An Open Letter to Maryland State Legislators: Digital Device Health & Safety Bill — A Win-Win

An open letter from Joanne C. Simpson, BCPS parent, college educator, freelance journalist, to Maryland State Senators on the Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee 3/14/17

Thank you in advance for your time and consideration. Please support proposed Senate Bill 1089: Health and Safety Guidelines and Procedures – Digital Devices.  This is especially important with the vastly increased use of new devices such as tablets, laptops, and smartphones, as well as screen-based learning and testing in schools.

You might have been told recently that not enough is known about health or safety measures in this arena, especially from school board representatives who may not be aware of what is already available. Yet current medical research clearly indicates the need for digital device safety guidelines in schools, and offers actual tips and training.

Medical and professionally informed guidelines would help prevent ergonomic and other long-term fallout: such as computer vision syndrome, neck pain, etc. (see lists and research below). Many of these devices are being used by children as young as 6-years-old in various school districts.

Support for this bill would be a win-win.

A parallel House bill has already gained steam:

“Requiring the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, in consultation with the State Department of Education, to develop health and safety guidelines and procedures for the use of digital devices in public school classrooms; and requiring each county board of education to implement specified health and safety guidelines and procedures for the use of digital devices in public school classrooms beginning in the 2018-2019 school year.”

Maryland, which offers some of the best public school districts in the nation, should be a leader on safe student use of tech in classrooms. Based on in-depth research during the past year, here are a few citations for quick reference. Note especially the school-related work of Karen Jacobs, Clinical Professor, Department of Occupational Therapy at Boston University, one of the primary experts in the field.

For example, one six-year cohort study led by Jacobs, cited* below, concludes: “Participatory ergonomics training and use of external devices may have significant health benefits for children involved in notebook programs who have daily exposure to this technology for school and leisure purposes.”

Some of the issues cited by children using the devices: neck and shoulder pain, back pain, and other musculoskeletal discomforts, as well as “visual symptoms such as dry/watery eyes and sore, tired eyes during the study.

As you are likely aware, Baltimore County Public Schools is pursuing a district-wide digital initiative others expect could be replicated around the state of Maryland. This laptop-per-student program (grades 1-12) has a number of extreme cost burdens — approaching $300 million for the first several years alone — and other problems so far, including declining county PARCC standardized test scores. It’s titled Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow, or STAT.

STAT and similar digital initiatives, like those in Montgomery County Public Schools and neighboring Prince George’s County, translate to increased student screen time. Some tech upgrades and digital options in schools are needed, when reasonable and balanced. Safety measures are a digital equity issue as well, because many children in less affluent school districts also have reduced access to appropriate health care screening or mitigation.

You might hear arguments that there’s no evidence of problems, but as you can see that is not true. You might hear pushback about mandates, yet when children are at risk –wrist pain, retinal issues, or behavioral issues related to gaming curricula, etc.– it is our government’s role to serve its people, and to help keep safe the hundreds of thousands of families in Maryland. 

Unfortunately, many school systems are entrenched in digital initiatives and contracts that rely on corporate vendors. As a result, legislators and others might encounter pressure from the education technology industry to halt such bills, as these companies would like to increase student screen time to enable for-profit digital curricula and ongoing embedded assessments or online tests. I have no problem with such companies per se, yet should corporate priorities influence how we oversee the health of the next generation? There needs to be consistent oversight. (School-edtech ties also can prove problematic on a number of levels.)

See this story re: some of those concerns, and possible school leader bias regarding tech.

In terms of overall safety, can much be done? Yes: screen-time guidelines, and limits on per-day usage, are advisable. Ergonomic education for teachers. Frequent breaks. Better posture training. Appropriate lighting. Proper screen height. Supports for neck or forearms. See the in-depth work by advocate Cindy Eckard, as well as researchers from Harvard University, the Curtis National Hand Center, The University of Washington, among others via additional links and quotes below.

Feel free to share this information with fellow legislators and others. Baltimore County Public Schools’ health council offered a few suggestions but has not addressed this issue adequately–which is why we can’t rely on county school systems to do what is appropriate. We also can’t rely on the vagaries of information and medical resources available to various school districts, especially in areas where poverty and equity are challenges. 

The University of Southern California reports that African-American children are most prone to myopia, followed by Asian-Americans, Latinos and Caucasians.

In the end, these parameters and guidelines should also be in place as a reference point for private and parochial schools, as children in these environments should be protected as well.

As the Digital Age progresses, this is a global issue especially for our next generation. Maryland should set a very high standard for the safety of our children.

ADDITIONAL LINKS, ARTICLES, SCIENTIFIC STUDIES & RESOURCES:

News Coverage: 

A recent CBS News story on HB866/SB1089

Background:

Baltimore County Public Schools’ STAT program costs and related issues:

https://statusbcps.wordpress.com/2017/01/22/whats-the-status-of-stat-costs-in-a-dozen-years-that-could-be-a-billion-dollar-question/

Studies, Jacobs: 

Jacobs, K., Hudak, S., McGiffert, J. (at press). Computer-related posture and musculoskeletal discomfort in middle school students. WORK.

*Jacobs, K., Kaldenberg, J., Markowitz, J., Wuest, E., Hellman, M., Umez-Eronini, A., Barr, A. (2013). An ergonomics training program for student notebook computer users: Preliminary outcomes of a six-year cohort study. WORK, 221–230.

Jacobs, K., Foley, G., Punnett, L., Hall, V., Gore, R., Brownson, E., Ansong, E., Markowitz, J., McKinnon, M., Steinberg, S., Wuest, E., Dibaccari, L.,  & Ing, A. (2011). University students’ notebook computer use: lessons learned using e-diaries to report musculoskeletal discomfort. Ergonomics, 54:2, 206-21

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Note: “Karen Jacobs, a Boston University clinical professor of occupational therapy, has authored several studies on tech ergonomics, with upcoming findings showing that ergonomic education significantly improves neck posture in middle school students using tablets.

