Over the past four years Los Angeles Unified school district has spent almost $50 million on a computer system designed to help children in kindergarten and first grade learn to read. Waterford Early Reading was called by the superintendent who bought it "the Cadillac of all systems." The program, however, seems to be high-end in price but not results.

In their 2002 and 2003 reports, the district researchers found that Waterford made no difference for students who used the program, and that it had a "negative impact" on some kindergartners whose teachers were using it in place of their primary reading lessons.

As a result LA has cut back the use of Waterford to only students who need extra help and is considering dropping the program at the end of the contract. At least the school board out there is learning from and correcting its mistakes. But, in addition to this system costing a lot of money, there’s also the matter of how it’s is used in the first place.

The teachers said that children enjoyed the program, which called for students to sit at computers for up to 30 minutes a day — reciting the ABCs, learning nursery rhymes and practicing phonics drills set amid animated scenes that include magical kingdoms and circus big-tops.

Is it really a good thing to have five and six-year olds sitting in front of computers drilling their reading skills? Is this kind of drill and practice software the best use of $50 million? Couldn’t that money have been spent on programs that put the students in contact with people instead of machines?

Since I’ve never taught that level, these are all real question, not comments. However, they are all very relevant questions to me since the overly large school district I work for is spending increasing amounts every year buying the Waterford system for our kindergarten and first grade classrooms. We’re not up to the $50 million level yet, but considering how much the program costs per classroom, it shouldn’t take long to get there.