STAT: Undermined by Design

Most teachers or administrators with expertise in instructional design are familiar with the curriculum framework of Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins, known as Understanding by Design (UbD). This is perhaps the most implemented “backwards design” curriculum model, used in both public and private K-12 settings. The premise is relatively simple: the designer begins with the desired educational outcomes and works backwards through a three-stage planning process towards those outcomes, employing a series of guiding “essential questions” that can help lead students beyond rote repetition and memorization to a fuller, deeper understanding and successful application of ideas and concepts (as opposed to superficial knowledge). In creating this framework, McTighe and Wiggins brought expertise from their own classroom and educational administrative experiences to bear, as well as substantial research.

The latest curriculum and instructional rationale deployed in Baltimore County Public Schools in service of their STAT initiative claims a basis in the Understanding by Design framework but in a vastly modified form; it has been combined with elements of less proven pedagogical effectiveness, including features from the work of education researchers Robert Marzano and Rick Stiggins. Both have limited experience in classroom teaching, school administration, or instructional design, though CEO Marzano presides over a vast aggregation of profitable educational enterprises and Stiggins serves as President of the Pearson-operated Assessment Training Institute.  Instructional elements have also been adopted from the “Framework for the 21st Century,” developed by the nonprofit Partnership for 21st Century Learning, which is not so much an educational organization as a lobbying arm for education/business partnerships, counting Pearson, Intel, and other educational technology companies among their clients.  You can read more about Marzano and their contract in Detroit Public Schools here.

Other STAT instructional elements are similarly derived. One piece comes from the venerable research-based Framework for Teaching, by longtime teacher and instructional designer Charlotte Danielson; yet another is borrowed from the pedagogically dubious SAMR technology integration model developed by Dr. Ruben Puentedura, who has no background in K-12 education and no research to support efficacy of his model.

In their training workshops for teachers and administrators, McTighe and Wiggins often offered a top-ten list of “How to Kill Understanding by Design,” mindful that implementers sometimes treat elements of learning frameworks as a-la-carte items or temporary fixes for deeper systemic issues, diluting the effectiveness of the model. Item number 4 on their “how to kill” list is “attempt to implement too many initiatives simultaneously (e.g., UbD, Differentiated Instruction, Curriculum Mapping, Brain-based Learning, Professional Learning Communities, etc.).” The BCPS STAT alphabet soup of model implementation does exactly that.

Item number 10 on the list is “standardize all UbD implementation. Do not permit options/alternatives/ different approaches to learning and using UbD. Disregard the interests, talents, and readiness of individuals and teams.” This strikes to the very core of the STAT initiative; while student-centered learning is a professed goal, the talent of teachers has been increasingly minimized and substituted with online content and activities.

This catch-all approach to design is, as McTighe and Wiggins suggest, a major curricular error. In addition, the UbD and the Danielson model both adhere to a constructivist viewpoint of education, in which students strive to develop (or construct) their own learning and understanding through meaningful interaction and guidance from skilled teachers. This is directly at odds with the competency-based STAT model of technology-assisted “personalized instruction,” which has its roots in behaviorist learning theory, based on the works of scientist B.F. Skinner.

Skinner, famous for his experiments in operant conditioning (the use of reinforcement to develop a desired behavior), first pushed the idea of programmed learning from machines in the 1950s.  Not much has changed in the 21st century when it comes to “personalized learning”; instead of a Skinner Box, some STAT classrooms are making use of the DreamBox, Ascend Math or TenMarks mathematics programs, which are operant systems in flashier 1:1 device packages. A student completes a preprogrammed task (a math problem), earns a reward (a few minutes of a video game, virtual coins, or an accomplishment badge), and their data is logged as evidence of progress. The student then repeats the process towards “mastery.”

Behaviorist approaches are great for ensuring the dutiful completion of tasks towards a goal; however, they often lack the depth and nuances to encourage creative and independent thinking, which makes effective transfer of learning difficult. Transfer, the ability to apply learned knowledge between different contexts, often lags in behavioral-based settings; new or novel situations (which do not elicit expected stimulus/reward) can be tricky for a learner to navigate. Constructivist models, with non-virtual hands-on approaches, create more robust learning transfer, encouraging problem solving and divergent thinking.

If the STAT initiative is truly striving to create students with “21st century skills to be globally competitive,” it should employ a more coherent curricular and instructional model that truly fosters critical and innovative thinking. As it stands, it appears to be a conditioning exercise to help create passive students for easy academic handling and dutiful workers for large corporations.

For another article on education technology and the skinner box, you can read Gary Stager’s Outside the Skinner Box , Can Education Technology Make a Course Correction?


Alfie Kohn: Four Reasons to Worry About Personalized Learning

February 2015 post from the great Alfie Kohn.

On Personal vs. Personalized Learning, Inc. (PLI):

“A suffix can change everything. When you attach -ality to sentiment, for example, you end up with what Wallace Stevens called a failure of feeling. When -ized is added to personal, again, the original idea has been not merely changed but corrupted — and even worse is something we might call Personalized Learning, Inc. (PLI), in which companies sell us digital products to monitor students while purporting to respond to the differences among them.

Personal learning entails working with each child to create projects of intellectual discovery that reflect his or her unique needs and interests. It requires the presence of a caring teacher who knows each child well.

Personalized learning entails adjusting the difficulty level of prefabricated skills-based exercises based on students’ test scores. It requires the purchase of software from one of those companies that can afford full-page ads in Education Week.”

On Technology:

“It’s all about the tech. Two overlapping groups of educators seem particularly enamored of PLI: (1) those who are awed by anything emitted by the private sector, including books about leadership whose examples are drawn from Fortune 500 companies and filled with declarations about the need to “leverage strategic cultures for transformational disruption”; and (2) those who experience excitement that borders on sexual arousal from anything involving technology – even though much of what falls under the heading “ed tech” is, to put it charitably, of scant educational value.”

“Follow the money” is apt advice in many sectors of education — for example, in language arts, where millions are made selling leveled “guided reading” systems, skills-based literacy workbooks, and the like. Simpler strategies, such as having kids choose, read, and discuss real books from the library may be more effective, but, as reading expert Dick Allington asks drily, “Who promotes a research-based practice that seems an unlikely profit center? No one.” Personalization is an even more disturbing example of this phenomenon because the word has come to be equated with technology – perhaps because it’s far more profitable for the purveyors that way and, at the same time, “It’s so much cheaper to buy a new computer than to pay a teacher’s salary year after year.”

“Certain forms of technology can be used to support progressive education, but meaningful (and truly personal) learning never requires technology. Therefore, if an idea like personalization is presented from the start as entailing software or a screen, we ought to be extremely skeptical about who really benefits.”

Traveling at the Speed of S.T.A.T.

Dr. Dance wrote a letter dated February 24, 2016 to the County Council because it sounds like the County Council members have been hearing complaints about STAT and the BCPS budget: “Many of you may have received questions from your constituents regarding Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow (S.T.A.T.).”

The link includes the full text of what Dr Dance wrote and a response by some very astute citizens who reached out to a local blogger.  Read this extremely well-written summary of the current situation.

Traveling at the Speed of S.T.A.T.

Below was posted in the comments section of this blog and is in response to the two letters in Traveling at the Speed of S.T.A.T.

“Great post!!! As far as the question of other school districts…

These 1:1 programs have proven unwieldy in many large school districts and have been abandoned because of logistics, lack of positive long-term learning outcomes, and intractable problems with student digital distraction, online “hacking,” and ergonomic fallout — computer vision syndrome and neck pain — among students. But most of all, it has been the ballooning costs.

Continue reading

Blended Learning: The great new thing or the great new hype?

With permission from Valerie Strauss and Phil McRae, we are posting a June 21, 2015 post from the Answer Sheet in the Washington Post.

If you haven’t heard the claim that blended learning is the present and future of education, you haven’t been listening. It is one of the central features of modern school reform, with proponents proclaiming that it helps personalize education, cuts costs and allows students to be more productive. Sounds great, doesn’t it? But is it? Here’s a look at the hype, the harm and the hope of blended learning, by Phil McRae is an executive staff officer with the Alberta Teachers’ Association and adjunct professor within the faculty of education at the University of Alberta, where he earned his PhD. This article was printed in the Summer 2015 edition of the ATA Magazine.