Trained occupational therapists already based at some schools can offer guidance, Jacobs said. “Children don’t want to be in pain,” she added, noting that kids — some of whom experience headaches, eye strain or neck discomfort after using tech devices — need frequent breaks and physical movement, not static postures. “It’s really important that our children are doing lots of different things.”

Debra Milek, a University of Washington associate professor in environmental and occupational health sciences, noted that worn-out tendons, neck pain and carpal tunnel syndrome have plagued computer users and store cashiers, and ended the careers of guitarists. “Discomfort may be an early indicator of future injury,” Milek noted, “which is why it’s important to pay attention to how we use these devices.'”

Article:

Digital Disabilities 

Jacobs’ peer-reviewed articles with others that might also be related. 

http://blogs.bu.edu/kjacobs/publications/articles-refereed/

http://blogs.bu.edu/kjacobs/ (Study breaks and other practical tips)

Other research: Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Jack Dennerlein, Professor of Ergonomics and Safety. In 2012, he led a Harvard University study that found that adjusting tablet viewing angle — to as straight ahead as possible — provides relief.

https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/jack-dennerlein/publications/

Recent posts and Tweets (contact Cindy Eckard):

http://www.screensandkids.us/2016_12_17_archive.html

Quick List of Medical Concerns to watch for:

  1. Increased, irreversible myopia Because long-term fixed distance viewing is very well known to promote nearsightededness, the pre-teen and teenage developmental precondition for myopia is being exacerbated when middle school kids are required to stare at a computer for excessive periods of time. 10 – 15 year-old children are already prone to myopia; it’s the shape their eyes are taking at this stage in their physical development.
  2. Retinal damage and premature macular degeneration The UV blue light emissions that damage the back of our eyes are better able to penetrate children’s eyes because the kids are not blinking, and because a child’s eye doesn’t have the necessary pigmentation to protect against the blue light. So the child is literally staring into a computer with damaging blue light penetrating right to the back of his eye.
  3. Digital eye strain and musculoskeletal discomforts Experts in children’s health are quick to point out that children are not just small adults. When using digital devices, kids are often unaware of the discomfort they are experiencing and do not correct their posture or take a break when their eyes get dry or blurry.  They suffer more than adults, and don’t do anything about it.
  4. Sleeplessness and its damaging side effects Because so much work is done on a computer at school, most homework and studying also has to take place on a computer in the evening. This is especially problematic for our kids because the blue light from the digital devices suppresses a hormone called melatonin, which is necessary for sleep. Our kids are now being deprived of sleep because of the schools’ constant reliance on computers, which brings a host of additional serious health risks to our children. Some kids are actually being misdiagnosed with ADHD, when the truth is, they’re just exhausted.
  5. Increased propensity for psychological issues The constant use of digital devices is emerging as a psychological problem for many young people whose reliance on virtual experiences is replacing actual interaction with friends and family. Some experts, such as Dr. Nicholas Kardaras, are suggesting that digital devices are not only addictive, but lead to additional problems for young children such as depression, anxiety, pornography use and gambling. UCLA research has shown that children are losing their ability recognize emotional expressions in other people’s faces.

Supporting links for the above list:

http://www.screensandkids.us/2016_12_17_archive.html

Johns Hopkins University’s Mid-Year STAT Evaluation

STAT Year Three Mid-Year Evaluation Presentation

STAT Year Three Mid-Year Evaluation Report

February 16, 2017 Baltimore County Board of Education Curriculum and Instruction Committee meeting at which the evaluation was presented

During the Livestream, BOE Member Ann Miller posted on her Facebook page, BCPS Board Member Ann Miller (NOTE:  LH = Lighthouse, the schools where STAT is piloted):

BCPS Board Member Ann Miller
BCPS Board Member Ann Miller Gilliss: What is explanation for performance changes? A: results are not statistically significant. LH schools were slightly more economically disadvantaged. Learning curve. Not enough data to show but encouraging on PARCC compared to state.
BCPS Board Member Ann Miller
BCPS Board Member Ann Miller Gilliss: should we expect continued growth as we go forward? A: PARCC we are looking at LH schools in Y2. I would expect performance to be still low for new program. These results aren’t saying STAT was effective in achievement, but does say STAT didn’t interfere in achievement in Y2.

Videos: A Tale of Three Policies; Save BCPS Policy 8120 & STAT Conversations; A Side-by-Side Analysis

Two more enlightening videos detailing what’s happening behind the scenes.

The first video illustrates how Board of Education policies are being altered to advance STAT when no one is watching (except for BCPS Chicken Little, that is).

Policy 8120: Purpose, Role and Responsibilities of the Board of Education

BCPS Chicken Little’s second video carries the tagline:

Conversations about Baltimore County Public Schools’ 1:1 “Student-Centered,” “Computer-Centered,” Personalized and Competency-Based Learning Digital Initiative, its associated costs, convinced elected officials, and the always tardy evaluations.

What’s been lost to pay for STAT?  Compare what was said about this at a recent Board of Education meeting and on the national stage at the ASU GSV ed-tech summit.

A related conversation from Discovery Future@Now Conference Panel: http://www.discoveryeducation.com/futurenow2014/roadmap.cfm 

“I build a case: we will either pay for it now or we pay for it later. And what we can do, and school systems do this, is find the money for things we want to find money for. But we have to be, I think the best superintendents are salesman and saleswomen.

But the other thing, too, is that before we ask for additional money — because we know it’s going to cost more — we have to do serious scrubs of our own budgets, so as positions come open, do we need to fill those positions?

But we’ve also been very upfront with our county as it costs additional money, we’re going to be very upfront and honest whether there are positions that we can decrease in the school system that are non-school based.  How do we then redirect our funds? But we’ve been very upfront that it’s going to cost more. But, we have to demonstrate those early wins, those success stories in our 10 Lighthouse Schools to give us the leverage to say that we need to continue this.”

