It sounds very laudable: The Hawaii Department of Education is supposed to put a laptop or tablet in the hands of every public school student, and it has $8 million to figure out how to make the digital device initiative work during the coming school year.

But the department appears to be off to a rocky — and rushed — start. And it’s shaping up as an $8-million gamble that might lead to the loss of many times more.

Talk about a math problem.

This year, the Legislature gave education officials the initial funding to start a pilot project of its Common Core Digital Materials initiative during the upcoming school year. The idea is that the people behind the project would have to check in with lawmakers during the next session to pursue subsequent funding.

Common Core is a set of controversial learning standards to which most states have agreed. The initiative aims to hold every kid in the U.S. to the same benchmarks, to the point that one student can in theory travel from one state to another and always be on the same page as his or her peers. (Hawaii adopted Common Core as part of its $75 million Race to the Top grant application.)

The $8 million in pilot money is far short of the $36.5 million that education officials requested for digital devices in the Board of Education’s two-year budget, forcing the department to significantly cut back the scope that it initially proposed for the program. Some school board members and district officials have said the program is key to “streamlining” new national standards that are being rolled out to all grade levels this year.

The limited funding means the department can only give out laptops and tablets to select schools and that those schools will have to purchase rather than lease the devices.

But school starts in less than six weeks, and the department still has not decided which schools will be participating. State officials are giving schools just one week to apply; applications, which are due Friday, were distributed to school administrators just this week.

After the department selects its pilot schools next week, it plans to start working out project details, including what types of digital devices will be used and how much will be spent per student.

“If we don’t get ahead of the curve, we’re going to be behind the eight ball this upcoming legislative session, and I don’t think any of us want to be there,” said education board Vice Chairman Brian DeLima at a meeting last week.

Not every school can apply for the pilot project. For one, schools need to have sufficient information-technology infrastructure — as of now just 105 schools are connected to a reliable, high-bandwidth Cisco Systems wireless network — and they need to demonstrate enthusiasm for the program, according to Stephanie Shipton, a department portfolio manager who’s involved in strategic reform efforts. (Charter schools aren’t eligible for the program.)

The plan for now is to set teachers up with digital devices in the first semester and then to give them to students during the second semester, although schools may give students devices earlier if they are ready. Shipton said the phased approach will ensure that the implementation runs smoothly, especially since it could take time for teachers to master these new devices.

Lawmakers, however, expect to see evidence of the program’s effectiveness during the next session, which starts in January.

Although the department still won’t have results from student testing, Shipton said she’s confident that the department will have sufficient data to show that the devices are improving student and teacher engagement. She noted that officials are currently developing a framework designed to evaluate the program’s success, and she cited formative assessments, which help teachers track over time whether students are keeping up with the material, as one source of data.

Measuring success, she added, involves a range of metrics, including attendance rates and student behavior.

That may be true, but they’re facing some big expectations. Lawmakers have been quick to doubt the department’s ability to manage a new program like this one, as outlined in a legislative report earlier this year.

Lawmakers decided to set aside just a portion of the requested funding, sort of like a test, to see whether the department can successfully manage the digital materials pilot project. If the program proves a success, legislators said, they would provide more funding.

But what if it fails?

“If the Department is unable to efficiently provide such mundane and practical services as school lunches and bus transportation,” lawmakers asked, “How can it instill confidence that it will efficiently manage new programs?”

Legislators in the past have come down hard on the department for failing to keep school bus and lunch costs in check — problems that audits largely attributed to limited accountability.

Finance committee members also questioned whether the one-to-one digital device strategy is the best way to meet Common Core requirements and they qualified plans to implement an entirely new program as “overly optimistic.” Hawaii’s plans are also far more ambitious than those in other states, they said.

Of particular concern was whether the department would be able to provide sufficient professional training to teachers — who they said already face growing burdens — and then to give each student a device while expecting them to simultaneously pass the new Common Core assessments.

Citing the committee report, DeLima said his main concern over the digital initiative is that the department isn’t properly explaining the program’s merits to lawmakers.

“It’s obvious to me that we’re not communicating as well as we should,” DeLima told Civil Beat. “Let’s embrace the concerns by the committee directly … We should take the bull by the horn.”

Still, DeLima emphasized his confidence in classroom technololgy, pointing to schools on the Big Island that have successfully piloted one-to-one device programs.

He urged the department to roll the initiative out to schools “sooner, rather than later,” noting that the digital materials are integral to the district’s Strategic Plan.

In the meantime, board member Nancy Budd last week questioned the department’s decision to require teachers to follow pre-established Language Arts teaching plans that come pre-programmed into the devices.

“I’m not comfortable that teachers are going to have to teach cookbook-style,” Budd said. “It can be pretty demoralizing if you’re a teacher, you’re ready to go and you have some exciting ideas, and you’re being forced to teach according to someone else’s ideas.”

Shipton said that such concerns overlook the core mission of the digital device program, which aims to ensure that all of Hawaii’s kids, rich or poor, have access to the same materials. The technology clearly has useful elements. Digital whiteboards allow students to write their responses in reading exercises, while teachers see them on a different whiteboard, and can respond instantly.

Capable teachers, Shipton said, should be able to use devices like digital whiteboards, even if they’re all on the same curriculum.

“Good teaching is good teaching,” she said. “It’s not necessarily dictating every move and every word that a teacher has to make in the classroom.”

About the Author