What a week it’s been in Baltimore County.*
On November 3rd, the front page of the New York Times carried the article “How Silicon Valley Plans to Conquer the Classroom” about how the ed-tech industry used its playbook on BCPS. The article talked about Dr. Dance’s and Ms. White’s connection to the Education Research and Development Institute (ERDI). From the article:
“Ms. White, the interim superintendent, has been involved with ERDI since 2013, according to Mr. Dickerson. He said Ms. White used vacation time to attend events, where she “provided guidance to education-related companies on goods, services and products that are in development to benefit student performance.”
Asked whether Ms. White had received ERDI payments, Mr. Dickerson said, “Participation in ERDI is done independently of the school system.” In an email, Ms. White said she found ERDI to be a “beneficial professional learning experience.” She didn’t respond to a question about ERDI compensation.
She added, “I do not believe there are any conflicts of interests” related to the district’s tech initiative.”
On November 5th, the local article “New York Times Probes Baltimore County School System Records” summed up other coverage (including a write-up by national education policy scholar Diane Ravitch) and offered details on Dr. Dance’s extensive speaking engagements.
On November 7th, Natasha Singer was interviewed by an Ohio NPR affiliate (starts at minute 14) about the article. Ms. Singer talked again about ERDI and the ethical issues tied to it. A Stanford University ethicist called it a pay-to-play arrangement.
Then, on November 8th, the pace didn’t just pick up; it turned into a media frenzy.
On Wednesday, the Baltimore Sun revealed that while ERDI paid both Dr. Dance and Ms. White for consulting, Ms. White hadn’t disclosed this outside income.
On November 9th, Ms. White wrote the following to the community:
“Good Afternoon Team BCPS Family,
This message is to ensure that you hear from me directly about the recent article published in the newspaper. The first thing I’d like to share is that I take great pride in being a person who strives to maintain high moral character every day. Any suggestion otherwise, by the media or anyone else, is simply wrong and a bridge too far. For those of you who know me, you know that I do not dwell in excuses. If I am wrong, I will admit my mistakes. No one is perfect, but I will not have my integrity questioned without directly addressing and disputing the accusations. Facts matter and I would like to take a few moments to outline the facts, as I believe you deserve the full story.
The fact of the matter is that the Education Research and Development Institute (ERDI) is not a technology company. It is an educational research and development company, meaning that ERDI coordinates efforts for companies and educators to collaborate on products and services that are in development. Sales are not involved in this process. This process is purely for feedback. The developers know their products, and the educators know how to best meet the needs of students. I have never been paid by a company doing business with our school system, and the school system has never paid for trips where I participated as a consultant. ERDI does not conduct any business with BCPS. I participated in these sessions on my own time, using vacation days, to do so. These are the facts.
Like many of you, throughout my career, I look for opportunities for professional development and to stay current on the ever-growing educational resources being introduced in classrooms in Baltimore County and across the country. Early in my career, these classroom tools were textbooks and other written materials. At that time, teachers and administrators engaged with textbook companies to provide insight on how they might best serve students’ needs during instruction. Now, many times, these classroom resources come in the form of technology and digital curriculum, which can be used as supplements or alternatives to traditional paper resources. It should not come as a surprise that engaging with companies (some of which may be technology based) is now one way to learn about these products and to provide input on what works and what does not work with and for children.
In some instances, I was paid as a consultant to review and provide feedback on ideas for instructional products. The superintendent, my supervisor, recommended and approved my participation in these opportunities. The honest mistake I made was not writing these consultants fees on school system financial disclosure forms. When I completed these forms, I was under the impression that I was to only list companies with whom the school system had a contract or a pending contract. I was mistaken. I will amend them as allowed by policies.
I promise each of you that I will not make that mistake again, but more importantly, I will not allow an honest oversight to be misconstrued as something untoward or unethical. It is not who I am and it is not who you know me to be. My message to each of you in the Superintendent’s Report during this week’s Board of Education meeting was to rise up and to speak out for our profession. We deserve the same respect as anyone else. As I said during the report, I am you, and I will always stand up for who and what we are. We must accept no less.”
Ms. White’s statement absolutely mischaracterized ERDI. ERDI doesn’t sell directly to school systems, but it does facilitate sales by selling ed-tech vendors private access to superintendents.