What’s the Status of STAT’s Digital Costs? In a Dozen Years, that Could Be a Billion Dollar Question. Updated.

A year ago, the public first glimpsed the costs of Baltimore County Public Schools’ digital initiative when the “STAT budget” was released. A revised tally is back, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

A guest op-ed by Joanne C. Simpson

A blur of money is spinning around the virtual vortex where our Students and Teachers are supposedly Accessing Tomorrow via STAT. The question: Is this a space-time passage to the future or a budgetary black hole?

The $1.6 billion Baltimore County Public School’s proposed operating budget for next school year was just released—and the cost of the laptop-per-student initiative still remains nearly as opaque as wormholes and astrophysics.

Overall, STAT’s evolving scenario seems a mash-up of multimillion-dollar “techbooks,” controversial Spanish-language software, unclear rising expenses, possibly stealth purchasing policies, and interactive projectors that could tap a school’s budget for nearly $6,000—per classroom projector.

The updated BCPS “6-Year Proposed Instructional Digital Conversion Plan” predicts spending on the one-laptop-per-student program at $257 million by 2018-19, including an initial $13 million for wireless network infrastructure and nearly $200 million for students’ and teachers’ laptops.

The listed “total cost” of the 6-year conversion comes in about $28 million less than last year’s spending projections—mostly because of deleted or redirected millions slated overall for projectors, a project temporarily slowed last year by a school board vote.

For now, “Total Annual Costs,” are pegged at $57 million (including $52 million annually just to lease laptops that turn over every four years).

A lowered overall price estimate would seem welcome since STAT, touted as a model for other districts, is one of the costliest and most experimental digital school initiatives in the nation. Recent documents and administration responses, however, reveal the actual price tag is likely higher. Much higher. (See also Postscript below).

BCPS Superintendent S. Dallas Dance downplayed STAT’s financial heft at the Jan. 10 Board of Education meeting when he presented the proposed 2017-18 budget, which requests an 8.5 percent increase—$64 million more—from the county. “To dispel a rumor, STAT has not driven the Baltimore County Public School’s budget,” Dance said, highlighting increased spending on salaries. “I’ll say that one more time: STAT has not contributed to growing budgets.”

Yet concerns about rising costs clearly remain:

  • Spending authorities* have been approved for contracts worth tens of millions of dollars in digital curricula and related software beyond the STAT budget—at least $74 million and counting, records show.
  • Costs will likely rise as the student population at 112,000 is expected to increase by more than 6,700 within the decade.
  • And BCPS’ pilots are already creating financial woes: more than $4 million has gone out the door on the dysfunctional ScholarChip ID program alone—and this in a school district with many dire needs, and nearly half of its students living at the poverty level.

So overall, what exactly has been spent on digital-related curricula, services, hardware, personnel, training, and infrastructure from anywhere in the public school budget—or is slated to be spent? At the current rate, STAT costs could approach $1 billion by the first dozen years, sources say. More BCPS transparency would be helpful, yet an external or state legislative audit might be the only way to know for sure.

A school board budget work session, open to the public, is set for Jan. 24 and 31. The overall FY 18 superintendent’s budget will go before the board, County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, and the County Council for consideration. As people review this 328-page document (nearly $2 billion including the capital budget), here are a few areas to explore:

How Much is that ‘Tech Book’ in the Window?

Overall, most STAT costs are perpetual if BCPS plans to remain a highly digital school district—expenditures that could rise substantially. School districts do need better tech options and wifi, but the scope of what’s going on here seems alarming.

A flurry of digital curricula spending authorities for vendor contracts were approved or expanded by the school board in 2016. For example, Discovery Education ($4 million expanded to $10 million (!) for just two more years); Middlebury Interactive Languages ($7.5 million) for 13 years; and DreamBox Learning, Inc., whose contract would nearly double for just the next 9 months, to $1.2 million. (See contract spending authority links for such vendors below, or at bcps.org.)

Discovery Education’s contract will include “techbooks,” which do seem to offer some cool new options: a blend of text and visual media in different languages, and text-to-speech (read-aloud). Yet students’ laptops are already loaded with some of those services, such as text-to-speech in seven languages via Kurzweil 3000 Firefly.

Costs for “techbooks” gave pause to nearby Montgomery County Public Schools, a larger system with 159,000 students. MCPS is also known as a digital district.

“We clearly as a system are looking at what the possibilities are for the future in terms of digital resources and digital textbooks,” Betsy Brown, MCPS’ director of curriculum, has said. “But we have to consider cost effectiveness, and we also have to examine how current the resources will be.”

Brown told the Gazette: “There are no big savings incentives in making the transition from textbooks to digital tech books.”

MCPS has elected to focus district funds on Discovery Education’s popular video streaming services, at about $260,000 annually since 2014, according to MCPS records.

BCPS, which already had video streaming before the $6 million expansion, has said the “techbooks” would cost less than regular textbooks, but long-term licensing fees are unclear. Here are some struggles other districts have found, especially when they cut paper textbook funding in favor of digital options.

Meanwhile, Middlebury Interactive Languages (MIL), the centerpiece of BCPS’ world languages Passport Program, recently expanded to 40 elementary schools. MIL also exemplifies ongoing software and other fees. “Once the program is fully expanded to all schools, the anticipated annual fee will be $550,000 each year. The site license cost will be $5,000 per school once 51 schools are attained,” board records show. Software licensing fees, online or cloud subscriptions can increase digital costs to districts.

MIL also has raised controversy elsewhere. Until recently, the computer-based language program partnered with Middlebury College, whose professors staged a revolt and no-confidence vote in 2014 because of quality problems and questions about co-owner K12, Inc,. a troubled online education company. In 2015, the Vermont college sold its 40 percent stake in MIL to the for-profit K12, which is now the sole owner.

Numerous other spending authorities for digital curricula or related contracts have been approved or expanded by the school board in the last year, including Curriculum Associates/iReady ($1.2 million); Code to the Future ($1 million); and Apex Learning ($3 million, with $2.5 million for about two more years). The list goes on.

