Where there’s smoke…
More than two years ago, concerns were raised about Baltimore County Public Schools’ laptop-per-student initiative known as STAT–and the cost issues and challenges, much of which came to pass: Students playing video games or scrolling social media on devices during classes, creating focus issues. Overloaded school WiFi networks crashing. Unwieldy maintenance of broken laptops plaguing the district, an entrenched issue that tanked 1:1 programs elsewhere. Questions have also arisen about district leaders’ possible conflicts of interest, questionable digital curricula contracts, and flagging student standardized test results.
And—with details so far undisclosed—a possibly predetermined bidding process for STAT’s primary component: the HP Revolve laptops.
As the school district now prepares a Request for Proposals (RFP) to provide future student devices, one thing in particular should be kept in mind: Last round, the bidding process might have been partly rigged for one particular device, targeted specifically to the HP EliteBook Revolve 810. Former superintendent Dallas Dance had a cozy relationship with Hewlett-Packard, “a partner” for his centerpiece digital initiative widely promoted by HP and Microsoft. Soon after it launched, STAT was used as “source material for Hewlett-Packard’s advice to the ministries of education in a number of foreign countries, and the World Economic Forum,” according to Districts of Distinction. And “The United Nations General Assembly was the backdrop for a keynote address by the BCPS superintendent to schools and global education, business, and technology leaders hosted by Hewlett-Packard,” according to BCPS records. Dance did a promotional video for the company. And more.
Hewlett-Packard also has a checkered history with government technology contracts. Hewlett-Packard “agreed to settle a Justice Department investigation into a kickback scheme related to government technology contracts,” The New York Times reported in 2010.
“In 2007, the Justice Department filed a complaint against H.P., Sun Microsystems and Accenture, in connection with millions of dollars in kickbacks and illegal rebates paid among technology partners working on government contracts dating to the 1990s. The complaint said H.P. breached its federal government contracts and submitted claims inflated by illicit fees and rebates.”
BCPS’ digital initiatives, including STAT and “Blueprint 2.0” have increasingly proven controversial. And the pricy-yet-glitchy HP laptop/tablet hybrids have been at the center of it all.
In 2014, the Baltimore County Board of Education approved a “$205 million contract with Montgomery County-based Daly Computers Inc., and HP reseller, to supply laptops to 150,000 students and teachers. The contract also includes $3 million for a one-time purchase of devices,” the Sun then reported. There were four devices tested, and the HP Revolve ranked third, according to documents obtained by the New York Times. Yet BCPS only entered into negotiations with Daly/HP.
Why did Daly Computers win the largest such contract in BCPS history, at $205 million?
Not because the company had experience: “While Daly has contracts to provide some computers and copiers to other school systems, it has never been involved in a digital conversion such as the one on which the county is about to embark, according to school spokesman Mychael Dickerson,” the Sun noted. The district’s population averages about 110,000 students.
There was similar fallout with an untried digital contractor in the troubled conversion in Fort Bend, according to a Texas Observer story that looked at digital programs across Texas.
Meanwhile, in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), an iPad 1:1 program was facing a major debacle, which would become known nationwide. See this article: What Went Wrong with LA Unified’s iPad Program.
Among the issues, LAUSD apparently sought out only a certain kind of device, a move that was investigated by the FBI, among others “the Department of Education’s review of the initiative found LAUSD was too heavily dependent on a single commercial product for providing digital learning resources.” While the district followed state guidelines for purchasing hardware that aligned with Common Core standards, a report released in August 2014 by the LAUSD board showed that the district had added detailed specifications regarding screen size and touchscreen functionality that heavily favored Apple and essentially excluded other technology options.”
“Media reports also detailed how bid requirements seemed to track with curriculum specifications suggested by Pearson in private email exchanges before the bidding process opened. The FBI has since launched an investigation into questions about whether Apple and Pearson enjoyed an advantage in the bidding process”.
“Beyond the issue of whether or not Apple and Pearson had an inside track in winning the bid, LAUSD has been faulted for choosing one rather expensive device when less expensive choices were available. Devices with keyboards might have been a better option, for instance, since older students could have used them to write papers. Google’s Chromebook, for example, is a laptop that can cost as little as $200, while LAUSD paid $768 apiece for its iPads, including the software, according to the Los Angeles Times.”