By Phil McRae

Blended learning, where students’ face-to-face education is blended with Internet resources or online courses, has been gaining considerable attention in education reform circles. It has become entangled with the ambiguous notion of personalized learning and is being positioned as the new way to individualize learning in competency-based education systems. Michael Horn, co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, and a key proponent of blended learning, claims that it is the “new model that is student-centric, highly personalized for each learner, and more productive, as it delivers dramatically better results at the same or lower cost” (Horn and Staker 2011, 13). To what extent is this a new model of learning in a digital age? How are private corporations employing old rhetoric to advance new avenues into public education? Most importantly, is blended learning becoming yet another overhyped myth on the crowded road of technology-as-education-reform panacea?


Students blending the use of technology with face-to-face instruction as a means of collaborating and extending their learning experiences is not unusual, revolutionary or foreign to the average Canadian classroom. As a concept, blended learning is now almost two decades old, having been imported into K–12 education in the late 1990s from corporate education, business training firms and the post-secondary education sector. Although the precise origin is unclear, it has been suggested that an Atlanta-based computer training business coined the term in 1999 (Friesen 2012), as it announced the release of a new generation of online courses for adults that were to be blended with live instruction.

Many blended learning practices already fit well with a vast array of hybrid face-to-face and digital experiences that students encounter in K–12 schools, including distributed learning, distance learning, or e-learning. Dr. Norm Friesen, a key academic in this area, suggests that blended learning “designates the range of possibilities presented by combining Internet and digital media with established classroom forms that require the physical co-presence of teacher and students” (Friesen 2012). As this broad definition illustrates, it would be difficult to find any use of technology in education that does not easily fit into this boundary.

Despite this fluidity of meaning, different models of blended learning have taken shape. In particular, Staker and Horn (2012) have attempted to classify blended learning environments into four models: rotation, flex, self-blend and enriched virtual. These four combinations range from those that are more connected to people and brick-and-mortar buildings (rotation, flex) to contexts in which the students are primarily self-directed through online courses or platforms that “deliver” the curriculum (self-blend and enriched virtual). In the more self-directed models, teachers or non-certificated facilitators are conditional and only scheduled for support as deemed necessary.

Although many models have been implemented over the last 20 years, there is scant evidence of the success of blended learning. Out of 46 robust research studies conducted between 1996 and 2008, only five have focused on results for students in K–12 settings (Murphy et al. 2014). As a recent article in Education Week illustrates, when looking for strong evidence of success around this strategy for K–12 students, very little “definitive evidence” or few significant results can be directly attributed to blended learning (Sparks 2015).


The current hype around blended learning models, especially in the United States, is that they bring to life personalized learning for each and every child. Personalized learning, as promoted under a new canopy of blended learning, is neither a pedagogic theory nor a coherent set of learning approaches, regardless of the proposed models. In fact, personalized learning is an idea struggling for an identity (McRae 2014, 2010). A description of personalization that’s tightly linked to technology-mediated individualization “anywhere, anytime” is premised on archaic ideas of teaching machines imagined early in the 20th century (McRae 2013).
Some blended learning rhetoric suggests that personalization is to be achieved through individualized self-paced computer programs (known as adaptive learning systems), combined with small-group instruction for students who have the most pressing academic needs. For those looking to specifically advance blended learning in times of severe economic constraints, a certificated teacher is optional.

Software companies selling their adaptive learning products boldly state that the “best personalized learning programs will give students millions of potential pathways to follow through curricula and end up with the desired result — true comprehension” (Green 2013). This is part of the myth of blended learning and is marketed using superficial math and reading software programs (adaptive learning systems) that make dubious claims of driving up scores on high-stakes tests. Corporate attempts to “standardize personalization” in this way are both ironic and absurd.

These adaptive learning systems (the new teaching machines) do not build more resilient, creative, entrepreneurial or empathetic citizens through their individualized, standardized, linear and mechanical software algorithms. On the contrary, they diminish the many opportunities for human relationships to flourish, which is a hallmark of high-quality learning environments.

One of the blended learning examples that has received perhaps the greatest attention is the “flipped classroom.” It is so named because it inverts classroom instruction during the day, so that students watch online video of lectures at home at their own pace, perhaps communicating with peers and teachers via online discussions in the evening, and spend their days doing homework in the classroom. Think of the popular media hype and mythical cure for math challenges sold to the public by the Khan Academy. There is nothing revolutionary or deeply engaging about pure lecture as a pedagogy, yet apparently adding hours of digitally distributed video each evening to a child’s life makes it so. In fact, research suggests that the use of this type of lecture recorded technology, as a primary approach to learning, can result in students falling behind in the curriculum (Gosper et al. 2008).

Many myths, when viewed up close, provide deep reflections of ourselves and society. Technologies in particular have amplified our North American desires for choice, flexibility and individualization, so it’s easy to be seduced by a vision of blended learning environments delivering only what we want, when and how we want it customized.
The marketing mantra from corporations as diverse as media conglomerates to banks is that of services at any time, in any place or at any pace. Many governments have in turn adopted this in an eagerness to reduce costs with businesslike customization and streamlined workforce productivity, all with the expectation that a flexible and blended education system will be more efficient and (cost) effective.

In the mythical space of blended learning, class sizes apparently no longer matter and new staffing patterns begin to emerge. The amount of time students spend in schools becomes irrelevant as brick-and-mortar structures fade away. However, this myth disregards the overwhelming parental desire and societal expectation that children and youth will gather together to learn in highly relational settings with knowledgeable and mindful professionals (teachers) who understand both the art and science of learning. As John F. Kennedy (1962) so eloquently stated: “The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie — deliberate, contrived, and dishonest — but the myth — persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic.”The U.S. Department of Education (2013) has clearly articulated a commitment to making blended learning come to life through nebulous ideas of competency-based systems and personalized learning.

“Transitioning away from seat time, in favor of a structure that creates flexibility, allows students to progress as they demonstrate mastery of academic content, regardless of time, place, or pace of learning. By enabling students to master skills at their own pace, competency-based learning systems help to save both time and money … make better use of technology, support new staffing patterns that utilize teacher skills and interests differently .… Each of these presents an opportunity to achieve greater efficiency and increase productivity.”

The cost efficiency and effectiveness rhetoric must be given special attention as part of the myth of blended learning in competency based systems.


Schools and classrooms across North America are being subjected to economic volatility and severe constraints by reduced public education funding. Blended learning can be positioned as the vehicle to bring in third-party education providers to wipe out the expectations of small class sizes and certificated teachers in traditional classrooms. This idea is gaining momentum through a variety of U.S. virtual and charter schools that are radically reducing the numbers of teachers and executing increased class sizes under the banner of blended learning. As Michael Horn states when asked to give expert advice on blended learning models, “budget cuts and teacher shortages are an opportunity, not a threat” (Horn et al. 2014).
As school jurisdictions across the United States turn to online learning and blended models as a way to reallocate resources, the private providers are also advocating for “eradicating rules that restrict class size and student-teacher ratios” (Horn and Staker 2011, 13). To achieve this means lifting the rules around teacher certification so that schools can replace teachers at will with para-professionals or non-certificated individual learning specialists. As Christensen and Horn (2008) suggest, “Computer-based learning on a large scale is also less expensive than the current labor intensive system and could solve the financial dilemmas facing public schools” (13).

To enable this in an education system, several policies must be enshrined by governments that would allow private schools, virtual cyber-charter schools or educational technology companies direct access to students outside of a protected public system. The first is to open up multiple pathways of learning, which are more flexible in terms of time and space, and designed around technology solutions that only the company can deliver.

The Software & Information Industry Association, the principal trade association for the software and digital content industries in America, is a clear backer of redefining and expanding the role of the teacher, and advocates that “teacher contracts and other regulatory constraints may also need to be addressed to provide the flexibility in a teacher’s role needed to make this dramatic shift in instruction” (Wolf 2010, 15).

