The $50 million purchase by the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) of the Waterford Early Reading Program in 2001 is now at the center of a public conflict led by some members of the district’s school board. Critics of the Waterford program charge it failed to improve student literacy skills and sometimes hindered achievement. Defenders of the program, on the other hand, including key school executives, say it wasn’t the software itself, but the way it was implemented, that led to the poor results.

According to school administrators and an independent third-party, problems occurred because LAUSD failed to mandate the program’s use, failed to implement the program as recommended, and introduced the Waterford program only after a competing reading software program–Open Court Reading–already had taken root in the school district.

LAUSD, the nation’s second-largest school district after New York City, purchased the Waterford Early Reading Program in 2001 to provide an additional layer of language instruction for students in kindergarten and first grade. But in a study carried out under the auspices of Pearson Digital Learning, Waterford’s distributor, and the LAUSD Program Evaluation Research Branch, Waterford was reported to have had no effect on most students during the 2002-03 school year.

The evaluation concluded that the use of Waterford even had a “negative impact” on some kindergartners whose teachers substituted it for the district’s core reading program, Open Court, from SRA/McGraw-Hill.

Many teachers were too busy covering the district’s rigorous reading curriculum to devote enough time and energy to the computer lessons, the study found. Some teachers simply didn’t know how to use the program, while others couldn’t use it all because of computers that froze or headsets that were broken.

Those findings prompted LAUSD’s school board to order its schools to limit Waterford’s use to struggling students, it was reported.

“It hasn’t been a good use of money,” charged school board President Jose Huizar, who took office after the panel approved the Waterford contract. “How could anyone continue to argue that it’s working when it’s not? It’s underutilized and ineffective.”

Superintendent Roy Romer, who once called Waterford “the Cadillac of all systems,” said he and his aides are reconsidering how best to implement the program and offer teachers more training.

“As I looked at this, it didn’t provide as much bang for the buck as I would have liked,” Romer said. “I think, right now, it is still the right program for certain kids at certain times of the day. But we need to be thoughtful in how we use this asset.”

Andy Myers, chief operating officer for Pearson Digital Learning, said Romer “had the right vision, initially.”

Romer “had a vision that certain students can be reached with print and others cannot,” Myers said. “The [Waterford] technology is a way to reach students who cannot be reached with other programs.”

Assistant Superintendent Jim Morris said that when the district “originally rolled [the software] out, we said that every child needs to use the system, every single day.” But Morris said the study found students were being “pulled from one high-quality instructional program [Open Court], then brought to another.”

In 2000, the year before the full-scale rollout of Waterford, the district mandated the use of the Open Court reading program throughout its schools.

Pearson commissioned the Riordan Foundation, a nonprofit organization that focuses on early literacy issues, to act as an independent administrator between the company and LAUSD’s Program Evaluation Research Branch when carrying out the study. Nike Irvin, the foundation’s president, said the study was to last for four years.

Irvin, who is critical of the school board’s decision to limit classroom use of the Waterford program, said the board “came two years early to the results of a four-year study” when making its decision.

“When you commit to any program, you have to understand what that program requires,” Irvin said. “You have to be willing to clear the time and space for it. LAUSD did that for Open Court. They required teachers to use it. It was a mandate. To enforce the mandate, they installed literacy coaches–I think that’s a brilliant idea.”

Anything that is going to work in a district as large and complex as LAUSD must be mandated, Irvin said. Referring to the rollout of the Open Court program just one year before, she said, “When you introduce two new ‘somethings,’ one of those things is going to suffer.”

Pearson said the district’s troubles with the system were unsurprising given the limited time teachers used it.

“The findings confirmed what we already knew: You have to turn it on to have an impact,” said Myers. “If you don’t get all the way through the program and cover all of the material, then you can’t expect the student gains.”

Myers said that Pearson supports the current LAUSD model for using the Waterford program to work only with students who need extra attention in language skills development. But he added that Pearson believes its original plan for the software’s more complete inclusion in the regular LAUSD reading curriculum “held the most promise.”

Assistant Superintendent Morris said he does not believe the Waterford system has failed the students in his district. Morris said the study did not consider the effect it has had on English as Second Language (ESL) students in Los Angeles.

“Our district has shown incredible, unprecedented gains in English language development. We have about 50 percent English language learners,” Morris said. “In 2000, we had 14 percent of students scoring at the highest levels [on the California English Language Development Test]; now we have 43 percent of students scoring at those levels. We think Waterford was a part of that.”

By comparison, he said, the entire state of California had 17 percent of its students scoring at the highest levels in 2000; it now has 38 percent scoring at those levels. “We’re actually beating the state,” he concluded.

Referring to a criticism in the Los Angeles Times that suggested other ways the $50 million could have been spent, Morris added that the district actually “could not have ‘built three new elementary schools, kept primary grade class sizes at 20 students for a year, or refurbished [all middle and high school] science labs.’ The money was earmarked by the government to be spent only on supplemental programs.”

LAUSD still receives some technical support from Pearson, but the original agreement between the two entities expired last June. Pearson’s Myers said the company continues to provide telephone and field support for the software. He said LAUSD has taken charge of the professional development component of the Waterford service.

LAUSD was the country’s largest user of the Waterford program. Other districts say the program has helped its students. For example, Jeff Seymour, superintendent of the El Monte City School District in California, said his district has had great success with Waterford.

Seymour said part of the problem with the implementation in LAUSD was that “teachers were asked to [embrace Waterford] without being a part of the decision to do it.”

He added: “In our case, it was brought to us by teachers. One school asked if they could try it. We had several meetings, discussed it, and made sure teachers were included.”

Seymour also echoed the comments of others in saying that implementation is the key to success in the use of a program like Waterford. “You have to watch the utilization to make sure that you’re doing the number of units and lessons that you’re supposed to do,” he said. “If you don’t do that, it won’t do anybody any good.”


Los Angeles Unified School District

Waterford Early Reading Program

Open Court Reading