Pressure on the Press?

The frequent flyer habits of former Baltimore County Public Schools Superintendent S. Dallas Dance has been reported in a follow-up story by the Baltimore Sun–nearly four months after he left the job.

There’s new info in there, including a $5,000 undisclosed speaker’s fee paid by another school district for a visit from Dance during his tenure here. Updated numbers also show the superintendent was out of town more than a third of the 2016 school year.

Does this article seem dozens of days late and tens of thousands of dollars short for the local paper-of-record? Dance is apparently under investigation, with the full range of inquiries unclear. The Sun claims the “public had no idea” of the extent of Dance’s travel. This, despite a previous investigative op-ed by freelance journalist Joanne C. Simpson on such travel and potential conflicts of interest, under an original Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) request. And earlier. And here by investigative reporter Ann Costantino, who spent days, weeks, and months scouring websites, videos, databases, and records to turn up such events. Meanwhile, school board member Ann Miller also made widely public inquiries.

Should Sun reporters have dug into such travel junkets, potential ethical conflicts, and the high costs of tech in cash-strapped public schools with pressing needs sooner? Yes. Should the newspaper itself devote more resources to covering Baltimore County Public Schools, where readers and potential readers reside in a county with a population of 830,000? Yes.

It’s not too late. The more coverage, the more the news source is a must-read. Questions about the STAT laptop-per-student program and possibly misspent taxpayer money remain. Dance has moved on, stirring more controversy. Meanwhile, a corporate-style culture of pricey travel and edtech product promotion, fueled by Dance himself, (also here, here, and more) has permeated this public school system.

See this recent op-ed revealing hundreds of thousands of dollars in 2017-18 confirmed budget monies for various BCPS administrators’ “travel, mileage, conferences, professional dues.” And the numbers could be much higher, based on the actual BCPS budget. Questions have been posed to the administration, with no response. This is taxpayer money. Yet our watchdog groups, agencies, elected officials, and members of the press need to do more.

Where are other regional news outlets, those who serve this community? What about objective and in-depth reporting on tech in schools by Baltimore-area TV reporters covering schools or investigative news? What about The Washington Post? And targeted publications like Baltimore’s Child?   For the most part, in these cases and others, the ‘Digital Schools’ story has been told in a marketing-style rah, rah fashion.

Where is the media’s healthy dose of skepticism, especially when an educational fad is extolled as “redefining learning,” with no objective evidence of efficacy, and backed by billions in venture capitalist dollars?

A Maryland state legislative audit of BCPS spending might be the only way to determine whether malfeasance has occurred here. Let’s call for one now. In the meantime, anyone can explore the issue of balance in classrooms where software-based teaching is tied to multi-million dollar contracts. New tech options–tablets, laptops, and WiFi—are utilized in schools across the country, both public and private. And expanded digital and online access makes sense.

Still, while parents and researchers nationwide start to document potential fallout from increased tech usage–as well as the poor performance of virtual or “blended learning”–few school systems have integrated a “digital ecosystem” like that found here in BCPS elementary schools: Students as young as six are assigned a laptop to carry class-to-class. On any given day, children can be seen: eyes locked on screens, headphones on, watching “teacher” avatars. Or using video-game based data-mining curricula like DreamBox Learning, a math software program that alone is costing the school system a staggering $3.2 million and growing.* (See below).

In some classrooms, computer-based learning is limited, offset by peer-to-peer and teacher-led activities. In others, screentime translates to multiple hours per child each school day. How, in the end, will this affect the role of teachers?

As one parent recently noted on social media: “My son attends a Lighthouse [pilot] school. I asked him what percentage of his instructional day is spent on his device. He said 75%. He is in 4th grade. People in Silicone Valley won’t buy their own kids an iPad.”

On BCPS’ current track, this county is also sprinting past $300 million-plus on an experimental program backed by no objective evidence. Again, this is taxpayers’ money. The Sun has been pressured to do more partly because others are requesting documents and taking the time to look at this: To press for MPIA records’ compliance, sending dozens of emails to BCPS’ law offices or the state’s ombudsperson. To scour those records. To ask tougher questions. To follow up claims. To fact check.

From any objective angle, there’s simply a more complex and frankly interesting story here. What are the actual results? Is video-game style learning, termed “gamification,” also impeding students’ patience and deeper focus? Since research shows gaming induces changes in the brain, what does this mean for developing minds? What are the costs, the pros, the cons from non-edtech industry sources/experts? And in the end, where is the Fourth Estate heading on these issues?

Our legacy media is being pulled this-way-and-that by a shallow Twitter-paced news cycle and, in a greater concerning trend, increasingly bought out by online and related tech interests, some of which are building an anticipated $20 billion-plus computer/software/AI market in the nation’s schools. (The Post by Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos, and the Sun‘s oddly named parent company, Tronc, whose chairman is technology entrepreneur Michael Ferro.) Even various education publications like Education Week (which consistently covers edtech, much of that positive) gets major funding from the Gates Foundation and related.

In the end, who is being served? These are children. The next generation. This merits a closer look by all. No matter what the challenges.


*DreamBox Learning contract with BCPS, expanded by the Board of Education by nearly $2 million this summer, for just three more years:

Or, can paste url into the search:$file/061317%20JNI-778-14%20Modification%20and%20Extension%20-%20Mathematics%20Supplemental%20Resources.pdf

For more info on contracts and costs, see this guest op-ed. And other recent superintendent issues.