On the surface, this flexibility sounds promising, as teachers and school leaders certainly recognize that the industrial model of command and control does not fit with our hyper-connected world. Yet the flexibility of any-time, any-place learning is manifesting itself in the United States around adaptive learning software programs or mandatory online learning courses that are being delivered by private companies. New course access legislation (as found in Wisconsin, Texas, Utah, Florida, Michigan and Minnesota) now allows anyone to teach online courses to students regardless of jurisdiction, certification or geographic location (Dwinal 2015). In other words, every course, for every student, anywhere, anytime — and now — taught by anyone. Half the teachers, but sold as twice the fun?

In the case of K12 Inc., the United States’ largest private for-profit provider of online education for grades K–12, student-teacher ratios are as high as one teacher to 275 students (Aaronson and O’Connor 2012). As a former president and CEO at McGraw-Hill Education affirmed: “With this new method and capability, all of a sudden you could see a teacher handling many more students … the productivity could double or triple” (Olster 2013).

The harsh reality, however, is that private online schooling is not about new blended learning models, flexibility or choice, it is about profit through the constant cycle of enrollment and withdrawal of students known as the “churn rate” (Gibson and Clements 2013). In contrast, our current publicly funded and publicly delivered online schools across Alberta reinforce the important role of certificated teachers as compassionate and empathetic architects of learning who work relentlessly to reduce the drop-out rates and increase student engagement in virtual learning environments.

Rocketship Education, one of the many rapidly growing charter schools out of the United States, has adopted a rotation model of blended learning known as the Rocketship Hybrid School Model for kindergarten to Grade 5 students. It combines online learning on campus with traditional classroom-based activities in order to save $500,000 per charter school per year in teacher salary costs (Danner 2010).To accomplish this, Rocketship Education has cut half its teachers, changed its scope of practice and hired low-paid adults to supervise and monitor students in computer labs. The new staffing patterns within this rotation blended learning model place the schools in a one to 100-plus student/teacher ratio, with one or two low-wage computer lab monitors. These support personnel are endowed with titles like “individual learning specialists,” “coaches” or “facilitators” (Public Broadcasting Service 2012).

Without certificated teachers present, there is a need to gather data on student performance, so the children spend a great deal of time in a computer lab with an adaptive learning program monitoring their every interaction. John Danner, former CEO of Rocketship Charter Schools and a former board member of DreamBox Learning Inc., promotes increased screen time during the day for children. He thinks that as the quality of software improves, “‘Rocketeers’ could spend as much as 50 percent of the school day with computers” (Strauss 2013). How many hours of development, in the minds and bodies of children and youth, are we willing to sacrifice for more individualized computer-human interactions under the guise of blended learning?

If blended learning through the rotation model is to be defined by reducing the number of certificated teachers in schools and placing students in computer labs to spend half of their day in front of math and reading software programs, then education in the 21st century is indeed heading down an antiquated and very dangerous path. This is not historically the way blended learning has come alive in Alberta classrooms, nor should it be our preferred future.


The growth of digital media and the Internet has led to an explosion of resources and opportunities for teachers, students and learning communities. A constant shift is occurring with different mobile apps, blogs, video podcasts, social media tools, e-learning courses, or learning management systems in schools that all promise to help teachers create and organize student work, provide (real-time) feedback or communicate more efficiently.

With the proliferation of digital tools in our lives, many K–12 students now experience learning through a blend of face-to-face and digital or online media and are able to access new ideas and resources where student attitudes and engagement towards their education can be positively supported. If blended learning is to lead to positive outcomes for students, then it must be highly relational, active and inquiry oriented (both online and offline), and commit to empowering students with digital tools.

If done right, blended learning can be used to support more equitable access to learning resources and discipline-specific expertise. It may also engage students (and teachers) in a variety of online and offline learning activities that differentiate instruction and bring greater diversity to the learning context. Improving communication between teachers, students and parents and extending relationships across boundaries and time may also be an outcome of blended learning.

It may also hold value by employing certain technologies that help teachers and students to formatively assess learning.To make this truly hopeful, school-based technology infrastructure must be robust and up-to-date, with equitable access, and the necessary resources (human and technology) must be made available to pedagogically support the blending. It is not tenable if Internet connectivity is unreliable or limited, or if there exists inequitable access to bandwidth or technology infrastructure in the school and home. Finally, if technical glitches are pervasive, or if dependable technical support is not available for students and teachers, then it is unlikely that blended learning will be a sustainable concept.


Blended learning is not a new term nor a revolutionary concept for classrooms in this second decade of the 21st century. However, the way it is being (re)interpreted could be hopeful or harmful depending on how it is implemented. It is an increasingly ambiguous and vague notion that is growing in popularity as many groups try to claim the space and establish the models, despite a lack of evidence and research. We should therefore be skeptical around the mythos of blended learning before endorsing or lauding it as the next great reform.

Blended learning has occupied a place in discourses of educational change for well over a decade, but it cannot be co-opted into a movement that displaces the human dimension of learning with an economic imperative to reduce labor costs by cutting the teaching population in half. Of particular concern in times of severe economic restraint is that high schools may become the testing ground for policymakers looking at ways to redesign by cutting certificated teachers in favor of massive online cohorts of students tutored by “facilitators” or “individual learning specialists.”

Technologies should be employed to help students become empowered citizens rather than passive consumers. Innovations are needed in education that will help to create a society where people can flourish within culturally rich, informed, democratic, digitally connected and diverse communities. We should not descend into a culture of individualism through technology where our students are fragmented by continuous partial attention.

For the vast majority of students within Alberta’s K–12 public education system, we must achieve a more nuanced balance that combines both digital technologies and the physical presence of a caring, knowledgeable and pedagogically thoughtful teacher. This is not an optional “nice to have,” but a “must have” if children and youth are to build resilience for the future. Blended learning may be (re)shaped by privatization myths, with adaptive learning systems as their voice, but in Alberta, our teachers still remain the quintessence of the human enterprise of paying it forward for our next generation. It is time for Alberta teachers to claim the space of blended learning and push back at the myths and questionable rhetoric.


Continue reading

Diane Ravitch: Baltimore County Buys the Great Technology Hoax, for Almost $300 Million

Diane Ravitch has again highlighted Baltimore County’s “Hoax”.  The comments on her blog are also worth reading.

Baltimore County Buys the Great Technology Hoax, for Almost $300 Million

I wish that all those who appreciate the wonders of technology would frankly admit its limitations. I wish they would speak out when hucksters and naifs claim that technology will close the achievement gap between rich and poor or that learning by machine is “personalized learning.” Personalized learning is what happens when humans beings interact, face to face, when a teacher who knows you is engaged in helping you learn. An interaction with a machine is impersonalized learning.

Baltimore County Public Schools system has bought the hoax: under the leadership of its superintendent, Dallas Dance, the school board has agreed to invest at least $270 million so that every student will have his or her own computer. It is a decisive move towards a fully digitized schooling, with everyone wired, including 5-year-olds. Some parents are very unhappy with this decision. They would prefer to see money invested in reducing class sizes, arts programs, and capital improvements. Some worry that the evidence for the benefits of going digital does not exist. Some argue that the program does more for big business than for children. Some think the program should be pilot-tested before it is implemented across the district. Some worry about the potential health effects of a fully digital classroom.

One parent wrote:

The real overall costs of STAT are now projected at $272.1 million for the “BCPS Proposed 6 Year Instructional Digital Conversion Plan.” That’s nearly $70 million higher than previously discussed.

And, breaking news to most: On top of that, $63 million or more would be required every year thereafter — with 92 percent (!) going to the laptop leases alone, according to officials and budget proposal documents released in early January.

Every. Year.

That means in one decade BCPS would spend at least $630 million to lease laptops, which schools would turn over every four years, amid other costs. Ten new state-of-the art schools could be funded at that price, likely with some snazzy new tech options, too. Operating vs. Capital Expenditures aside (day-to-day vs. buildings), money is money.

My own view is that it is far too soon to adopt technology as the primary vehicle for education because there is no evidence that it improves learning or that it reduces achievement gaps or that it is especially beneficial to children from low-income homes. Last fall, the OECD released a study concluding that some technology use in the classroom is good, but too much technology is not. This was the conclusion: Overall, students who use computers moderately at school tend to have somewhat better learning outcomes than students who use computers rarely. But students who use computers very frequently at school do much worse, even after accounting for social background and student demographics.

Was the Baltimore County school board aware of that study before it committed $270 million to provide a computer for every student?