Overall, such big-dollar figures certainly surpass the $1 million slated per year in the STAT budget under Curriculum Resources/client software, some of which is being piloted in schools and set to expand. What will the costs be then? Can these vendor expectations even be met?

Consider other BCPS pilots, like the student lanyard ID program, whose vendor, ScholarChip Card LLC, was paid at least $3.7 million by mid-2016, according to BCPS sources (and now past $4 million, see postscript). Superintendent Dance did a promotional video for ScholarChip as the program launched here in 2014 (among other edtech tie-ins to BCPS vendors, and a recent superintendent ethics violation finding).

More than $4 million for a mostly failed pilot? (Students no longer wear the ID lanyards, which were onerous; swipe-in attendance kiosks were sent back or sit idle, and other problems.) Just ask teachers or principals. The original spending authority was for a whopping $10 million; are payments still going out? Does BCPS have this kind of champagne budget? Could other cash-strapped school systems pay for all this?

When school board members in September asked how the STAT budget could cover the Discovery Education contract alone, administrators cited funding from other district curriculum coffers. A county audit of last year’s budget noted significant “areas of under-spending” by BCPS, including textbook supplies, special education operational supplies, and transportation professional services.

The Office of the County Auditor wanted to know: “why BCPS has chosen to prioritize this initiative over other competing funding needs.”

Creative Procurement 101

Many of these for-profit companies, meanwhile, are being awarded no-bid contracts under a BCPS curriculum policy, Superintendent Rule 6002 and related. https://www.bcps.org/system/policies_rules/rules/6000series/rule6002.pdf

Under the policy, curricula are evaluated by BCPS staff and others, without ‘requests for proposals’ or other bidding processes. (Discovery Education’s contract also includes professional development services, not just curricula.)

And this despite the fact that no-bid contracts have raised concerns in area school districts and elsewhere. The Maryland Office of Legislative Audits in 2015 also criticized BCPS for a lack of “competitive procurement methods” for various services. BCPS said the district is complying with state laws. https://www.ola.state.md.us/Reports/Schools/BCPS15.pdf

Board-approved “spending authorities” usually mean BCPS could spend up to a listed amount. Dance has pointed out that actual contract costs sometimes come in lower (though many spending authorities return to the board for a vote to expand).

In addition, and possibly more concerning, the superintendent apparently has other sole powers: “Contracts or contract modifications of $500,000 or less may be executed by the Superintendent or his/her designee,” under a BCPS Policy 3215 questioned at the Jan. 10 board meeting. It remains unclear how often this option is used and how.

This all seems to leave the door open for a frightening lack of oversight.

The superintendent does seem savvy at finding money for STAT (which the FY18 budget notes “requires a significant funding commitment”) from various sources, including federal E-rate funds for networking, and a $1.3 million grant to help support STAT—which will run out after next year. With all the financial pressure, the squeeze is on. BCPS internal “redirect” efforts have been noted elsewhere. In the 2015 Maryland State Education Technology Plan, BCPS staff answered survey questions about the district’s tech integration, including: “What are your consistent sources of funding?”

The BCPS response: “Continued cuts and redirects to budgets in all areas of operation within BCPS are impacted.” http://dlslibrary.state.md.us/publications/JCR/2015/2015_98a.pdf

So, again, what are the real costs of STAT, lost opportunities and all?

Overall, there’s lots of uncertainty about “forever costs” for BCPS’ out-in-front digital initiative being watched by districts around the nation, nay the world, as a model for tech in education—despite unknown long-term learning outcomes, high costs, and student measures like BCPS’ 2016 PARCC standardized test scores lower than area counties.

Still, BCPS wins awards for STAT, here, here and here, mostly from edtech industry-supported groups. Regarding one event cited: “The United Nations General Assembly was the backdrop for a keynote address by the BCPS superintendent to schools and global education, business, and technology leaders hosted by Hewlett-Packard,” notes the DILA 2015 Open Door Policy Award, hosted by EdSurge, Inc. and Digital Promise.

BCPS is using Hewlett-Packard tablet/laptops, and Microsoft software, in its classrooms: The spending authority for the HP device contract: $205 million.

How is STAT Going So Far?

First rolled out in Fall 2014, STAT’s $1,400 HP EliteBook Revolve 810s are now in grades K-6th, and 7th in several test schools known as “Lighthouse Schools.” Three high schools are testing the laptops and digital curricula in grades 9-12, including Owings Mills, Chesapeake, and Pikesville, and will continue to pilot STAT next year, Dance said.

A series of evaluations revealing successes and flaws so far have been conducted by the Johns Hopkins University Center for Research and Reform in Education (CRRE). Parent responses have been mixed—with some support for the tablet/laptop hybrids and digital learning options, yet ongoing concerns about increased screen time and physical or visual fallout for students, as well as software glitches, increased reliance on computer-embedded assessments, funding and other issues. (See agenda/video under Meetings tab for public comment, Jan 10 meeting.)

One parent noted recently on ABCSchools: Advocates for Baltimore County Schools Facebook public group that it seems BCPS is serving as an example to convince other school districts to “engage in this great experiment that was really all about using the public ed system to research and develop the EdTech products [that] private industry is trying to develop with no knowledge if it all will even work or be beneficial to children.

“And in the meantime we will spend hundreds of millions on STAT which we could have spent on what we already know through research already works. Smaller class sizes, equitable healthy facilities, and we might even give every child in every school free breakfast and lunch.”

With two children in the school system, I share many of the same concerns.

There are other worries. The proposed budget indicates downward trends in student performance, (p.103), including a drop in Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) scores for grade 3 students, from 57 % reading on-grade level in 2013-14, before STAT, to 50 % of third-graders in 2015-16—after all grades 1-3 had the devices.

