume that 95% of the students are capable of earning a 'C' or higher. With this assumption, the problem of character (preparing for class, studying, doing assignments, etc.) is still out there. A iPad isn't going to do the work for them, and like taking a horse to water, you can't make them learn.
The problem, if not biology, is certainly cultural, and giving them a toy is only going to detract from that.

Anonymous said...


I have a better idea. Why not legalize illegal or forged licenses(made by illegals and their underworld agents)?
Then, no need to spend money issuing legal licences to illegal immigrants.

And legalized counterfeit money too.

Indeed, the notion of 'counterfeit' or 'piracy' is insulting and 'hateful' to those who are merely makers of undocumented money or unlicensed entertainment products.

Anti-Democracy Activist said...

And another thing...

One of the things I have learned is a universal truism: When everything is X, nothing is X.

When everything is a "civil rights issue", nothing is a "civil rights issue". It comes to be a term that means nothing. Fifty years ago, it meant facing batons and attack dogs so you could vote*. Now it means free birth control and iPads. Way back in the unenlightened stone age of the pre-Obama era, recreational sex and trendy consumer electronics used to be luxuries - now they're a "civil rights issue".

But hey, the left uses that rhetoric because it works. Voters love to hear that getting sex and swag is a "civil rights issue".

Cue Plato, to remind us of how democracies die.

Anyhow, my own observations of tech in education parallel Glaiverster's, and are probably more recent. When students whip out their laptops/tablets, teachers end up having to go from being Mr. Chips to being Leo Laporte. The tech problems are endless - one student can't connect to the wifi, another can't log in to the school's website to get their assignments, another had their machine crash entirely... the list goes on. And that's not to mention the students who will sit in the back, quietly but obviously posting on Facebook or reading TMZ or watching YouTube videos.

Don't get me wrong, computers and the internet are great tools for learning, but they aren't great for classroom learning. It's kind of like how your girlfriend might want you to text her a lot, but not while you're actually sitting at a restaurant with her on a date. At that point, it's time to put the shiny gadget down and do the face-to-face thing the old-fashioned way. Computers (laptop, tablet, or otherwise) have an important place in education**, but have no place in a classroom.

(*Well, that's the narrative, anyway)
(**If - only if - they are used properly. The nature of K-12 education, including its tendency towards faddishness and unquestioning credulity towards flim-flamming "gurus"makes me deeply suspicious of the idea that they can do it right).

John Cunningham said...

the Alaska DMV took huge steps forward about 15 years ago. no more lines, a take a number system and a waiting room full of sofas and recliners. they also set up webcams so that you can check the crowd before leaving home.

Bob Hurt said...

I'd gag at the price lausd paid for those ipads. A few days ago, Tiger Direct offered 7" android tablets for $20 after rebate. Beat that, APPLE.

rightsaidfred said...

Apparently superman has been found. He came in the form of an ipad.

E. Rekshun said...

Anon: "...if you go to the RMV in Mass. it's all NAMs. White people, Asians and NAMS with a clue do it online."

Same for me in FL, but I think I've reached my limit on Drivers License renewals (the pic is from the early '90s) and I'll have to go to the DMV next time.

Same thing on the 1st of the month at City Hall -- a line down the block of NAMs showing up in person to pay their water bills.

Anonymous said...

When my kids were little, I had a lot of educational software for them - this was back in the days of Windows 98 or so. It was OK but not terrific but there were quite a few titles available. Recently my wife asked me to look into getting some more up to date stuff for her students and I was surprised to see that there really aren't any new titles for the PC (and the old ones are obsolete - most of them won't even run anymore on Windows 7). I dunno what happened.

Belisarius said...

Giving ipads to NAM schoolchildren to make them good students is nothing more than commodity fetishism and cargo cultism, more Waiting for John Frum than Waiting for Superman. The next logical step would be to make them wear suits and assign them each a little miniature Prius along with a little doll that they would have to drive to soccer practice. The school could have a fake farmer's market complete with plastic fruit the students could stop by. Oh, and they should definitely be made to watch Antiques Roadshow on PBS for homework.

If this works, look for the Chinese to issue rap cds to their students to make them better at basketball.

Art Deco said...

Giving ipads to NAM schoolchildren to make them good students is nothing more than commodity fetishism and cargo cultism,

Yep. The youngsters who have the raw material to be academically capable do not need the iPads and those that do not will only be marginally assisted by iPads (if they are not distracted by all the amusements).

unrealistic promise to LAUSD school board that every child would be prepared for college

Did he really? Schools waste oodles of time and resources on half-assed liberal education rather than imparting the manual training from which a great many (perhaps most) of their students could draw actual benefits. And adolescent dependency gets longer and longer (while the age at which they start rutting on each other declines).

The Francisco Franco solution:

Step One: place all teacher training faculty under arrest.

Step Two: sort out the handful of tests-and-measurements psychologists and the handful who actually know something about salutary public administration and release them to their families.

Step Three: shoot the remainder.

Camlost said...

My goal is to provide youth in poverty with tools that heretofore only rich kids have had.

Wow. Schools as wealth distribution centers. How long until we just hand the kids a check?

Several liberal politicians in Atlanta proposed just such a solution as a way of getting "at risk kids" to perform better:


The controversy was huge.

Anonymous said...


I am going off on a tangent, but I discovered something just last night that is education related and may be of interest to you. Here in Michigan, the state has adopted something called Common Core Standards and it appears to me ripe for your analysis (and criticism). My son is in second grade and attends a Catholic school and I never thought he would be subjected to what is clearly a public school mandate.

In any event, you would not believe the nonsense going on in his math class. I do not have time to adequately describe how ludicrous it is. If you have already been over this, I apologize.

Allan Folz said...

RE: Anonymous horrified over the Common Core,

A couple good blogs (I'm sure there are many, many more) are Out in Left Field and Kitchen Table Math.

Arguably, the former rails more generally against Reform Math, but make no mistake Common Core is repackaged Reform Math. As for KTM, it covers a lot of ground beyond Common Core, topics depend on what the authors are feeling inspired about.

The long and short on Common Core is that it perfectly prepares students for Community College. The name appears to be some sort of Freudian slip. Anyway, Calculus is its achilles heel. Ask a Common Core proponent how do students get to AP Calc. They won't be able to answer without a lot of hand-waving.

Oh, and Left on the Right Coast is good for an occasional fact-based rant on CC.

Good luck.

Anonymous said...

You really should just go to the Glendale DMV, Steve.

Anonymous said...

Steve you just love to run down your state, well guest where Rick Perry was in Anaheim. Anaheim is almost paradise compared to Dallas and Houston. In fact Houston has blacks on the free and reduce lunch program more than Mexicans in Anaheim. Anaheim has lower crime than Houston and Dallas. Anaheim just had illegal immigrants while the other two cities have also low class blacks. Perry was giving his how great Texas speech in Anaheim and his state is much like Anaheim but with more blacks which makes it worst.

Anonymous said...

Percentage of residents living in poverty in 2011: 23.8%
(8.3% for White Non-Hispanic residents, 30.8% for Black residents, 30.5% for Hispanic or Latino residents, 30.2% for other race residents, 16.3% for two or more races residents)
Houston Texas
Percentage of residents living in poverty in 2011: 16.1%
(10.5% for White Non-Hispanic residents, 19.6% for Hispanic or Latino residents, 17.6% for other race residents)
Anaheim California
And Rick Perry is there telling them how much better is Texas than Anaheim to the Republicans.

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