We saw the disaster unfold in Los Angeles when former Superintendent John Deasy decided that every student and staff member in the LAUSD should have an iPad; worse, he sold this idea as a matter of “civil rights.” Frankly, it cheapens the meaning of civil rights (the right to vote, the right to be treated the same as others, the right to equality of educational opportunity, the right to serve on a jury, etc.) when “the right to an iPad” is called a “civil right.” It would make more sense to talk about the right to a job with a decent living wage, the right to good housing, the right to medical care, and the right to sound nutrition, than to turn the ownership of an iPad into a “civil right.” As we know, the $1 billion-plus transaction turned into a fiasco when questions were raised about favoritism shown to Apple and Pearson, and the whole deal was canceled.

Many of us still remember the story in the New York Times in 2011 about the Waldorf School in Silicon Valley that has no computers; its students include the children of high-tech executives who believe their children will have plenty of time for technology in the future. Instead of working online, they are learning through physical activity, creative play, hands-on projects, and reading. While other schools in the region brag about their wired classrooms, the Waldorf school embraces a simple, retro look — blackboards with colorful chalk, bookshelves with encyclopedias, wooden desks filled with workbooks and No. 2 pencils.

The Baltimore County school board not only approved STAT but renewed Superintendent Dance’s contract, which will run until 2020. When he was first hired as superintendent in 2012 (at the age of 30), he needed a waiver, because he had only two years of teaching experience and state law requires three years of teaching experience for superintendents. He also ran into trouble when he became involved with SUPES Academy, the same company that had hired disgraced Chicago CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett. A local reporter wrote: Dance was heavily criticized — and admonished by the school board — for accepting a position in the company in August 2013 without informing the board. The board had approved a three-year $875,000 contract with SUPES to train personnel in December 2012. Dance ended up resigning the SUPES position in 2013.

Maine blogger Emily Talmage recently criticized Superintendent Dance. She wrote:

Meanwhile, as the corporate-driven personalized, digital learning craze sweeps the country, Dance has jumped in headfirst and is bringing his district along with him.

As a keynote speaker at the 2015 International Association for K-12 Online Learning, Dance called himself a “pioneer.”

He also said that teachers were “talking too much,” and that students should be assessed at any time.

“In order to personalize learning for young people, we should be able to assess students at any moment to figure out what level they’re on, what standards they’ve mastered, so they can move along the continuum,” he said….

“This is taking place in a school district that is in desperate need of improvements to infrastructure, transportation, class size reduction, and social programs, issues that have been financially pushed to the side in favor of STAT,” a teacher wrote.

“Personalized learning is being presented to constituents as the solution to close the equity gap in education,” said the Baltimore teacher, “[but] no input has been garnered from parents, and the expectation is that teachers will fully embrace the program without question.”

It would be nice if a school board asked for evidence of effectiveness before blowing away nearly $300 million on the fad of the moment. Technology will change rapidly, and BCPS will be left with obsolete machines unless they make an annual commitment to buy or lease new equipment. This is money that will not be spent on teachers, programs, and maintenance of buildings.”

Secrecy in BCPS – Why Can’t Stakeholders Get Information?

BCPS is slow to release information to the public. Last month, Ann Miller, a member of the BCPS Board of Education, filed a Freedom of Information Act because BCPS would not answer some of her questions. See the article in The Baltimore Sun:

Recently, a parent filed a request for the results of the Speak Up Survey. The Speak Up Survey is given to students, teachers, and parents. Students take the survey during class time and teachers are strongly encouraged to take it – often during faculty meetings. Speak Up is a “national leading education non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that today’s students are well prepared to be tomorrow’s innovators, leaders, and engaged citizens of the world” . Speak Up falls under the umbrella of Project Tomorrow. See their website:

Directions are on the website for stakeholders to view the results. You would think that since BCPS touts the survey it would be easy for parents and teaches to access. However, when you follow the steps you eventually come to a brick wall. You must contact the primary admin on record. In the case of BCPS, the admin will inform you that you must file a Maryland Public Information Act with the BCPS Law Office. And the waiting begins….and all correspondence is only via U.S. Post – which further slows things down. The parent who filed the request has been waiting since December…

So maybe every parent who reads this should file a request? That might keep a few people busy in BCPS…How else do we find out what the data says? Main question: why are they being so secretive???

End Game: Hyper-efficient, Digitally-based, Workforce-aligned Public Schools

This well-researched (and disturbing) post from Maine blogger Emily Talmage is a must-read.  Wake up, citizens of Baltimore County!  It’s happening here and it’s STAT.  Take the time to read the linked June 2014 Washington Post story at the beginning of Emily’s post.

“The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation didn’t just bankroll the development of what became known as the Common Core State Standards. With more than $200 million, the foundation also built political support across the country, persuading state governments to make systemic and costly changes.”

“Gates has said that one of the benefits of common standards would be to open the classroom to digital learning, making it easier for software developers — including Microsoft — to develop new products for the country’s 15,000 school districts.”

“In February, Microsoft announced that it was joining Pearson, the world’s largest educational publisher, to load Pearson’s Common Core classroom materials on Microsoft’s tablet, the Surface. That product allows Microsoft to compete for school district spending with Apple, whose iPad is the dominant tablet in classrooms.”

In January, Fortune published this article:  Everybody hates Pearson.

Pearson is the lead contractor producing PARCC tests (Partnership for Readiness for College and Careers) aligned with Common Core.

And Pearson is a sponsor of the Education Foundation of Baltimore County Public Schools.

Oh, the tangled web.

If you can stand it, here’s another great article on the corporate hijacking of public education written by a social worker in the D.C. public school system.

Parents Do Their Homework: An Engineer and a Professor on STAT

A Parent and Engineer Speaks:

I’m a parent of a BCPS student. I’m an engineer and I also mentor a middle school robotics team, so I’m not averse to kids using computers or learning as much as they can about science and technology. In fact, when I first heard that our students would soon be getting a laptop to use in school, I thought it sounded like a great idea, especially considering how heavy my son’s backpack was beginning to get. At first glance, the STAT program looked like a good idea. But as I took a closer look, I have grown increasingly concerned that we in BCPS are not so much the recipients of some grand proven technology but instead we are being used as guinea pigs for the digital education industry.

When Dr. Dance announced the launch of the STAT program in the Spring of 2013, I wanted to learn as much as I could about the educational technology they planned to use and this new way of teaching they call “student-centered learning”. I wanted to make sure that I could assist not only my own child with his classwork but also help his robotics team utilize this new educational approach as much as possible. I was naturally curious about the body of basic research that led Dr. Dance to make such a bold, not to mention pricey, decision. Whenever faced with an unknown, it’s my practice to look at the fundamentals of something and try to work my way up.

To my dismay, however, I found very little research that actually covered this new approach. On the internet I could easily find hundreds of articles discussing how promising this kind of approach might be but I could find no solid positive examples that really satisfied me. While there were lots of opinions about how awesome something like STAT might be, I could find nothing that linked increased test scores with this kind of system-wide laptop-centered learning.

My concerns were heightened when I read the following article in Education Week:
“While there is much on-going research on new technologies and their effects on teaching and learning, there is little rigorous, large-scale data that makes for solid research, education experts say. The vast majority of the studies available are funded by the very companies and institutions that have created and promoted the technology, raising questions of the research’s validity and objectivity. In addition, the kinds of studies that produce meaningful data often take several years to complete—a timeline that lags far behind the fast pace of emerging and evolving technologies.”

Also, in the same Education Week article: “For example, it is difficult to pinpoint empirical data to support the case for mobile learning in schools—a trend that educators have been exploring for several years now—let alone data to support even newer technologies such as tablet computers like the iPad. The studies that do look at the effects of mobile technologies on learning are often based on small samples of students involved in short-term pilots, not the kind of large-scale, ongoing samples of students that educators and policymakers would like to see.”

Instead of success stories, I found examples of district-wide failures. For example, there is the Education Achievement Authority (EAA) in Detroit, a situation that became so bad for students that the Michigan ACLU stepped in to investigate. report/Content?oid=2249513

Also: resign

And in Los Angeles, there was the 1.3 billion dollar iPad fiasco:

Then I came across the National Education Technology Plan 2010 (NETP 2010), issued by the Department of Education in November 2010. This report seemed to be a call to the nation for exactly the kind of technology that the STAT program is promised to be.