At the Jan. 10 meeting, Dance emphasized a focus on human capital over tech in the superintendent’s FY 18 budget. “Eighty-three percent of our budget is going to people, with salaries and benefits,” he said. “And we want to make sure we focus on our people.” The budget does includes a 2 percent pay increase for employees “and a plan to hire more than 100 new teachers.” (The district had that many unfilled teaching positions just a couple weeks before school started in the Fall.)

Yet there’s the ongoing 168 teacher/mentor positions to support STAT—with nearly all annual salary costs outside the STAT budget (about $8 million for teachers not assigned to classrooms), an issue raised recently in TABCO teacher association campaigns.

BCPS school board member Kathleen Causey has voiced concerns about high-dollar contracts, purchasing Policy 3215, and opportunity costs: “This is an unprecedented expense for untested curriculum,” Causey said after the meeting, noting that children “need to develop their humanity before we focus on all this intensive data learning.”

Pricey Interactive Projectors: In The House

The Tale of the Interactive Projectors reveals the push-and-pull of trying to create what some term a “digital ecosystem” in a school district whose physical ecosystem is already plagued with crumbling school buildings, brown drinking water, a lack of functioning AC and heat, oft-scarce classroom supplies, and ever-challenging student nutritional needs.

(Transportation woes have been on many parents’ minds, as noted lately in social media. Yet at a school board Building and Contracts Committee meeting that reviewed tire contracts, the issue of using “retread” tires on school buses was discussed. A few board members expressed concerns, but staff said it was “okay,” because recapped tires were being put “on the back wheels.” See contract # ARA-206-16, $1 million.)

For the proposed Boxlight projectors (the administration wanted 6,900 for each classroom-plus), the virtual rug was pulled out when, in February 2016, a contract for $41.4 million (!) was rejected by the school board and sent out to be rebid under different parameters.

Trouble is: The projectors are still being bought, apparently outside board purview.

Individual schools are being told to pick up the tab out of dwindling BCPS allocations. A July 29 superintendent’s weekly bulletin to staff: “School administrators who plan on purchasing projectors in school year 2016-2017 should review the approved projectors.”

The required options, according to BCPS documents: $5,899 with amplified sound system; $4,522 (sans that sound system); and a non-interactive table-top projector and package, $1,051.

Yet schools’ per-student BCPS allocations for instructional materials and supplies—including such projectors—have dropped, nearly 6 percent in elementary schools by FY 15—from $142 per student to $134, a tightening of discretionary purchases to “ensure compatibility with STAT specifications,” notes the 2016 STAT Biannual Conversions Update.

In fact, under STAT “all technology will be fully transitioned to a central budget” by next year, and instructional supplies centralized further (see pp. 83, 118 of the FY 18 budget).

At what cost in the long run? Those interactive projectors for 6,000 or so classrooms would still top $30 million to purchase, and they have a shelf life of 5 or so years. Meanwhile, the Boxlight projectors, which board members and county officials questioned because of high pricing and other issues, are already showing up in BCPS’ new elementary schools. The ‘selected’ projectors also use components by Clinton, the firm whose contract the board turned back. When the issue was raised, administrators said the board never told them not to buy single projectors.

(They might be terrific classroom tools, though comparable or more-established classroom projectors could be purchased for less, experts say. Once a model is bought, there’s pressure to buy that same model for consistent teacher training and compatibility. Either way, some digital services, such as Discovery Education, seem to rely partly on getting them in place pronto.)

School board member Causey brought up the projector discrepancy in comments at the board meeting. “It has come to my attention recently that there is one major contract that somehow has gone awry,” Causey said.

“There is a requirement for schools to choose from one of two or so choices in a new interactive classroom set-up,” she added. But “is that the equipment the board feels is the best use of taxpayer dollars?”

Resistance is Futile?

No matter how the pixels fall, taxpayers—that means us—are the ones footing the Very Big Bill for STAT, the Digital Ecosystem, 24/7 Learning, A Digital Conversion, or whatever this “transformation” might be called. Are we heading down a financially unsustainable path? At this point, I’d call for a state legislative audit to find out.

Among pressing FY 18 budget questions:

  • What constitutes “other instructional costs/contracted services,” which have jumped from $10.6 million in FY 14 to $53.6 million in the proposed budget? (p. 80) That’s a 500 percent increase. (See postscript below.)
  • Which vendors are getting paid an “increase of $6.2 million in one-time expenditures” for “new BCPS curriculum materials.” (p. 69). About $7 million is also listed in the budget of the Chief Academic Officer, who selects curricula for “instructional textbooks & supplies.” (p. 223).

These and other queries were posed to BCPS officials last week, with no answers by the time of this post. Baltimore County Councilwoman Vicki Almond’s office has forwarded the questions to county auditors who will review the school budget.

Some responses, and the updated “STAT budget,” can be found in this board Work Session document released 1/24, and in postscripts below.

Yet we still have no tally on superintendent and staff travel expenses for dozens and dozens of conferences to promote STAT. Consider this Jan. 24-27 Future of Education Technology Conference in Orlando, FL, where at least four BCPS staffers, including Ryan Imbriale, executive director of Innovative Learning—and his wife, Jeanne, director of Enterprise Applications—are presenting to school leaders, with such themes as: “Learn the value of utilizing a digital ecosystem in your district.”

In the end, this all seems the tip of the proverbial iceberg (oddly enough, school administrators compare BCPS to the Titanic (see this video, 9 min. 35 sec), apparently since a large school system is hard to turn. Maybe they don’t know what affect that analogy has on concerned parents).

The mid-2016 BCPS STAT Biannual Conversions Update (a story for another day) offers clues to other future costs. Just consider STAT’s projected “Eight Conversions: Curriculum. Instruction. Assessment. Organizational Development. Infrastructure. Policy. Budget. Communications.” Among the policies “revised to align with STAT:” the much-troubled new Grading and Reporting Policy 5210.

Are we converted yet?