BCPS, meanwhile, chose a device that costs twice as much, more than $1,400, plus additional fees over the four-year leases that bring the price tag to $1,567 each.
Language from BCPS bidding documents seems similar to LAUSD’s scenario. The following are quotes from the BCPS Request for Proposals (RFP) addendum, which noted prospective vendors’ questions about the limited parameters of the RFP’s device requirements:
BIDDING VENDOR QUESTIONS: “5. Regarding Part III, Section 2.1, Item 1 (Student/Teacher Device – Hardware Minimum Requirements): Collectively, the requirements in this section appear to describe a “hybrid” laptop/tablet device, to the exclusion of conventional laptop and tablet form factors. For example, the Storage specification requires 256GB of storage, considerably more than a conventional tablet offers; the Display/Screen/Camera specifications require a capacitive touch screen . . . Is it BCPS’s intent to exclude standard tablet and laptop form factors from equal consideration?
RESPONSE: It is not the intent of BCPS to exclude standard tablet and laptop form factors from consideration. Bidders should provide the device(s) they believe most closely meets the criteria spelled out in the specifications. Bidders should identify where their device(s) do not meet or exceed the specifications. Bidders may propose more than one device per type. Bidder should limit their proposals to no more than three options per device type (i.e. tablet, laptop, desktop). Samples of each proposed device must be submitted following the submittal guidelines in the specification.”
(This response seems illogical: How can you have a chance of being awarded the bid if nearly all available laptops, tablets, or even hybrids do not meet very specific specs that seem to favor one device, including “256GB of storage, considerably more than a conventional tablet offers” and “Display/Screen/Camera specifications [that] require a capacitive touch screen?” BCPS digital director Ryan Imbriale and Dance later noted that “the camera” in particular was why BCPS “chose” the HP device. And here.)
Concerns have also recently come to light regarding more than $62 million in no-bid and piggy-back digital curricula contracts, related to a controversial consulting company, the Education Research & Development Institute. Some of these high-priced programs are provided by unproven start-ups. None are on a Maryland State Department of Education’s list of research-based programs.
In other issues, rising costs and hacking has been widespread at BCPS over the past few years. Again, this was immediately a huge scandal in LA and elsewhere. It’s not that learning isn’t being accomplished at BCPS to some extent via tech, but students—especially in 6th grade—have been regularly bypassing school security filters to play Minecraft and ESPN Arcade Games, surf inappropriate sites on the Internet, as well as download Instagram, Snapchat, and other distractive social media onto the HP devices at school or home—hiding the apps and games in folios, and using them in school instead of doing class work, according to numerous middle schoolers. Students pass around teachers’ or other universal log-ins and passwords. Sixth-grade Town Hall meetings were called last school year to warn students against the practices, offering an “amnesty” if they “confessed.” The hacking has continued.
Again, this was a big story in Los Angeles. “The [LA] iPad rollout quickly foundered, amid claims of inadequate training and security breaches by high school students who deleted security filters so they could freely browse the Internet. Critics also raised concerns about a close relationship that [superintendent] Deasy and a top assistant had with executives from Apple and Pearson,” the Los Angeles Times noted.
A couple years later, in LAUSD, a variety of tablets and computers are currently available to students but the large district found the 1:1 iPads “unaffordable,” and the FBI wrapped up its probe. Recently, oddly enough, LAUSD administrators toured BCPS schools, along with the Inter-American Development Bank to get a look at BCPS’s 1:1 program. Test scores in LAUSD, an ethnically and racially diverse district had not improved, still scoring well below the state average. (LAUSD cancelled the iPad and Pearson contracts. BCPS has a clause in all contracts that the district can cancel or get out of them at any time, administrators have said). Meanwhile, PARCC scores for 2017 revealed that Baltimore County scored below the state average as well.
Some students have been “engaged” as district leaders claim, yet at what exactly. As one student said: “You are learning how to look like you are working when you are not.”
— A guest compilation by freelance journalist Joanne C. Simpson, a BCPS stakeholder who has been following this scenario for nearly two years–and who now hopes others will keep digging.