From page 78 of the NETP 2010, we read: “What we do not have is an integrated system that can perform all these functions dynamically while optimizing engagement and learning for all learners. Such an integrated system is essential for implementing the individualized, differentiated, and personalized learning called for in this plan.”

From page 80:”…we have yet to see highly effective systems that can be brought to scale. ”

The NETP2010 report implies that at the start of 2011, experts in the Department of Education were aware that there was no viable technology capable of doing exactly what the STAT program now claims to be capable of achieving. And yet it was hardly 2 years before Dr. Dance announced the STAT program. If such a program didn’t exist in 2011, how could Dr. Dance have derived the conviction needed to aggressively drive such an experimental program into our school system?

Perhaps the NETP 2010 provided Dr. Dance with all the grit necessary to plow forward as it calls for a radical, high-risk/high-return approach to educational experimentation involving rapid cycles of trial and error. From NETP 2010 pages 76-77: “… recruit and bring together the best minds and organizations to collaborate on high-risk/high-gain education R&D projects. It should aim for radical, orders-of-magnitude improvements by envisioning the impact of innovations and then working backward to identify the fundamental breakthroughs required to make them possible…..Through the funding of rapid and iterative cycles of design and trial implementation in educational settings, the national center can demonstrate the feasibility and early-stage potential of innovative tools, content, and pedagogies that leverage knowledge, information, and technology advances at the cutting edge.”

In his Transition report of 2012 November, Dr. Dance made no mention of STAT. In fact words such as “digital” or “computer” or “laptop” show up nowhere in his entry plan.

And yet STAT was announced in the Spring of 2013. The White House named Dr. Dance a Connected Educator Champion of Change soon afterwards, in 2013. Do Dr. Dance’s connections with the White House have anything to do with imposing STAT upon our county? How could the STAT program burst onto the Dance floor fully formed in such little time?

The NETP 2010 plan calls for swift action. From page ix: “The National Education Technology Plan 2010 (NETP) calls for revolutionary transformation rather than evolutionary tinkering.”

Even the name of STAT seems to have derived its inspiration from the NETP 2010 report.  From page xv: “The Time To Act Is Now. The NETP accepts that we do not have the luxury of time: We must act now and commit to fine-tuning and midcourse corrections as we go.”

Also, from page 3: “Above all, we must accept that we do not have the luxury of time. We must act now and commit to fine-tuning and midcourse corrections as we go. We must learn from other kinds of enterprises that have used technology to improve outcomes and increase productivity.”

So my concern is that STAT is being imposed upon our school system by outside interests, specifically the Department of Education and the many computer hardware and software companies that stand to benefit by digitally transforming education in the United States. And I worry that these outside interests are in a gold rush fever to try out their latest technologies and experimental software packages and to get them to market before anyone else. What these corporate interests require, however, is a large, diverse group of guinea pigs on which to run their countless experiments, shake out the bugs in their software, and optimize their algorithms using human test subjects. And I fear BCPS is now handing over to these corporate interests exactly what they demand: 111,000 guinea pigs otherwise known as our students.

This type of guinea pig scenario is one of the main reasons the Michigan ACLU decided to investigate the digital revolution that took place in Detroit’s EAA. The digital reformation there devolved into a situation in which “…teachers and students were, over the course of two school years, used as whetstones to hone a badly flawed product being pitched as cutting-edge technology.” report/Content?oid=2249513

We only need to look at the March 2011 Department of Education’s “Winning the Education Future: The Role of ARPA-ED” to see where such initiatives are probably coming from and where they are likely headed.

While ARPA-ED has not been formally funded, it has been repeatedly called for in the proposed federal budget and, if nothing else, its mere proposal reveals the social philosophy of the people who are operating the Department of Education.

In “Winning the Education Future,” we read the following:
From page 7:  “The education sector currently suffers from the lack of directed development. Directed development is a means to fund transformational or game-changing technology that the private sector alone cannot or will not support because of high risk, uncertain returns, or extended time horizons for completion. Federal support for public-private partnerships that are high-risk and high-return can play an important role in education, as it has in other areas.

From page 8:  “The National Education Technology Plan 2010 called for ―revolutionary change through technology and noted the power of a DARPA-style approach to research. In September of 2010, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology explicitly called for the creation of an ARPA-ED to help technology ―play a transformative role in education.” ARPA-ED is aimed at developing the following:

From page 2: “Digital tutors as effective as personal tutors. Researchers have long aspired to develop educational software that is as effective as a personal tutor, one of the grand challenges in the President’s innovation strategy. …

“Courses that improve the more students use them. Internet companies like Netflix and Amazon have devoted significant resources to develop tools that analyze consumer data to identify patterns, tailor results to users’ preferences, and provide a more individualized experience. Researchers are exploring whether similar techniques can be applied to education. …

“Educational software as compelling as the best video game …. The insights from great game designers can and should be applied to develop rich and compelling learning environments for students.”

“Digital tutors” and “Courses that improve the more students use them” are examples of adaptive learning systems, artificial intelligence software that models the student’s mind as the student interacts with the program. Software companies need lots and lots of kids to interact with these algorithms so the software will “learn” how best to teach. While I can imagine that these sort of programs might someday be made effective, I can also easily imagine it might take months or years for that software to “converge” on effective teaching methods. And during those months and years, our kids will be suffering with the countless glitches and experimental dead ends typical of software products that are being tested by start-up companies.

What’s most distressing about this scenario is that the insertion of these types of digital tutors into our school system might require outstanding teachers to stand off to the side (as “guide on the side”) and not interact with the students at all. While I’m sure many excellent teachers feel they will simply “ride out” the STAT initiative and teach students the proven way they have always taught them, the introduction of these digital tutors would require the teacher to do next to nothing as the students remain plugged in and interacting solely with the software. If teachers were to interact with the students, then the digital tutor algorithms would not be able to properly model the student’s mind and, in effect, the teacher would introduce a variable that the software would have a hard time predicting.

Students taking ownership of their learning might just be a clever way of saying that the laptops will take over their teaching. With teachers relegated to “guides on the sides” rather than “sages on the stage”, the software stands alone as the student’s single source of instruction. Therefore the algorithm is free to do its work without outside interference from teachers, parents, or even other students.

It’s possible we already see this kind of situation with a math tutoring program called Dreambox. At Vincent Farms Elementary School, for example, parents were instructed to NOT help their children with their math homework but were, instead, instructed to have the child click on the Dreambox question button. Such an instruction to parents to provide zero assistance to their child is consistent with the kind of digital tutor system called for in the ARPA-ED proposal.

See the link labeled in tiny letters “Dreambox Parent Presentation” here:

Dreambox has been around for years so I’m not saying that Dreambox is bad for kids but it is an example of the kind of technology our kids will be exposed to, and perhaps, unlike Dreambox, such software might show up in BCPS classrooms in its early infancy, to be tested on our kids.

Meanwhile we find ourselves in the middle of a student testing upheaval that makes “before” and “after” performance comparisons nearly impossible. And Dr. Dance has decided to not even look at test data until year 3 of his STAT program. “Regarding any assessment data points, our S.T.A.T. Evaluation logic model clearly states that quantitative measures like MAP and PARCC will not be used in an evaluative manner until Year 3.”

And yet, in the absence of any performance data, Dr. Dance has been willing to take his STAT program on the road and advertise it to the world as an unqualified success. Rarely a month goes by without Dr. Dance or one of his staff receiving some kind of award for digital innovation. The incoming stream of congratulations is seemingly never ending. Of course, a closer look at who is handing out the awards often exposes the fact that these “non-profits” are sponsored by corporations that will benefit from sales of educational hardware and software. It is this sort of tangled web of relationships that calls into question the validity and objectivity of all that is happening here in BCPS.

Until we have actual test data, we parents are asked to accept the observational data of an “independent” study of STAT being conducted by the Center for Research and Reform in Education (CRRE) at Johns Hopkins University. These data are highly qualitative and depend very heavily on brief classroom observations, which can be woefully subjective.