Alarms are sounding—at least in my ears. That document, handed to board members, notes: “As we conclude year three, the eight conversions are progressing toward the goal of systemic institutionalization by the year 2018.”

And I’ll say that one more time: Systemic Institutionalization.

Joanne C. Simpson is a former staff writer for The Miami Herald, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, and Johns Hopkins Magazine, as well as a BCPS parent, college educator, and freelance writer based in Baltimore. She can be reached at jcscribe@yahoo.com

Postscript:  2/7/17 — The BCPS Board of Education Votes on the FY 18 Budget

In keeping with getting things on the record, for posterity perhaps, here are a few answers on cost-related questions—and other areas yet to explore. BTW: If one wonders how deep this “digital conversion” goes, consider this tidbit:

BCPS’ 161 school library media specialists are now categorized as “digital learning teachers.”

Probably the most alarming issue in the FY 18 budget: the district is set to spend more than $6 million next year for software license fees not previously discussed publicly, plus millions in other license or site fees not yet determined. That’s apparently on top of $57 million STAT will cost our schools every year. And, if such fees exist for just half of the 6-year-digital conversion plan, STAT’s overall price tag is indeed closer to $300 million. Just for the first several years.

So, STAT costs are not lower, as the updated “STAT budget” indicates, but higher. Perhaps way higher.

In fact, some items briefly listed in the digital conversion plan also show up big in additional costs tucked elsewhere in the FY 18 budget or approved contracts: “client software,” “license fees,” “staff,” and “network infrastructure upgrades.” Logic would indicate: If they’re STAT/digital costs in the plan, then they’re STAT/digital costs period. (See the op-ed for details and related costs).

Overall, an audit—both financial and thematic—seems in order. And that would be something to keep in mind for any district with a digital initiative. Because, even after rounds of questions, the amount of money being spent by BCPS, even on specific digital curricula, is mind-numbingly unclear. And we have to wonder why.

For example, expenditures for Discovery Education and Curriculum Associates/iReady next year are listed at different dollar figures in budget materials. (Discovery Education is $196,000 in administration responses, and $536,000 for Discovery Ed’s contracted “techbooks.” For iReady, $223,500 is noted in the budget executive summary, then later it’s $720,000. What’s going on?)

On a more global level, board members recently asked why STAT is crowding out other school needs:

Question: Why did BCPS fund STAT over competing priorities? Hundreds of millions spent on STAT so far while funding for instruction flat. STAT crowding out poverty programs, driver pay increases and critical capital projects to improve student environment.

Answer, sort of: “S.T.A.T. aligns with the BCPS Strategic Plan, Blueprint 2.0, which was approved by the Board. The initiative was evaluated by the Board and funded along with other critical educational priorities.” BCPS noted cost-of-living and other pay increases for drivers and said capital funding is separate. [Though there’s apparently been some crossover with AC funding and other spending, an issue that also needs to be explored].

Overall, everyone needs to question exactly how money is being spent on STAT and similar digital initiatives in other school districts. Because every dollar spent (overspent? misspent?) on the digital initiative and related is a dollar not spent on other school needs. 

Despite BCPS’ particularly single-minded focus on STAT’s “significant investment,” our board and elected leaders must provide oversight to better meet the needs of our children, such as students facing poverty, too hungry at school to learn, among other challenging issues. A device won’t fix such things. And a pricey-yet-glitchy $1,400 laptop-per-student can’t be equity if the ongoing use of such devices is not even good nor developmentally appropriate for learners as young as seven years old.

Adjustments can be made and advanced tech options still offered. One board member asked why our school system doesn’t follow 3:1 ratios—or a device for every three children—in elementary schools, as Maryland’s education technology plan stipulates. The cost savings would be $13.6 million annually, according to the district, but does not match STAT instructional plans. (Yet other digital-minded school systems focus on providing access to tech, not one-device-per child in lower grades, because of developmental appropriateness and fiscal responsibility concerns. And $13.5 million a year would equal the yearly salaries of more than 220 teachers).

And lastly, from the op-ed, the question about that 500 percent jump under “other instructional costs/contracted services?’ (from $10.6 million in FY 14 to $53.6 million for next year alone.)

The answer: “As articulated in the 6-year Instructional Digital Conversion Plan, this increase is consistent with the roll-out of devices in alignment to the S.T.A.T. strategic plan and instructional software license fees.”

Follow-up question:  “Who are the vendors paid under “other instructional costs/contracted services?” What exactly are these services? What is the list of vendors/providers?”

Answer: “Daly is the primary vendor for 1:1 devices and related services and support. In addition, the largest vendors related to software license fees are Northwest Evaluations, Engrade Inc., Discovery Education, Curriculum Associates, Dreambox, Learnings, [Dreambox Learning] and Creative Enterprise Solutions, which provide services for curriculum, instruction, and assessments.”

Since the “STAT budget plan” lists $41.2 million for device leasing and related in FY 18, what are the remaining costs within the $53.6 million? (UPDATED) “Ongoing software license fees: $4.9 million,” according to recently posted 2/7/17 BCPS responses  to board member questions, an amount not discussed publicly. Hmmm, yet there’s another $1.2 million in software license fees also cited (see below). So what is the grand total amount BCPS is paying each year just in such digital-related license fees—i.e. “forever costs?” (And, btw, is this how they are tucking conference travel costs into various budget line items?)

QUESTION: Which vendors and/or costs and services, etc. fall under: “Other Instructional Costs: $1,289,663”? Are these numbers singularly cited here only in the budget, or elsewhere?

ANSWER: $1,259,283 will be used for software license fees for programs such as Destiny resource manager, Library Manager, State Standards, Softchalk, Blackboard Web conferencing, and WebPath Express. The remaining funds will be used for equipment, travel and conference fees, professional dues, and miscellaneous contract services for the office of Digital Learning.

When asked by a board member in late January: “Is the S.T.A.T. program financially sustainable in the long-run, or are we setting our school system up for a fiscal disaster down the road that different leadership will have to deal with?”

