“I think that there is nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay, to life itself, than this incessant business.”
–H. D. Thoreau, from “Life Without Principle”
Thoreau wrote this essay, originally entitled “What Shall it Profit?,” over 150 years ago, but his thoughts about the purposes of work versus the purposes of business still resonate today. One of his main points was how money and fame can distract the individual from the actual work at hand that needs to be done, and he warned against those leaders who might believe that “progress and civilization” depend upon the march of “our boasted commerce.”
For a modern analogue, consider the recent and rapid push by educational technology companies and Silicon Valley millionaires into public schools. According to Forbes Magazine, venture funding for educational technology firms surpassed 1.87 billion in 2014, and it is likely well over 2 billion dollars today. Venture capitalists such as Netflix-powered Reed Hastings and provocateur Tom Vander Ark of Learn Capital (and Getting Smart consulting) are in on the game, which to them promises a quick rush of cash that could be earned from an untapped market—public schools. The increase of business buzzwords, lobbying, bending of education policy, slick advertising, and snake-oil salesmanship of technology that has followed has completely eclipsed the original purpose of the enterprise—to meet the educational, physical, and emotional needs of children.
It may then not be surprising that Baltimore County Public Schools is in the midst of a $300 million plus technology-based initiative, Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow (STAT), with the laudable goal of creating more student-centered classrooms through a dubious focus on a 1:1 laptop program, spanning grades kindergarten to twelve. The academic rationale for the STAT program, presented before the Board of Education in November 2014, was prepared by Gus Schmedlen, who is not an educational expert but a salesman and Vice President for Hewlett-Packard, the manufacturer of the laptops contracted for STAT. While not a teacher, administrator, or curriculum expert, Schmedlen’s background does include the management of $8 billion of business for Lenovo, another technology company. Consideration of the longstanding educational theories of Maslow, Piaget, or even Gardner were absent from the academic rationale, as were any of the more modern concerns about child development and technology use.
Two of the key architects of the STAT initiative are BCPS system superintendent S. Dallas Dance and his Director of Innovative Learning, Ryan Imbriale. Since the inception of the STAT program in 2014, both have engaged in frequent and extensive travel, speaking, and interview schedules, often with organizations or technology companies that have either a direct or indirect financial interest in the hardware, software, or ideology employed for STAT.
Ryan Imbriale has presented in at least seven conferences, including for the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE, for which Imbriale was formerly a board member), the Future of Education Technology Conference (FETC, run by the for-profit LRP conglomerate out of West Palm Beach, FL), and Learning Forward, among several others. While these appear to be professional organizations on their surface, a careful review of their sponsors, boards of directors, and vendors reveal underlying connections to educational technology companies, including Microsoft, Intel, SmartBoard, Pearson, BrainPop, DreamBox, and dozens of others. Imbriale has also given at least five interviews with organizations such as Project Tomorrow, T.H.E. Journal (also run by LRP) and EdTech Magazine, which are all promotional platforms for edtech companies and not valid purveyors of unbiased journalism.
Across the same two years, Dallas Dance has had over a dozen speaking engagements and a dozen more interviews with many of the same organizations. He has given interviews to EdSurge (run directly by edtech venture capitalists), Discovery Education (a STAT corporate partner), ISTE (for which Dance is currently a board member), and numerous others. His speaking engagements have included the star-studded SXSWedu conference, the CUE Powerful Learning conference (which favors luxury locations in California and Florida), and even the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL), which is well known as a trade organization for numerous educational technology companies, including K12, Inc. (one of the worst of the bad actors in the for-profit educational technology marketplace). Most of Dance’s engagements are to promote or hype the success of STAT or the importance of technology in the classroom; it also appears to be a lucrative side business, considering Dance’s speaking fee is listed at $5000 (Dr. Dance reports that he did not make this Orate page). Dance even spoke in a promotional video for Advance Path, a BCPS vendor for credit recovery software, joining the previously mentioned Tom Vander Ark in praising the product’s effectiveness (for more on Vander Ark’s philosophy of education, see his contribution to the book The Profit Motive in Education: Continuing the Revolution, entitled “Private Capital, For-Profit Education, and Public Schools”).
A question that needs to be asked here: does this level of constant promotion help BCPS students, or even the BCPS system, or is it just helping raise the profile (and the future job prospects) of the administrators involved? Several of the county high schools that these leaders are responsible for are literally collapsing, no longer compliant with safety codes and hopelessly outdated for electrical, plumbing, structural, and Americans with Disability Act requirements, much less “21st century learning.” Furthermore, the positions of Executive Director of the Department of Special Education and the Executive Director of Student Support Services have been left vacant for the past year, and word-of-mouth around the schools is of understaffing, disarray and slipshod Least Restrictive Environment compliance for students with disabilities. Even the school feasibility studies completed for the renovations of Lansdowne and Dulaney High Schools were questionable, with pages of identical text (yet different formatting and pictures), suggesting a lack of thoroughness and an absence of oversight by administration (who, when alerted by a teacher, dismissed the copying as “errors”). It is time that taxpayers hold those same administrators accountable, as these errors directly affect the safety and well-being of thousands of children.
The actions of Dallas Dance, Ryan Imbriale, and other administrative leaders should send a clear message about the current priorities of the BCPS system. Leadership is desperately needed here at home in Maryland, not on the road in Florida, California, or Texas. Software companies and iNACOL conference attendees should not be visiting (and disrupting, in the real sense of the word) BCPS classrooms. To again borrow from Thoreau, in the BCPS STAT initiative, “shams and delusions are esteemed for soundest truths,” while reality is proclaimed patently false.