The person in charge of this “independent” evaluation of STAT just so happens to be a big fan of the ARPA-ED approach to reforming education. Dr. Robert E. Slavin is the Director for the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University

Dr. Robert E. Slavin had this to say about ARPA-ED: “ARPA-ED projects would be risky. Many would fail to come to fruition, or would be found in later evaluations to be ineffective. However, this is the nature of innovation, and if we want to find giant leaps forward, we also have to be ready for a few pratfalls, too.”

And in another article, Dr. Slavin had this to say: “Many groups might try out prototypes and many, perhaps most, might fail. But if just one or just a few programs succeeded in making the world’s most effective Algebra I course, the impact would be dramatic.” innovation_b_855260.html

Dr. Slavin, again: “In education, ARPA-ED would emulate the structure of DARPA in trying to provide rapid, flexible support for experimentation and innovation, especially applications of cutting-edge technology to enduring educational problems. Like DARPA, ARPA-ED could seek to entice non-traditional bidders to apply. These might include technology companies, entertainment companies, or others willing and able to create and take to scale exciting and innovative applications. Think of Microsoft, Apple, or Disney creating algebra programs, science programs, or beginning reading programs using new or established technologies in new ways.”

Dr. Steven M. Ross, who works at the CRRE and is the principle investigator for the STAT evaluation, while giving a presentation about STAT before the BCPS Board of Education in November of 2014, made it clear that the CRRE researchers perceive our school system to be a giant laboratory.

“We’re ecstatic to be part of it, too. We couldn’t ask for a better laboratory. A real laboratory doing very important work.”
Video time approximately = 01:34:00 892c-3e4df3038d6f

It concerns me when I hear people speak of our school system as a laboratory, and when people who are close to the independent evaluation of something like STAT see nothing unethical about running “risky” experiments on our children, experiments that might result in “pratfalls,“ whose failures are merely shrugged off as “the nature of innovation.”

Frankly, I’m uneasy about applying a DARPA-like approach to educational reforms. No doubt DARPA has cranked out some amazing technologies since it was founded in 1958, but it has also cranked out far, far more failures. There is a great deal of accepted risk associated with anything DARPA undertakes – that’s their fundamental philosophy, high risk/potentially high reward. But I don’t think it’s an acceptable philosophy to apply to our children. It’s the test pilot mentality – you salute them for their bravery while quietly questioning their sanity. But at least test pilots are aware of what they have signed up for – our county didn’t sign up for test pilot duty and neither did our kids.

Of course, some members of the BCPS board of education don’t seem bothered by the lack of objective data in evaluating STAT. BCPS school board
Chairman Uhlfelder had this to say on 3 February 2015 when decisions were being made concerning the expansion of the STAT program: “I don’t have to wait for a study. I can’t imagine the study is not going to be anything but positive.”

At time approximately = 1:36:20. 8d3c-e1e93e6a1952&utm_source=lslibrary&utm_medium=ui-thumb

At about the same time the Department of Education was pushing for ARPA-ED, they were also unveiling another program called Digital Promise. In September 2011 Education Secretary Arne Duncan unveiled this initiative. “The center will receive start-up funding from the U.S. Department of Education as well as the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and will be overseen by a board of ed-tech leaders selected based on Congressional recommendations.” gital_promi.html

Digital Promise has presented Dr. Dance with a 2014 Digital Innovation in Learning Awards (“Walk the Walk”), and the 2015 Open Door Policy Award, which “shares what’s working and what’s not with other schools”.
On their profile page of Dr. Dance, Digital Promise applauds Dance because he “Redesigned Chesapeake High School as a national leader in STEM education, using virtual simulations and gaming to increase student engagement and atten­dance.”

According to Digital Promise, “Chesapeake High School is the district’s launch point for its Learning in Virtual En­vironments (LiVE) project, and the school launched one of the nation’s first Virtual Learning Environments (VLE) ….. In lieu of textbooks and lectures, the VLE uses simulation and gaming to teach rigorous standards and allows students to actively pursue their own education. …. BCPS is looking to scale some of the successes at Chesapeake High School to 25 more high schools, including the development of a Virtual High School.”

Despite these awards, however, the historically low and declining SAT scores at Chesapeake High School perhaps paint an unflattering picture: T_031574. pdf

Unfortunately, this governmental applause for game-ifying education is not limited to just the Digital Promise organization. In its most recent National Education Technology Plan (NETP 2016), the Department of Education called for the gaming industry to help solve the nation’s education problems. In the 100 page report, the NETP2016 mentions the word “game” at least 77 times.

But where is the evidence that game-ifying education can actually help? Or is this just a ploy by the computer gaming industry to get its share of America’s 650 billion dollar education budget?

Another questionable aspect of the STAT program is its practice of so-called “personalized learning”, an educational technique that promises to move the teacher away from being “sage on the stage” to being merely the “guide on the side.” We are told this practice allows the students to “access and create content that best meets their needs.”

BCPS points to a RAND study published in November 2015 as evidence for the efficacy of “personalized learning”.
(See: the “Continued Progress” download at

First of all, this study was not published until just recently, so it could not have been part of Dance’s original decision to launch a program like STAT. More importantly, this RAND study was not performed with “regular” randomly-selected schools: it was performed with schools that were funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. And some of the schools were completely new.

From page 3 of the RAND study:  “All of the schools received funding from the Gates Foundation, either directly or through intermediary organizations, to implement personalized learning practices as part of at least one of the following three foundation-supported initiatives: Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC), Charter School Growth Fund’s Next Generation School Investments, and the Gates Foundation’s Personalized Learning Pilots.”

The “Methods and Limitations” section of the RAND report enlightens us as to why the results of this report are probably not applicable to a school system like BCPS.

From page 6:  “Despite the increased interest in personalized learning, the field lacks evidence about its effectiveness. This study is designed to address this need using the most rigorous method that can be applied to the foundation-funded set of schools.”

Also from page 6:  “In particular, given the implementation design for the portfolio of personalized learning schools in the study, it was not possible to create randomly assigned treatment and control groups; nor did we have access to data from neighboring schools that might have matched the personalized learning schools.”

And again from page 6:  “As new schools, they lack a history of data from before they began implementing personalized learning, which would have enabled other analytic methods for determining achievement effects.”

Page 14 reveals that these schools were not operated like normal schools: “Most schools had extended school days or school years, and the extra time was used primarily for additional instruction or to provide individualized support. “ Also, nowhere in the report do they discuss the possible effects of class sizes on achievement. Where is the data for class size? Oddly, these funded schools also spent more time taking their achievement tests, as noted on page 41.

There were a handful of funded district schools involved in the study, but page 13 tells us the effects of personalized learning on those district type schools were not very impressive. “Although two of the district schools produced significant positive results, this was offset by negative results in three other district schools…”

So maybe the only line in this entire RAND study that is actually relevant to BCPS is that one little fact we already read about in its “Methods and Limitations” section located on page 6: “Despite the increased interest in personalized learning, the field lacks evidence about its effectiveness.”

Maybe Dr. Steven M. Ross, the STAT evaluator from the Johns Hopkins CRRE, summarized it best when he said, “Student-centered learning is very hard to do on your own and we failed for 30 or 40 years to do that.” See the video from the 14 July 2015 BCPS Board of Education meeting, time about = 02:36:00 af77-28903c16e952&utm_source=lslibrary&utm_medium=ui-thumb

On a totally different note, I’d like to point out that student engagement, while always necessary for learning, is not a sufficient metric for evaluating educational software. By that metric alone, Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty, and Duck Dynasty would be splendid educational resources. So I think it’s clear that we need metrics deeper than just student engagement.

Also, graduation rates should not be the primary metric for evaluating the efficacy of education initiatives. As was pointed out in a recent New York Times article, “…the number of students earning high school diplomas has risen to historic peaks, yet measures of academic readiness for college or jobs are much lower.” Apparently it is easy for school districts to manipulate graduation rates so the districts appear to be making progress even when true progress is lacking. standards-have- fallen.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story– heading&module=first-column-region&region=top-news&WT .nav=top-news&_r=1

In closing, I’m sorry to say that in observing how STAT has been managed these past 18 months, my BS detector has been triggered more times than I care to count. I’m worried the STAT initiative is very similar to one of those “high- risk/high-gain education R&D projects” called for by the Department of Education’s ARPA-ED proposal. And I’m concerned that instead of being evolutionary, the STAT program will continue to be thrust upon our community by administrators and corporate interests operating out of a “radical” and “revolutionary” mindset. I’m concerned that our entire county has been toe- tagged as an easily-accessible test bed for “high risk/high gain” experimental software aimed at creating “digital tutors”, adaptive teaching systems, and game- ified educational products “as compelling as video games”. I’m afraid that our school administrators, instead of keeping our children’s best interests at heart, have instead been carried away by the circus-barkering of snakeoil salesmen from Silicon Valley and their numerous promises of digital panaceas delivered via laptop.

