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A Boondoggle? Possibly, but it’s Hard to Say Yes

Early last month, I received an e-mail telling me of a trip to Apple headquarters in Cupertino, California by a group of Arlington Public Schools administrators and management officials who traveled at taxpayers expense. According to the e-mailer, some teachers and principals thought the trip was “excessively expensize(sic).”

The trip’s cost was the easy thing to discern because it’s clearly spelled out on the spreadsheet provided under a Freedom of Information Act request. Twelve employees made the trip at a total cost of $10,963.25. Travelers included school board member Libby Garvey, Superintendent Patrick Murphy, Assistant Superintendent Salah Khelfaoui, two principals (one high school, one elementary school). The others were mostly information specialists.

Economy class airline travel was obtained through Citicorp Diners Club. Lodging was at the Inn at Saratoga at the Apple group rate. Breakfast and lunch was provided at the meeting while participants paid for their own dinner. Consequently, there is no reason to suggest the cost of travel was “excessively expensive.”

This is where things get difficult, which is trying to understand just why twelve APS employees traveled to the Cupertino, California, headquarters of Apple computer. We asked for, and received, two “end-of-trip” reports. One was written by Arlington School Board member Libby Garvey. The second, just over one page, was part of Dr. Murphy’s November 14, 2011 report to School Board members. Unfortunately, it is difficult to find a real purpose in either one to spending almost $11,000 to send 12 APS employees to Cupertino, California. Here are the highlights from the two reports:

  • Dr. Murphy told School Board members there was “a good group” of APS employees who went on the trip. The Apple speaker who impressed him the most was Apple’s Chief Information Officer, Naill O’Connor, who talked about such things as “hierarchy of thinking,” “setting the bar high,” and “utilizing time and its importance to us in our work and business.”
  • Ms. Garvey wrote that she hopes APS will “get some significant support from (Apple). They do this regularly with school systems around the country. I’m not so sure they give these school divisions a whole lot of support/resources. They do follow-up, however.” She also pointed out that Apple has a “center in Reston and likely there will be future conferences there for us.” From the “executive summary,” Ms. Garvey wrote this:

“ . . . I think my overall take away is that Apple products for, and philosophy of, teaching and learning dovetails pretty exactly with the 12 Brain Rules we read about for the last APS book group. This is how education can move from the 19th to the 21st century. I came away with a sense of affirmation that we are moving in the right direction. The only question is how fast can we get to where we need to be. The more support we can get from Apple, the faster we’ll get there . . . .”

The remainder of Ms. Garvey’s “end-of-trip” notes report on the comments of the Apple speakers, including the Chief Information Office, Director of Finance, Area Development Manager, a Consulting Engineer, the Business Manager for Content and Mobility, and the Marketing Manager for Apple’s iLife and iWork product lines.

The Area Development Manager spoke about the “iGeneration,” noting that today’s children “have different lives, different needs and different expectations.” The Consulting Engineer noted that “technology can be used in education” and “has four levels,” i.e., substitution, augmentation, modification, and redefinition. In her notes about the comments of the content and mobility business manager, Ms. Garvey wrote, “this is where I realized how much everything dovetails with Brain Rules. Finally, she wrote the marketing manager “spoke about the importance of giving teachers and students the space to try things . . . He was more showing us the bells and whistles. And there are a lot of things students and teachers can do with the right tools.”

I know the writers of the two trip reports did not expect the reports would be reviewed outside of APS headquarters, but unless there is clarity of purpose for making the trip, it’s quite likely the expectations from the trip will ever be realized. As a result, the $11,000 cost for the trip may well be wasted.

Unfortunately, neither Dr. Murphy’s trip notes nor Ms. Garvey’s trip notes are clear about the purpose of the trip. And that’s being generous. Consequently, I have to agree with my e-mailer and his sources that the trip to Cupertino was “excessively expensive.” Since Apple has a “center in Reston,” the APS employees could have been accommodated there at far less cost. Perhaps the story of the trip to Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino helps explain why APS ranks at the top in cost-per-student comparison’s.

UPDATE (1/19/12): The business section of today's Washington Post has a story that"Apple announced a few new apps Thursday that should send some ripples through the education world — and may also help save the backs of millions of students. In addition, the Post reported:

"The company also released an app for iTunes U, which is designed for students and educators. The app allows teachers to post course material, to stream and post video and to give students access to class materials such as readings, quizzes and assignments."

In a related story, the Post said that Apple is "expected to delve into textbooks."

UPDATE (1/20/12): ARLnow reports on ACTA's information. They quote APS spokeswoman Linda Erdos as saying, "The purpose of the trip is really to talk about what Apple is doing as a company . . . The talke to school districts about how they could possibly collaborate. Because we are using the technology, we are very interested." Yesterday, I changed the wording in the title from "likely" to "possibly." Based upon the purpose provided by Ms. Erdos, the use of "likely" in the original title appears to have been correct.

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