The Charleston County School District has spent more than $9 million on its iPad initiative, but the computer tablets haven't triggered reading or math gains in three schools where every student has one.
Key findings in the iPad report
Metis Associates, a national research firm, evaluated the Charleston County School District's one-to-one initiative for the 2012-13 school year at three schools where every student received an iPad - Angel Oak Elementary, Drayton Hall Elementary and Haut Gap Middle. It also included surveys of subgroups of classrooms at other schools that received some iPads and teacher training.
The evaluation at the three schools included classroom observations; surveys of teachers, students and parents; analyzing students' test scores; and interviews with principals and key district staff.
Some of the key findings:
Satisfaction with the one-to-one learning initiative is high among all key stakeholders (parents, teachers and students).
Teachers say the ability to differentiate instruction to meet individual students' needs is one of the big strengths of iPads.
Students, staff and parents say the iPads have resulted in increased levels of student engagement, motivation and excitement about school.
Staff saw a decrease in discipline issues since using the iPads.
That's one of the more troublesome findings in a comprehensive new study that evaluated the use of iPads in three schools. Although noteworthy, the lack of achievement was one of relatively few criticisms of the initiative.
Some of the big recommendations in the Metis Associates study of Charleston County's one-to-one iPad initiative were:
Continue to support use of iPads, and consider expanding the devices to other schools.
Develop new and targeted training for teachers to capitalize on their interest in differentiating instruction and incorporating higher-order thinking skills.
Address technical challenges, such as those related to the speed of the Internet and syncing.
Create more school-based technology supports, such as student teams that respond to teachers' issues.
Explore possibilities to provide more day-to-day support for teachers on effectively using iPads in classrooms.
Evaluate the impact of iPad use on students' test scores using a more rigorous design.
District officials said student achievement is one of many goals of the iPad initiative, and they pointed to jumps in test scores for students in specific grades and of certain ethnicities. They said that indicates this is a promising practice that will result in more gains in time.
Test scores aside, teachers, students and parents gave overwhelmingly positive feedback on the iPads' effect on students' engagement and motivation. They mostly were satisfied with the tablets, which they said have helped develop students' 21st-century learning skills and boosted their academics.
"I don't see a downside to iPads," said Travis Benintendo, principal of Haut Gap Middle, where every student has an iPad. "It's just another tool to deliver the curriculum. We want kids to be engaged, and iPads allow us to do that."
A growing number of school districts nationwide are embracing iPads, but it's still a relatively new concept for schools. The first iPad came out in 2010.
Charleston school leaders have their eyes on expanding iPads to every school in the county, and the report recommends continuing on that path.
iPads and test scores
More than 10,930 iPads are being used by Charleston County students and teachers. The school district has three funding sources for the iPads: $5.1 million in classroom modernization funds, which are part of its capital budget; $2.7 million as part of the federal Race to the Top grant, which covers 19 schools; and $1.2 million through a state School Improvement Grant, which covers Burke, St. John's and Stall high schools.
Those totals include the apps, equipment and technical and professional development support. It doesn't count the $4.2 million the district has spent on wireless infrastructure.
The national research firm that did the study focused on the impact of iPads that were paid for with classroom modernization funds, and those went to three schools, as well as to a number of other classrooms.
At the three schools where every student has an iPad, researchers compared students' test scores before and after one year of implementation, and they found no increase in the percentage of students meeting or exceeding state standards.
When they broke the scores down by grade level and ethnicity, they saw some gains in reading among fifth and eight grade Hispanic students and those who speak English as a second language. They also found math gains among eighth-graders, as well as students who were black, Hispanic and English language learners.
District officials said they expect to see larger gains as teachers learn how to use them more effectively. They were pleased to see some closure of the achievement gap among some students.
"The district believes this is the right way to go," said Lainie Berry, the district's director of educational technology.
The iPads also have value in teaching students 21st century skills in using technology, and the devices allow teachers to differentiate instruction and engage students in ways that weren't possible until now, she said.
iPads at Haut Gap
Haut Gap Middle is in its third year of every student having an iPad. Sixth-grader Jordan Thomas didn't hesitate when teacher Jennifer Moraitis asked the class to draw or find a picture of a battery. Within seconds, Jordan found an image, imported it, readjusted its size and added a descriptor, "chemical energy."
Although the class received the same instructions - diagram a recent experiment on energy transformation - the iPads gave students more options to create that image.
"It makes it easier and quicker to get things done," Jordan said during a brief lull in the lesson. "It makes it more interesting instead of just writing things down."
Jordan said she uses her iPad to find information, rather than just getting it from the teacher. During another lesson on the Roman coliseum, she said her teacher gave some information, then encouraged students to do their own research.
"We figured out way more than the teacher told us," Jordan said.
Allowing that kind of student-directed learning to take place is what teacher Dan Polasek said has been among his biggest challenges in using iPads. He loves telling students everything he knows about his social studies content, but he said that's not how students will learn the information.
"I have become more of a facilitator of learning rather than the teacher," he said. "It's a shift in how we approach instruction, and it's a shift in how we were taught to teach."
Haut Gap's Benintendo said one hurdle he has faced has been helping teachers understand how to use the devices for more than supplementing lessons. He wants teachers to be innovative and leverage iPads to make instruction more rigorous, he said.
Reaction to results
Some county school board members weren't alarmed by the absence of whole-school student achievement gains in the study.
"You have to give something more than a year before you say it does or doesn't work," said board member Chris Fraser.
Chairwoman Cindy Bohn Coats said the district doesn't have a full picture of the value of the iPads, and the devices need to be compared to the other available instructional tools.
"What I've seen (in the classroom) was extraordinarily positive," she said.
Before spending another penny, one education advocate said the district needs to look at why this investment hasn't translated into better test scores. Jon Butzon, former leader of the Charleston Education Network, said he thought a lack of staff training and technology support were to blame.
"It didn't produce the results, and we need to know why," he said.
Although the school board will decide what happens next, the mostly glowing report likely won't result in more schools getting iPads immediately.
Berry said giving an entire school iPads isn't the best way to ensure that they are used effectively. Before that, teachers need to be trained, model classrooms need to be established, and the school needs to build some capacity to use them, she said.
"We're highly aware that schools are clamoring for the iPads and want to do this," Berry said. "It's a fine line to walk. We want to get the technology out there, but we've got to move slowly and we can't rush into this. We have to do this right and now just let everyone move forward as fast as they want."
Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or 937-5546.