By itself, the mere fact that our student performance metrics are in a state of flux should be cause for pausing the expansion of the STAT program. We should pause expansion of STAT until we can properly evaluate its strengths and weaknesses with metrics that really matter. Otherwise, I’m afraid that we will not only be building the airplane while we fly it, but we will also be flying it completely blind.

Furthermore, I urge BCPS to adopt some kind of policy that prevents software companies from testing out their software on our children. Any software that is used to deliver significant amounts of instruction should have a substantial track record with clear proof of its efficacy. The STAT program should not be a pipeline between our children’s minds and the product developers who are trying to develop their software on the cheap.

We don’t want our children to suffer the same fate as those of the poor kids in

Detroit’s EAA, who, as the Michigan ACLU investigators put it, were used as “whetstones to hone a badly flawed product being pitched as cutting-edge technology.”

A Professor’s Thoughts:

Baltimore County Public Schools is “transforming the state’s third-largest school system into a fully digital learning environment through a variety of initiatives collectively known as Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow, or S.T.A.T. The initiative this [first] year included extensive teacher training, a “Lighthouse Schools” pilot that provided 1:1 digital devices for students in Grades 1-3, and the BCPS One information portal for students, parents, and educators.” (, June 2015)

Many parents and teachers who believe there is a role for technology in education have significant concerns about this initiative.

Regarding the evidence behind S.T.A.T. and its ongoing evaluation:

There is limited data available that is relevant to this type of initiative, and much of the data that is available comes from for profit companies or non-profits that are funded by corporate interests.  The leading voices in American Education do NOT support this type of initiative.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development report on Students, Computers and Learning states that it is beneficial when children spend up to ½ hour per day on a device at school, more than that is more likely to be harmful than helpful.1 You don’t need your own 1:1 device for this amount of time – you can share.  Further,  “technology is of little help in bridging the skills divide between advantaged and disadvantaged students,” so Baltimore County Public Schools may in fact be harming children instead of addressing equity by diverting attention and resources away from more effective strategies.1

With the freed up resources, you can have smaller class sizes, more support for hungry or homeless children and many other pressing needs.2   And, you actually can load individualized content for multiple children who share a device, for that ½ hour or so per day.

Baltimore County Public Schools now cites a study by Pane et al. as justification for claiming that personalized learning is beneficial.    The report by Pane et al. was published in November 2015; and 90% of the schools were charter schools.

(  (

Several of the most trusted voices in American education believe there is no trustworthy data to support an initiative like ours. 

In fact, the National Education Policy Center, based at the University of Colorado, wrote a detailed critique of the Pane study, showing that it is impossible to use this study as a valid justification for Baltimore County Public Schools’ S.T.A.T. initiative.

“Broad conclusions about the efficacy of technology-based personalized learning, however, are not warranted by the research. Limitations include a sample of treatment schools that is unrepresentative of the general population of schools, the lack of a threshold in the study for what qualified as implementing “personalized learning” in the treatment schools, and the reality that disruptive strategies such as competency-based progression, which require the largest departures from current practice, were rarely implemented in the studied schools.”

Diane Ravitch, a nationally and internationally respected educator at New York University, recently wrote:

“The Baltimore County Public Schools are embarking on a risky gamble that will put all students online. At present, there is no research base to prove the value of this expensive venture. What we can predict is two nefarious consequences: 1) the computers will be used for ”embedded assessment,” so that students are tested daily or continually without knowing it. Second, the students will be data mined continually, and their personally identifiable information will be available to third parties or subject to hacking.”

What are some of the health concerns?:

Young minds, and hearts, need far more non-screen time than most children get in the 21st century world –  educational content or otherwise.  Clearly there is a role for technology in education  – but the interpretation of available research needs to be nuanced.   Effective technology that is recommended by physicians, occupational therapists, and special education teachers etc. should be accessible for all who would benefit.  A modest use of technology in schools and for schoolwork, increasing as children grow older, is not likely to be harmful.       However, there is much we do not know about the effects of personalized learning and technology on learning and health.  Some examples from science:

  • When you take away technology from middle schoolers for a week, their ability to read social and emotional cues improves. 3
  • When you give young children electronic toys that make noise and flash lights, the grown-ups in the room actually talk to the children less than when they are given less “engaging” toys. Talking with real people less often is bad for verbal, and social development.4
  • Video games, even educational ones, change the way our brains develop and work. 5
  • This generation is not better at multi-tasking their parents – in fact, science shows that everyone must really focus on just one thing in order to do it well and learn complex concepts. In fact,  undergraduates learn complex concepts better if they take notes by hand on pen and paper, than they do if they type them on a tablet.6

Reference List:

  1. “The results also show no appreciable improvements in student achievement in reading, mathematics or science in the countries that had invested heavily in ICT (information and communication technology) for education. And perhaps the most disappointing finding of the report is that technology is of little help in bridging the skills divide between advantaged and disadvantaged students. Put simply, ensuring that every child attains a baseline level of proficiency in reading and mathematics seems to do more to create equal opportunities in a digital world than can be achieved by expanding or subsidising access to high‑tech devices and services.”

  1. “Class size is an important determinant of student outcomes, and one that can be directly determined by policy. All else being equal, increasing class sizes will harm student outcomes.

The evidence suggests that increasing class size will harm not only children’s test scores in the short run, but also their long-run human capital formation. Money saved today by increasing class sizes will result in more substantial social and educational costs in the future.

The payoff from class-size reduction is greater for low-income and minority children, while any increases in class size will likely be most harmful to these populations.

Policymakers should carefully weigh the efficacy of class-size policy against other potential uses of funds. While lower class size has a demonstrable cost, it may prove the more cost-effective policy overall.”  and

  1. UCLA scientists found that sixth-graders who went five days without even glancing at a smartphone, television or other digital screen did substantially better at reading human emotions than sixth-graders from the same school who continued to spend hours each day looking at their electronic devices.

‘Many people are looking at the benefits of digital media in education, and not many are looking at the costs,’ said Patricia Greenfield, a distinguished professor of psychology in the UCLA College and senior author of the study. ‘Decreased sensitivity to emotional cues — losing the ability to understand the emotions of other people — is one of the costs. The displacement of in-person social interaction by screen interaction seems to be reducing social skills.’”

Uhls et al. Computers in Human Behavior, Volume 39, October 2014, Pages 387–39, available at

  1. There’s simply no evidence that a young child can learn language directly from a toy. It isn’t responsive enough. It isn’t social.”

Sosa A.  JAMA Pediatr. Published online December 23, 2015. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2015.3753  available at

  1. The group examined the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans of 154 14 year old boys and girls. When they compared the brains of frequent gamers (defined as those who played video games more than 9 hours per week( to moderate gamers, they discovered that the first group showed larger volume in the left striatum, a brain area involved in risk and reward processing….. ‘This could explain a potential mechanism that makes people play more,’ says Kuhn. ‘Even when facing losses, the reward center of the brain is activated – suggesting a potential mechanism for non-substance addictions.’

Kuhn et al.  Translational Psychiatry (2011) 1, e53; doi:10.1038/tp.2011.53 , available at

  1. As technology allows people to do more tasks at the same time, the myth that we can multitask has never been stronger. But researchers say it’s still a myth — and they have the data to prove it.”

As tested on a group of undergrads, the research proved that laptop users type almost everything they hear without processing the meaning or devoting much thought to what it is they’re taking notes on. Basically, when you type, all you’re doing is mindlessly transcribing, and that does not require much cognitive activity.  When you take notes by hand, however, you obviously can’t write down every single word your professor utters. So you listen, summarize, and list only the key points. Your brain is more engaged in the process of comprehension and so the information processed this way is remembered better.”

