Student and Teacher Comments about STAT, Priorities, and the Culture at BCPS

STUDENT COMMENTS

From a BCPS student, Hannah Milan

Elementary school tech backsteps

Miniature zombies drool over screens, headphones blocking out everything but their virtual world. This isn’t some horror scene; it’s a first grade class at Carroll Manor Elementary, where I intern. Rather than the student-teacher contact experience I’d expected, I’ve learned to babysit technology-addicted beasts. Because of my involvement in the new tech-based classroom sweeping through the county, I’ve developed a loathing for the system.
I’d approximate that 60 percent of class time is spent on laptops installed at the start of the year. Most of this overwhelming proportion is devoted to Dreambox, a Common Core aligned mathematical adapting program which individualizes the learning experience and allows teachers to monitor their students’ progress. It resembles a game so students are “excited to learn,” but the data from my students shows they’re becoming more distracted and, as a result, taking longer to learn.
Not only does increased screen time cause an extreme lack of focus, it also inhibits social intelligence. A UCLA study found that fifth graders who went without screen time for one week were significantly better at reading human emotions than those who had regular access to screens. In elementary school, developing social learning skills is key to growing a successful student. When screen time increases, face-to-face time decreases.
On their website, BCPS argues that technology improves student growth and enhances the learning experience. I’d disagree with this nine times out of 10. Although these students are able to operate programs, they’re losing touch with their surrounding environment. This screen time seeps into their breaks as well. A quick game of “Simon Says” to regain focus turns into watching a funny video.
We’ve forfeited hard work for convenience. Instead of making progress, we’re going backwards. There’s a clear lack of focus more extreme than I’ve ever witnessed. Even writing their names on papers can take five minutes. Six-year-olds are going to have a hard time sitting still during class, but the inattention I’ve observed is alarming. In the future, these kids won’t get YouTube “brain breaks.”
They’ll have to sit in lectures quietly while professors instruct. Given the current state of education, these students won’t be able to satisfy this expectation.
If we’re to improve education, spending billions on laptops isn’t the way to do it. Money should go towards hiring teachers who can prepare and inspire students. Money should be spent on giving students hands-on, realistic experiences that prime them for the future.

And another student commentary with some comic relief:  Stephanie Rountree, Truths: A Modest Tech-posal

TEACHER COMMENTS

Here are concerns from BCPS teachers.  In bold are comments we heard more than once.

This is the most common concern among teachers: 

“It cannot get back to me, or I will get retaliation. That is the biggest issue teachers face when we speak out.  Teachers in BCPS are afraid to speak out.”

And here is an Op-Ed in the Baltimore Sun from a teacher who clearly fears retribution. The opening of the Op Ed: “I’m going to get fired. It’s not a matter of if, but when.” I used to say this to my students for laughs, but it’s not so funny anymore. Since August, three teachers at my school have been removed. While I trust my employer is legally prudent, tensions are high.”

With this in mind, there are some details changed below so nothing is identifiable.

Some facts about the perils and aftermath of going digital:

  • I used to work at a school that serviced, helped and guided disadvantaged kids, especially the ones in foster care…It was CLOSED by the superintendent in order to pay for devices. Kids whom we used to be a voice for are now voiceless and lost in the system.
  • I work at a very overcrowded Title I Elementary School in BCPS and the county “alleviates” overcrowding by installing trailers with NO bathrooms or running water. (We are up to 10 trailers). What is the allowed ratio for student to facilities? Maybe we can come up with one that is directly related to the smell oozing out of the existing bathrooms–constantly.
  • The county does NOTHING to alleviate and/or ADDRESS overcrowding issues and its effects at not only our school, but many others in disadvantaged communities, probably because parents don’t complain…They are mostly blue collar, busy, single parent, hardworking.
  • Class sizes are enormous. Teachers are overwhelmed and asked to do so much with such LITTLE time.
  • Students that have IEPs and/or need ESOL services are meeting with teachers in closets and bookrooms.
  • Our superintendent seems to spend most of his time at the “good” schools, and not enough time at the most disadvantaged ones–the ones that are overcrowded and more in need of teachers and classrooms; not devices. Some schools need a lot of help to prosper.I believe in a well-balanced approach to the integration of technology in our classrooms; as we know that technology skills are necessary and applicable. (I know, I am a technology teacher as well). Kids respond, and sometimes are definitely more engaged when they use technology. However, if the efforts of integrating technology becomes more of a priority than reducing class sizes and addressing the effects of an overcrowded school, well then, we have a BIG problem. The disconnect here is obvious, disturbing and undermines teachers’ efforts.
  • From a retired teacher: BCPS currently has a climate where “discourse” is not encouraged, unless you are a proponent of the digital transformation. No one is picking on Dr. Dance. And as one of our presidents famously once said, “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. ” Parents are just concerned about their lack of autonomy over screen time, the cost to the taxpayers, and the no-holds-barred race to implement something that no one can produce any hard data on to show its success. Many teachers support the parents but dare not say too much because criticism is not appreciated – to put it mildly. To further exacerbate the situation, BCPS has taken on a mantle of secrecy, stonewalling when stakeholders file Public Information Act requests, and declining to answer questions from its constituents. Even asking for data results from surveys taken by the students is met with a wall of silence. It is any wonder that the public is asking what the ______ is going on?”
  • “I feel bad for the teachers and for the kids who are losing instruction and valuable time for learning. Oh the money!! What a waste! I love technology but we can teach kids to share. They could have bought grade level devices and shared them. It is such a waste!!! And there’s no reason they can’t share them right now. Every kid already has their own login and their own drive to save their own work.”
  • My concern as a bcps employee and mother is the screen time, lack of communication skills outside of tech and the developmentally appropriateness of devices in elementary school aged children. I agree tech is exciting and engaging but I have a problem with it in the elementary setting. How will these devices impact not only communication skills but their brains as well??? Negative research has been released about that. Considering homeschooling myself.
  • About Dreambox: “The teachers have to keep a log on use of the program. The teachers have to question the kids when they’re not using it and document why and encourage them to get on it.”
  • “I watched the board meeting (1/12/16) … I was disappointed to hear so many BCPS employees speak so positively because it is not the perception in my school. Most of the teachers I work with are very frustrated.”
  • There are so many broken devices that students are going to have to “share” them during PARCC testing. Daily (the company contracted to fix the devices) originally promised a 48-hour repair turnaround along with a loaner. This is not happening.”
  • “In school today, a kid told us that his brother gave his password to his friend and the friend’s been playing his Dreambox. The kid whose dreambox was hacked is first grade, the kid playing it is 3rd.”
  • Grade 3: “Here’s what happened with the devices today. I taught a lesson in science and they used their paper and pencil booklets. First reading silently, then in groups and some discussion. I circulated among the groups. All went well. Next they were supposed to view a Bill Nye video on Safari Montage on their devices. It would not play for all of the students. I found an alternative on Discovery. Then I had 3 whose headphones did not work. I told them to turn off the sound and use the captions. Finally, one student shows me his device and says it will not hold a charge. I had him sit close to an outlet so he could plug the battery pack in. What was wrong with showing the video on the big screen and then using it in face-to-face instruction? (the copyright exemption) Then you could monitor who was getting it and who wasn’t…”
  • “The ALS program last year was eliminated. Most of these students were moved to the general classrooms without sufficient adult support. It has been horrendous. In general, there is not enough support in the classrooms.”
  • “The ‘devices’ that were provided to students in grades 1 through 3 did not include headsets, we were told that they couldn’t be purchased until the Board approved the Contract. This is a great disadvantage because students are distracted by nearby students as they listen to assigned text. MAP testing is occurring at this time and we just received 60 headsets – far short of the 244 we would need to provide one to each student in grades 1 – 3 who have devices. If that is not bad enough, when large numbers of students try to go online at the same time (as occurs during system wide testing that will occur in grades K – 8 this month) the server cannot handle the volume, nor does it appear that we have sufficient bandwidth. It should lso be noted that the technology configuration in schools is not adequate to provide timely access, and the boosters ro enhance access are insufficient to guarantee that one does not suddenly lose their Internet connection. We have also been told that our school server is insufficient to handle the volume of access. Teachers are upset because they had hoped to complete report cards during the snow closings. Imagine their frustration when they could not access STARS because the central server was down.”
  • “The devices have a volume control that is easy for the kids to adjust. There is no restriction as to the loudness but it is easily turned down. The headphones are whatever the kids bring in so they are all different.”
  •  “K-2 teachers were told to put students on their devices so that teachers could give DIBLES and Guided Reading Assessments to students one-on-one. These assessments take a very long time and need to be done 3 times a year so, that is a lot of screen time for these kids.”
  • “The lighthouse schools received new projectors at the beginning of the STAT initiative. They are going to be the first one replaced because they weren’t happy with how they held up. It’s such a waste of money to replace projectors that were just purchased. What they say is going to happen and what actually happens changes daily. Just like the headphones we were waiting for that we will not be getting now.”
  • It is becoming harder and harder to be a teacher. I love my job I love teaching but I no longer feel like I am doing what is best for my students.”
  • From WYPR January 13, 2015: About cost: Lisa Norrington, who has been teaching for 23 years at Patapsco High School and Center for the Arts, says the more than 50-year-old school, has no air conditioning and bathrooms that are disaster areas…She says a lot of the old schools can’t handle new technology. … “The school that I taught at, Prettyboy Elementary, is over 80 years old,” she said. “We have very few outlets, even in every classroom. That’s infrastructure. I can’t use a lot of computers and technology if I only have two outlets.”
  • About the print management: “Many schools did not get it because they found out it was not cost effective, so they stopped it. BUT… our budget was cut to help pay for it. We never got the printers.”
  • “In elementary, we have so many of the tablets dropped in school, I can’t imagine what they would be like going home.”
  • “In grades 1 and 2, they have said not more than an hour a day. There may be one teacher who has them on it more but that seems to be about the average.”
  • This photo speaks to the focus on technology, not  infrastructure12694847_10153538575479302_5293240559374303232_o