The administration’s assurance: “Yes, the program is sustainable.”

How can that be known? A year ago, the question was asked: What are the true costs of STAT? We know more than we did then, when costs were publicized as $200 million total (the local media still digs no deeper on costs for the experimental program, even when basic BCPS documents themselves cite higher numbers).

Overall, the lack of clarity and transparency in the latest BCPS budget—and in the end how our schools are funded and our children’s needs met—is just one more indicator that few in power want to admit how costly this digital conversion really is.

Postscript:  2/23/17 — Another Note on Why the Money Matters, and ScholarChip Woes

As shown in this op-ed, every dollar spent on STAT or troubled BCPS pilots–nearly $4 million on ScholarChip student IDs, and counting–is a dollar not spent on the many needs that deeply concern parents:

For example: What could that $13.6 million annually fund if elementary students simply had one device for every three children, the 3:1 ratio recommended by the Maryland State education technology plan and oft-applied in districts elsewhere?

Here is a personal op-ed from a BCPS school board member on the opportunity costs of STAT, and related:

http://towsonflyer.com/2017/02/13/opinion-no-proof-that-bcps-expensive-stat-program-helps-students/

And here’s the latest Fall bi-annual conversions report, which notes a planned “picture-based attendance” system for students. And with another bit of the Orwellian here: “Good News Ambassadors in each Lighthouse school are documenting S.T.A.T. through the collection of digital artifacts to share via social media and the Lighthouse Web site.”

What about the not-so-good news? A few more specifics on unmet needs that frustrate parents and educators, as noted very frequently on Facebook and other social media:

  • BCPS should pay highly certified teachers and not rely on long-term substitutes;
  • ensure sufficient staffing for small class sizes and efficient bus routes;
  • allow more school discretionary funds for updated classroom books and physical supplies;
  • hire actual teachers for the math Head & Shoulders and other advanced programs;
  • set aside money to meet nutritional needs (free breakfasts would go a long way for those who arrive at school hungry and struggle to concentrate);
  • provide pupil personnel workers to help serve the many students facing poverty;
  • ensure the essential environmental basics of proper heat and AC;
  • pay drivers a competitive wage and keep retread tires off children’s school buses… the list goes on.

Parents out there: compare such priorities to the quality of the software programs our children encounter, Middlebury or iReady, and others that will cost us tens of millions of dollars in the next several years.

Not Yet Exposed — Another detail that reveals just how out-of-whack things seem to be lately:

BCPS has a $1.1 million contract just to pay for laptop cases— another lucrative bonus deal for Hewlett-Packard, provider of the $1,400 HP Revolve 810 G2 laptop/tablets.

Check out the contract below, as well as budget docs that reveal that this $1.1 million was supposed to be spread out until 2021, yet nearly all that money will have flown out the window in just THREE YEARS — at $951,174 by 2018-19, budget documents show. How many children have even seen these million-dollar cases?

A million bucks is also still a million bucks. Again, an outside expert audit of STAT is necessary to find wasteful spending that could instead personally educate, cool, transport, tutor, feed and keep safe our children.

https://www.bcps.org/apps/bcpscontracts/contractFiles/MWE-840-15%20Board%20Exhibit%20Final.pdf

And, lastly, here’s a little tidbit on ScholarChip, the IDs students no longer wear and the kiosks that have been mostly sent back.

From recent BCPS administration responses to board members’ questions:

QUESTION: “The student lanyard ID program, whose vendor, ScholarChip Card LLC, was paid at least $3.7 million by mid-2016, according to sources. The original spending authority for these ID cards was $10 million. Explain the current status of ScholarChip? What has happened in terms of usage, software integration, kiosk issues, and later payments? Are payments still being made currently to this vendor, and why?”

ANSWER: “BCPS has purchased all equipment and implemented the One-card system ($2.4M in FY 2014 and $1.6M in FY 2016). BCPS chose not to pursue the attendance module for students.” The annual costs to be paid to ScholarChip for a “data center license” (more license fees!) and “hardware maintenance” (for what exactly?)

$212,000 a year.

Every year. Ongoing until 2024. Should we consider any of that money–our money, taxpayer money–well spent on pieces of plastic, hung on strings?

— JCS

——

Also, a version of this op-ed on STAT costs was featured on the national education blog Nancy Bailey’s Education Website: Revive, Rally and Recover Public Schools

*Discovery Education:

http://www.boarddocs.com/mabe/bcps/Board.nsf/files/ADRH6P463371/$file/092716%20RGA-127-14%20Modification%20and%20Extension%20-%20Faculty%20Professional%20Development%20Streaming%20Content%20and%20Related%20Services.pdf

Middlebury Interactive Languages (MIL):

http://www.boarddocs.com/mabe/bcps/Board.nsf/files/A9TSUL6984F7/$file/052416%20MWE-813-14%20Modification%20World%20Languages%20Elementary%20Second%20Language.pdf

Dreambox Learning:

http://www.boarddocs.com/mabe/bcps/Board.nsf/files/AANHDY47D60B/$file/061416%20JNI-778-14%20Modification%20and%20Extension%20-%20Mathematics%20Supplemental%20Resources.pdf

Curriculum Associates/iReady:

https://www.bcps.org/apps/bcpscontracts/contractFiles/071216%20JMI-618-14%20Modification%20-%20Teaching%20Resource%20for%20English%20Language%20Arts.pdf

Code to the Future:

http://www.boarddocs.com/mabe/bcps/Board.nsf/files/AAHPAZ6197B4/$file/061416%20MBU-525-16%20Computer%20Science%20Immersion.pdf

APEX Learning:

http://www.boarddocs.com/mabe/bcps/Board.nsf/files/AGDVC970F7A1/$file/122016%20RGA-128-12%20Modification%20and%20Extension%20Online%20Student%20Courses.pdf

ScholarChip:

http://10ba4283a7fbcc3461c6-31fb5188b09660555a4c2fcc1bea63d9.r13.cf1.rackcdn.com/03/d6869a0dc672eaa5d41cd8231c707cda.pdf?id=231361

Daly Computers/Hewlett-Packard reseller:

https://www.bcps.org/apps/bcpscontracts/contractFiles/MWE-807-14_Board_Exhibit_03-11-14.pdf

The Best Laid Plans; More on BCPS Grading Policy 5210

It is rumored that while plowing in the fields back in 1785, poet Robert Burns inadvertently destroyed a mouse nest which inspired his poem “To a Mouse.” This poem, known for “best laid plans of mice and men,” a phrase widely used to describe the inevitability of things not turning out quite as planned, is perhaps more recognizable by the truncated: “best laid plans…”.