Taking notes on laptops rather than in longhand is increasingly common. Many researchers have suggested that laptop note taking is less effective than longhand note taking for learning. Prior studies have primarily focused on students’ capacity for multitasking and distraction when using laptops. The present research suggests that even when laptops are used solely to take notes, they may still be impairing learning because their use results in shallower processing. In three studies, we found that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand. We show that whereas taking more notes can be beneficial, laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning.”

Mueller and Oppenheimer. Psychological Science June 2014 vol. 25 no. 6 1159-1168;   available at

Mid-Atlantic Conference to Observe BCPS Schools

Do you want your child observed during their school day by attendees of the Mid-Atlantic Conference on Personalized Learning (MACPL) “Connecting Innovative Educators”?

This conference is scheduled to be in Baltimore on February 29 and for $80, attendees will be able to observe Baltimore County Public students in class.  This is the description as stated on their website:

“Monday, February 29, 2016
8:30 AM – 3:00 PM
Site Visit to Innovative Schools (Optional) (Baltimore County Public Schools) 

Join us for a visit to Baltimore County Schools on Monday, February 29. Find out how Baltimore County Public Schools Strategic Framework for Transformation is creating a fundamental shift in teaching and learning. Visit two schools participating in the Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow (STAT) initiative to see how they are personalizing learning for their students. Learn from teachers, administrators, and students how this new teaching and learning environment is working in their classrooms. We’ll leave by bus from the hotel at 8:30 AM and return at approximately 3:00 PM. Space is limited. Cost is $80 and includes lunch, transportation and guide.”

Here’s the link to the whole conference and the site visit to Baltimore County Public Schools:

We wonder if they mean “optional” for parents and children to opt out of being observed by conference attendees or optional for those attendees who may or may not choose to attend?  Why are our children being used to sell STAT when there has been no evidence of efficacy over small traditional classrooms? Is it safe to have conference attendees in school buildings?  Will they be required to bring identification just as parents are required to do so on their first visit?

If anyone knows which schools will be observed in Baltimore County Public Schools, please add in the comments. And if you are a parent at a lighthouse school and you have an opinion about this, please go to the “Who do I contact” category to find contact information.  Or better yet, come speak at the Board of Education Meeting on February 16, 2016 at the Greenwood building (you must sign up before 6:30 to be selected – 10 speakers are selected):

More about the conference: 2/29/16 to 3/2/16, Baltimore Marriott Waterfront, organized by iNacol, sponsored by Pearson and MSDE

iNacol, the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, describes itself as a “nonprofit organization with the mission to catalyze the transformation of K-12 education policy and practice to advance powerful, personalized, learner-centered experiences through competency-based, blended and online learning.”  Sound familiar?

Here are two recent blogs written about iNacol by Emily Talmage, INacol’s Trojan Horse, and Morna McDermott on ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council.

Available Session in Baltimore: 

Gaining Stakeholder Buy-in for Blended Learning:  Bruce Friend, INacol Chief Operating Officer
This session will address the importance of gaining stakeholder support as you seek to build a blended (or online) learning program. Stakeholders include students, parents, teachers, school leaders. We will share effective strategies in gaining the support of these key contacts; discuss barriers to gaining support; and share examples of the consequences when stakeholder support is not achieved.
Friend is best known for founding the Florida Virtual School, the first statewide internet-based public high school in the U.S.  Friend spoke at the just-concluded Pearson CITE Conference.  His topic?  Gaining Stakeholder Buy-in for Your Online/Blended Learning Program.

The Research BCPS Cites about the STAT Initiative and DreamBox

An interesting US Department of Education resource is the

What Works Clearinghouse website (

established in the early 2000s as a repository for valid research studies on effective educational practices. The site is intended as a “resource for informed decision making” and “identifies studies that provide credible and reliable evidence of the effectiveness of a given practice, program, or policy.”

In a time when the word rigor is thrown around by school administrators and edtech companies alike, it is safe to say that the WWC’s standards for vetting research studies are indeed rigorous. There is a “fact check” section to counter the idea that “the WWC never finds evidence of positive effects” in their research reviews. They do…they just only consider research that involves “high-quality evidence” as determined by their very high standards for research design; once a research study is accepted, they find about 70% of them demonstrate some positive effect. The WWC looks at three dimensions of a study to determine validity: methodology employed, data collected, and statistics used. Many studies are deemed ‘not valid’ due to research design issues, narrow interpretations of data, or other flaws.

Their site has a feature that allows users to search their research results database by keyword. A search under the keyword “DreamBox” (software used by students in BCPS elementary schools) brings up ten of the case studies posted by DreamBox Software on their website in support of their product…all of which were rejected by the WWC because they do “not use a comparison group design or a single-case design”.  The first study listed on the BCPS STAT bibliography of research website can also be found in the WWC database; its validity was rejected because “it uses a quasi-experimental design in which the analytic intervention and comparison groups are not shown to be equivalent.”  Unfortunately, the other supporting research items on the STAT site have not been vetted by the WWC.

Overall it’s a great resource for looking at interesting research studies (it’s searchable by topics in education, including Education Technology) and checking to see which ones do not make the cut.

Also, a key study cited by the STAT FAQ as evidence that the program’s approach is “beneficial to students” has been reviewed by the National Education Policy Center, which determined that “broad conclusions about the efficacy of technology-based personalized learning, however, are not warranted by the research.”

The study, “Continued Progress: Promising Evidence on Personalized Learning,” published by the Rand Corporation and funded by the Gates Foundation, was criticized on several fronts:  “Limitations include a sample of treatment schools that is unrepresentative of the general population of schools, the lack of a threshold in the study for what qualified as implementing “personalized learning” in the treatment schools, and the reality that disruptive strategies such as competency-based progression, which require the largest departures from current practice, were rarely implemented in the studied school.”

Below are links to the BCPS annotated bibliography and STAT FAQ page:

Click to access STAT-Eval_FAQ.pdf

(Note: no research from early-childhood educators included in either link)

Below is an excerpt from a parent letter also referencing the RAND study (you can read the whole letter in Parents Do Their Homework: an Engineer and a Professor on STAT ):

BCPS points to a RAND study published in November 2015 as evidence for the efficacy of “personalized learning”. (See: the “Continued Progress” download at

First of all, this study was not published until just recently, so it could not have been part of Dance’s original decision to launch a program like STAT. More importantly, this RAND study was not performed with “regular” randomly-selected schools: it was performed with schools that were funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. And some of the schools were completely new.

From page 3 of the RAND study:

“All of the schools received funding from the Gates Foundation, either directly or through intermediary organizations, to implement personalized learning practices as part of at least one of the following three foundation-supported initiatives: Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC), Charter School Growth

Fund’s Next Generation School Investments, and the Gates Foundation’s Personalized Learning Pilots.”

The “Methods and Limitations” section of the RAND report enlightens us as to why the results of this report are probably not applicable to a school system like BCPS:
From page 6:

“Despite the increased interest in personalized learning, the field lacks evidence about its effectiveness. This study is designed to address this need using the most rigorous method that can be applied to the foundation-funded set of schools.”
Also from page 6: “In particular, given the implementation design for the portfolio of personalized learning schools in the study, it was not possible to create randomly assigned treatment and control groups; nor did we have access to data from neighboring schools that might have matched the personalized learning schools.”

And again from page 6: “As new schools, they lack a history of data from before they began implementing personalized learning, which would have enabled other analytic methods for determining achievement effects.”

Page 14 reveals that these schools were not operated like normal schools:

“Most schools had extended school days or school years, and the extra time was used primarily for additional instruction or to provide individualized support. “ Also, nowhere in the report do they discuss the possible effects of class sizes on achievement. Where is the data for class size? Oddly, these funded schools also spent more time taking their achievement tests, as noted on page 41.

There were a handful of funded district schools involved in the study, but page 13 tells us the effects of personalized learning on those district type schools were not very impressive. “Although two of the district schools produced significant positive results, this was offset by negative results in three other district schools…”

So maybe the only line in this entire RAND study that is actually relevant to BCPS is that one little fact we already read about in its “Methods and Limitations” section located on page 6: “Despite the increased interest in personalized learning, the field lacks evidence about its effectiveness.”