A letter about the top-down culture in BCPS and testing, specifically the SAT:

At the end of the 2015/15 academic year, several BCPS schools were told they could send representatives to a goal setting workshop. The intention of the day was for the representatives of the school to examine what was wanted and needed at the school, and create goals and plans to address the issues. Our school representatives were very excited as we have a lower income clientele with few students who go to four year colleges and universities. Our school does have many programs to teach students skills such as plumbing, electricity, car repair and even food prep and service, i.e. skills that are immediately marketable. Our principal was not there in the morning as we created possibilities for growth.

After the lunch break, the principal arrived and told us our goals and efforts had to be designed around the SAT. When we questioned the principal about this, we were told it came from the assistant superintendent, and likely, the superintendent. So all our efforts were dismissed. The “rationale” for this was that we needed to have data to prove we were making our goal.

So now our school goals had to be connected to a test used to enter a four year university which a small percentage of our students do. Additionally, more 1,000 schools (http://fairtest.org/university/optional) do not require students to submit SAT scores. As part of the teacher evaluation process, we are now required to create Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs) as a means of measuring student progress in our classes. We are told that the SLOs have to be linked to the school goals, which are related to success on the SAT. We are also required to fill out a Teacher Professional Development Plan (TPD) which states what area we will investigate and “develop.” We are now told that the TPDs are linked to the SLOs.

The reality then is that teachers are told to focus on the SAT, in setting school goals, class goals and even personal growth goals. The SAT preparation now is part of the morning announcements. English teachers are told to give practice SATs. Funds set aside for summer workshop goes to SAT preparation. BCPS now gives the test in school, free to the students with teachers administering them. Teachers who administer the test on Saturdays are paid for their time. Special Education students are “forced” to take the test. Modifications and accommodations on the child’s IEP are not honored by the College Board which is a private company. Parents and school personnel must fill out lengthy forms to request accommodations, which the College Board reviews and can reject. If a student is approved for extended time, he/she MUST use all the time meaning that the test takes more than a school day’s allocated time.

So what is behind this emphasis on the SAT? Is it to create the image of rigor? Is there some monetary reimbursement given to BCPS? There is a rumor that BCPS receives $20 for each student who takes an AP exam. Student debt has now surpassed credit card debt as the largest source of debt. Less than 50% of students who enter college complete it, many with thousands of dollars of debt and no degree. BCPS is complicit in creating this problem.

The appearance of a school or school system is now more important than authentically educating and preparing the students for career and college. Inside this paradigm, teachers now have more at stake around student test scores than the students. This has drastically and terribly changed the teacher/student relationship from mentor and coach to task master. This shift contributes to many of the ills and problems in schools including discipline and attendance.

There will be more letters…

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