When the average minivan mom attends a Pearson Conference, strange and wild things have the potential of happening. Armed with several notebooks, piles of sticky notes and a box of pens, the $100 spent on the virtual ticket, turned out to be some of the best money that I’ve ever spent.
Admittedly, it signals strange times when the average parent finds it necessary to attend the very conferences that her own school administrators attend. Conferences where those administrators are presenters and, sometimes, keynote speakers due to their status as industry leaders, despite the harsh reality in their school system being something much less flattering — one filled with angst, frustration, suspicion and mistrust.
When parents are buying tickets to the events for which our school administrators fly cross-country to attend, where the top executives stay in posh hotels and sit elbow-to-elbow with our school system’s salivating vendors, it’s a clear sign that there might be trust issues among the parents. When we find ourselves anxious to learn what exactly our school system executives are up to and what they are planning to do to our children, it might be a sign that things have reached desperate levels. And at Baltimore County Public Schools, they most certainly have.
After months of even school board members asking the question “how much screen time are the students in the pilot schools getting?” or “Show us the quantitative data that suggests students are thriving academically in the pilot schools.” and not receiving an answer, I was hopeful to be able to find some of these answers in Florida, albeit virtually.
Besides hearing the future of my children’s education being compared to a frozen yogurt bar or trip to Starbucks, due to the personalized and customizable options adults have (and students, they said, lack), I did not learn the answers to my questions. But a great deal was learned at this event, and the 15 webcasts that I chose to view proved to be quite useful in beginning to wrap my mind around all of these educational buzzwords that I keep hearing.
Attending this conference was like being on a wild rollercoaster of emotions. From realizing that my school system is but a speck on the back of this fast-moving digital conversion Trojan Horse –when all along I had thought that Baltimore County Public Schools was the visionary that came up with all of these concepts like blended, personalized and customized learning — to learning from another presentation that the “gamification of education” was necessary in order to gain the attention of students of these times, it was truly an enlightening, yet extremely frustrating, learning experience.
The realization, too, was that Baltimore County Public Schools is in grave trouble due to a combination of issues which has, essentially, created the perfect storm. For one, most parents are completely unaware of what is happening with our STAT program and we are in a school system that takes advantage of that ignorance.
At this Pearson conference, there was one parent, in particular, who was admonished for not being so ignorant, however. In fact, she was spotlighted as an example of “what went wrong” for almost the entirety of one of the presentations at this Pearson conference. She was a parent who took issue with the quality of her child’s education, the amount of screen time and the farce of this “blended learning” movement. She had been courageous enough to speak up at a board meeting and had delivered a very well-informed and powerful speech. In fact, the speech was so powerful that it began the derailment of the size of that particular blended learning plan, but mostly because she had a school board who was receptive to hearing her pleas and in seeing the truth about screen time and the lack of quality of the educational software the school system had employed.
The “blended learning” consultant for that school system, also the COO of iNACOL (the International Association for K-12 Online Learning), used this woman as an example of what happens when a school system fails to gain stakeholder buy-in from parents. In fact, he stated at the beginning of his presentation, as he was putting her picture up on the big screen, that the entire impetus for the presentation was “due to this woman” and that she was “the star” of that day’s presentation.
Watching this particular presentation, which was almost completely devoted to this one woman and her son, angered me the most and is, perhaps, most representative of the smugness with which some in this industry go about doing “business in education”. The things that this woman had to say were evidently so profound, in fact, that over a year later, Bruce Friend, that COO of iNACOL, a leading force in the virtual, online and blended learning model which is sweeping the nation, was still pained about it and he found it necessary to use her, her picture, her school system and even the exact date of the BOE meeting at which she spoke, as an example of what happens when, in his view, school systems fail to educate parents and get their “buy-in”.
I was so offended by this presentation and the blatant disrespect of this woman and her son that we found her, due solely to the level of detail given about her in the presentation. Although living a couple hundred miles away, she was found within three minutes flat and was alerted to this presentation, a short time later. What Mr. Friend did not know about this woman, who he alluded to as being confused, while referring to her son in an equally derogatory manner, was that she is an active and very vocal advocate and is in no way confused, whatsoever. In fact, she is well aware and well informed about what he, and others like him, are peddling. That Pearson presentation video has since been pulled from Pearson’s webcast archives.
It does not take long to come to the realization of what this blended, personalized and virtual-learning movement is actually peddling. But it will require parent engagement and interest in order to save our school system. Just like this woman, parents in Baltimore County need to be informed and then must act upon the information, in the ways that their talents are best used.
While people like Bruce Friend may never have anticipated the level of interest, courage and awareness of those “confused” moms (and dads) across the country, he should hopefully know by now, that while some of us might be late to discovering, many of us, like that woman, are engaged and we are resourceful. Perhaps the biggest upside to being one of the country’s biggest digital initiative guinea pig experiments here in Baltimore County, is that it has awakened the parents.
My time and money at the Pearson conference were well spent. We have, indeed, reached a level at which we have to pay attention and do desperate things like follow our school administration around, virtually and otherwise. Parents must become engaged and stay engaged. We must do our own research and share our resources and not follow rumor and hysteria, but actively inform ourselves on information that already exists and is available. We just have to be willing to be awake and to become informed; and we must push past the feeling that this is just too big, but keep moving forward, no matter what. Our school system depends on it and our 112,000 students deserve it.