There are plans that “go as planned,” plans that don’t, plans that are unexpected and last minute, and sometimes plans you wish you could cancel. Sometimes plans are too grand to accomplish by oneself and very often plans are not planned by oneself.

And that is precisely the question for Baltimore County Public Schools regarding the grading policy change: exactly whose plans are these?

After two December 2016 BCPS grading policy meetings, some new information has come to light regarding the actual order of events, which exposes more clearly how the grading policy plans came to be in BCPS.

The facts:

First, Grading Policy 5210 was drafted by BCPS staff and was approved by the former Board of Education in June 2015, with its implementation delayed until July 2016.  Currently, only five members remain from that board that voted: Ed Gilliss, David Uhlfelder, Chuck McDaniels, Romaine Williams, and Marisol Johnson.  Those five members were present to approve those grading policy plans and proposed changes, which means that seven of the current board members were not.

Next, it is important to note that the Grading Policy Superintendent Rule 5210, which was also drafted by staff and revised on June 9, 2015, effective June 1, 2016, included some different language than the policy, itself.  Each BCPS policy is accompanied by a corresponding Superintendent Rule which is expected to align with the approved policy. It is also important to understand that the board votes on BCPS policies, but does not have the power to vote on its respective Superintendent Rule. This gives the Superintendent the power to implement what the rule states, irrespective of what the policy states.

The difference between the grading policy and rule can be seen by comparing the two: Policy 5210 and Rule 5210. The variance between the two includes the language: “Permissible grade symbols, scales, and procedures used for grades and grade reporting are set forth in the BCPS Grading and Reporting Procedures.”

This is important to note. The Grading and Reporting Procedures Manual, which includes the procedures mentioned in the wording of the change to Rule 5210, further served to remove – yet by another degree — board oversight and input into the actual grading policy, as it continued to evolve through the rewriting by staff.  The board did not vote for that change; it was never part of the policy. Additionally, board approval of this manual is not required and was not sought, despite the changes and the inclusion of the names of all board members on the actual document.

Lastly, what started as a plan, grew into a two-page policy, evolved into a six-page Superintendent Rule, and ultimately materialized into a more detailed 50-page document that was first presented to all principals and other school administrators on June 21, 2016 at their Professional Development meeting.  Teachers and other 10-month employees were gone for the summer when scant professional development was offered, and returned the week of August 17, 2016 during which a 45-minute multi-subject meeting occurred. School commenced on August 24, 2016, which gave teachers one week to read, comprehend, and plan the implementation of BCPS’s new Grading Policy and 50-page manual.

After the extremely rocky and disorienting rollout of this new grading policy, TABCO president Abby Beytin and Bill Lawrence of CASE complained to the board and Dr. Dance about the lack of time teachers and administrators had to comprehend the manual, plan for it and implement it a week after receiving it. This frustration was echoed by the current student board member and by way of parent complaints at meetings, through emails and petitions, as well as coverage in newspaper articles written by neighboring private school leadership, parents and other professionals.

As the grading policy change is occurring across the country, there are additional questions about how the 50-60 member taskforce – called the District Grading Committee – was directed to arrive at such a strangely similar plan to that of other school systems. Strange also is how in sync BCPS seems to be with the grading policy changes written about by organizations such as Competency Works, the brainchild of The International Association of K-12 Online Learning or iNACOL.

Whether planned from within the school system, or a plan inspired from outside of it, this plan has not been the collaborative effort it has been made to seem.

It may have been laid out – and it certainly has plowed through – but its impetus and implementation are questionable. With BCPS vendors and ed-tech organizations ramping up to digitalize students’ curriculum here for STAT, BCPS parents would be wise to inquire about all future plans BCPS leadership has for our school system.

NOTE:

Be aware that although BCPS staff has worked hard to address grading policy concerns, unacceptable issues are still plaguing students.

Parents say that in elementary schools, End-of-Unit assessments, which teachers are pressed to pull together and sometimes put online, can end up being 30% of a student’s grade, or basically Finals for 5th graders, who barely even have time to study.

Some of the online tests are considered “secure,” presumably because they’re going to be used over and over online in subsequent years, and cannot even be seen by parents or students, unlike paper tests which parents signed off on. So there’s no opportunity for students to do actual ‘error analysis’ and learn from their mistakes. If a parent wants to see a test, they need to make a conference with the teacher, cutting into everyone’s time. So these online tests are basically useless to students and parents — it’s all about data collection by schools.  And kids are failing them left and right.

Perhaps even more alarming, a point value on an assignment might double or triple in the BCPS One grade book, as teachers are pressured to hit a new balance of points (outlined in the grading policy addendum) between assignments and quizzes/tests, with assignments being worth more. That is a welcome change. But when an essay worth 25 points is entered as 40 points, and then that grade value is doubled to 80 points after the fact (because the ratios weren’t matching up) that could spell unexpected disaster. That one assignment, if there’s a less-than-stellar outcome, might tank an entire quarter grade–because now it’s suddenly worth 40% of the quarter. Teachers are trying to do their best in what BCPS administrators call a “transition phase,” but this chaos is unfairly lowering grades, deeply affecting students’ “career-and-college-ready” goals, and causing reams of stress for everyone.