The Sun on November 9th responded with the editorial, “Baltimore County schools’ ethics gap.”
We hadn’t even gotten through the week. Then came the call for a state-level investigation and audit. The Sun on November 9th reported that Sen. Jim Brochin “has called for an investigation and audit of the Baltimore County school system’s purchasing of digital devices and software after reports that administrators were working as paid consultants for a company that represents education technology firms.”
The NYT jumped back in at this point to offer this same update.
It’s getting messy, but at least people are starting to pay attention to STAT.
On November 10th, four members of the Baltimore County Board of Education (the four paying attention to STAT) reached out to the state for assistance:
“Four Baltimore County Board of Education members: Kathleen Causey, Roger Hayden, Julie Henn, and Ann Miller are seeking immediate action in response to multiple reports of possible ethics violations within Baltimore County Public Schools.
Wednesday morning, Causey, Hayden, Henn, and Miller sent an email to Board Chairman Ed Gilliss requesting an emergency administrative session to discuss Board action in response to major concerns raised by extensive media reports on the ethical issues surrounding BCPS relations with edtech vendors. Board Chair Gilliss did not respond to this request. While the full Board was included on the request, no other members responded.
The four members also wrote to the Maryland State Board of Education and State Superintendent, Dr. Karen Salmon requesting advisory assistance addressing these concerns.
“These are complex, system-wide issues that this Board needs help in understanding and tackling. It’s our duty to make informed decisions that put the needs of children first,” Mr. Hayden explained.
Other elected officials have contacted the State Board expressing similar reaction to recent reports.
“We are thankful for the support of Governor Hogan, and other state and local elected officials, who recognize the seriousness of these concerns and who have asked for immediate action,” Mrs. Miller stated.
The State Board is scheduled to discuss these matters at a meeting on December 5.
In the meantime, the four members will continue to investigate in an effort to determine an appropriate course of action.
“We have a lot of questions that need to be answered. Even the appearance of impropriety is something we must take seriously and investigate fully. That’s our job and we owe it to the public – especially our students – to act,” Mrs. Henn said.
The members have repeatedly called for greater transparency and accountability to improve Board / system relations and effectiveness.
“We need open and honest communications between the Board and the system for us to effectively address conflicts of interest and wider issues that ultimately affect our students. Currently such an environment does not exist. It is our hope that can change,” Mrs. Causey concluded.
* This statement is made by the individuals listed above. The Chair of the Board is the official spokesperson for the Board of Education of Baltimore County.”
Here’s the actual request: State Board Request 110917
On November 10th, the Sun reported that, in response to the above request, the BOE would hold an emergency session on Monday to discuss possible ethics code violations.
The TeamBCPS spin continued on November 10th, when it decided it would be a good time to recap its first quarter achievements, including some related to STAT/digital learning and, of all things, excellence in procurement (just when we’re hearing that no-bid contracts most likely resulted from ERDI consulting).
For the seventh consecutive year, Baltimore County Public Schools earned the prestigious Annual Achievement of Excellence in Procurement® (AEP) Award from the National Procurement Institute, Inc.
To top it all off, on November 10th, a member of the Education Foundation said in a Sun op-ed that things were getting too political, calling the NYT article a “hit piece” and the Sun article “click bait.” According to the op-ed, BCPS is a model school system and the multi-million-dollar STAT initiative is an incredible investment in our children’s future.
The author also said his “charity” should be applauded for organizing fundraisers to support grants and scholarships. You can read about this fundraiser here. The truth is that the op-ed’s author sits on the Education Foundation board with representatives of major ed-tech vendors/BCPS contract holders (Microsoft, Pearson, Discovery Education) whose products are central to STAT. These companies are sponsors of the major annual fundraiser for the Foundation, the State of the Schools event, the proceeds of which, beyond grants and scholarships, also support STAT. In fact, according to the Foundation’s website, their GOALS are:
Provide support and assist (sic) to S.T.A.T. (Students and Teacher Accessing Tomorrow) where all students have the access to curriculum through technology so learning is available anytime and anywhere.
Provide scholarships opportunities to BCPS students to attend post-secondary education and obtain the knowledge and skills needed to be globally competitive.
Provide schools the opportunity to apply for school-based grants that address one of the 21st Century themes.
So, supporting STAT is actually the Foundation’s major goal.
No – no conflicts of interest at all.