‘Middlebury’ Spanish Language Program Using Children to Hone Flawed Ed-Tech Product? Updated.

A litany of questions regarding multi-million dollar contracts follows in the wake of scandals over Baltimore County Public School leaders’ consulting gigs with the Education Development & Research Institute (ERDI)—which represents numerous for-profit edtech companies doing business with BCPS.

A primary conflicted contract is held by ERDI-listed client, Middlebury Interactive Languages (MIL)— now among other school vendors garnering more than $62 million in BCPS contracts. (Most of these digital curricula contracts are no-bid, but others like MIL also raise concerns. Take Promethean’s 2015 piggy-back contract, at an added $2.75 million. Promethean has also been an active ERDI client.)

Such high-priced digital curricula contracts are linked to official BCPS STAT plans, which note numerous digital-related “conversions:” Curriculum. Instruction. Assessment. Organizational Development. Infrastructure. Policy. And Budget; expected to reach “systemic institutionalization by 2018.” “All students will be provided a digital learning device and personalized, blended, interactive curriculum,” the 2017 report notes.

Based in Middlebury, VT, the language company garnered a staggering $7.5 million contract for an in-development product, an online platform used mostly for teaching Spanish on computers in elementary schools. A closer look at the bidding and approval process is warranted. An initial $475,000 contract spending authority mushroomed to $7.5 million just a year later in 2016. Among other issues: language experts recommend lower cost, open source or similar offerings. Second language learning in elementary school is a laudable goal. Yet other schools have tapped popular online duoLingo, for example, via a free school-based version, which should still be vetted and supplemental to live Spanish-speaking instructors.

MIL, initially affiliated with Middlebury College was dropped by the college because of questions about quality and controversial profit-motives of partner company K12 Inc. (see info below). The prestigious institution now wants to remove the name “Middlebury” as well. In September, a final trademark separation was approved, under which “K12 will rename the company by the end of 2019.”

The trouble with MIL: Numerous flaws have been reported at BCPS regarding lesson questions being in high-school level Spanish (impossible for fourth graders to comprehend), an issue later altered based on “user feedback.” Overall, children often guess, not acquiring actual language skills. Teachers have no Spanish language training so cannot assist. Many classroom teachers have been bypassing time spent on MIL, because of problems and ongoing student frustration, sources said.

The issue of using flawed, in-development edtech products with children was cited by the ACLU in a hauntingly similar scenario in Detroit, MI, whose administrators also used the phrase “building the plane as we fly it.” Look at how a school system’s questionable digital curricula “exploited Detroit’s most vulnerable children,” as revealed in this in-depth article. 

Software and related were being developed to “be used for virtual schools, blended instruction, distance learning, traditional instruction with differentiation, and online assessment.”

“But in reality, what internal EAA documents reveal is the extent to which teachers and students were, over the course of two school years, used as whetstones to hone a badly flawed product being pitched as cutting-edge technology.”

Meanwhile, outside “evaluations,” partly geared to product development, are costing taxpayers nearly $1 million more.  At least a few questions to students appear to be conducive to positive results, such as: ‘What do you like’ about MIL? A leading question to be sure.

Here, for further perusal: ‘MIL, the centerpiece of BCPS’ Passport Program,’ has been a primary element of the district’s Blueprint 2.0’s second-language acquisition goal. Earlier this year it expanded to 40 elementary schools, and there might be plans to bring the computer-based language program to middle schools as well, according to administrators. UPDATE: A language teacher inquired about this possibility to administrators on Feb. 2, 2018, and was told there were “NO plans to expand it to middle schools. It’s designed for elementary grades.” That would be good news it seems.

MIL also exemplifies perpetual software license fees. “Once the program is fully expanded to all schools, the anticipated annual fee will be $550,000 each year. The site license cost will be $5,000 per school once 51 schools are attained,” board records show. Software license fees, as well as online or cloud subscriptions can increase digital costs to districts.

The company and its affiliates have stirred numerous other controversies. MIL has offered undergraduate and graduate language courses, and went into development on a program for public schools in 2010, in a partnership with Middlebury College. Things did not go well.  Middlebury professors staged a revolt and no-confidence vote in 2014. They cited mistakes in lessons and concerns about co-owner K12 Inc,. a troubled online education company. A year later, the Vermont college sold its 40 percent stake in MIL, which is now owned solely by for-profit K12 Inc.’

K12’s longtime failures, meanwhile, include high school course credits not being accepted at colleges and by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which ruled “that prospective students from 24 K12 Inc. high schools can no longer count credits toward athletic scholarships.”

As well as this profit motivation: “K12 Inc. also pays each member of its Board of Directors between $155,000 and $216,000 annually for a few hours of work each year—far more than local school board members make for much more time spent in general.” Making money on public school dollars? See K12 Inc. corporate records here.

The Baltimore County Board of Education-approved expansion of the online platform to $7.5 million–occurred soon after Middlebury College was set to divest, and edtech company K12 would be taking over.  (It also appears to be a modus operandi for BCPS to bring in edtech contracts at lower costs, in the hundreds of thousands and citing pricing as a positive, and then blowing them up into multi-million dollar contracts within several months to a year.)

Former BCPS superintendent Dallas Dance, meanwhile, has promoted MIL in company ads for Education Week, and MIL’s website, which features Dance and videos of BCPS students in several separate links for the for-profit companyHere, in related listings, and on MIL’s main page here (see the featured testimonial quote). This online platform’s $7.5 million contract spending authority approved by the board of ed goes out 13 years, to 2029. (A board-approved spending authority allows the administration to spend up to that much, even well before that time–which has happened with several other edtech clients, including Discovery Education, DreamBox Learning, and Curriculum Associates/iReady, modified for a total $10 million, years before their contract end dates. (See contract links, and further info in this Towson Flyer op-ed on ERDI-listed clients doing business with BCPS. Dance has also widely promoted or consulted with those companies).

The conflict-of-interest style promo goes further. Images of Dance are used to tout MIL. And the resigned superintendent, reported to be under criminal investigation, is still listed on company advertising as ‘BCPS Superintendent:’

“The future looks bright when you think about, again, our students being able to become bilingual or trilingual by the time they graduate.” Dallas Dance, Ph.D. Superintendent Baltimore County Public Schools Baltimore, MD, US.”

Overall, it seems the district itself is being used as a product marketing tool. BCPS’ Passport program–one of many spin-offs of similar questionable digital ventures in Dance’s former public school district in Houstonalso won a supposed industry ‘award’  by FuelEducation, which turns out to be a seller of MIL. That ‘Transformation Award’ was given in August—two months after Dance resigned, despite no proof of improved language learning outcomes, or any proficiency results at all.

If that was not enough to cause concern, taxpayers are paying for all this and not one, but two outside “evaluations.” One cooperative no-bid contract for an eval is here, at a cost of $100,000. The majority of the board did not even wait for that evaluation,  released four months later in September 2016 to decide to spend several million more. The report criticized MIL’s implementation and cited usage problems. Yet the board voted to expand the spending authority to $7.5 million on May 24. The Atlanta-based linguistic researchers had asked for language proficiency data for BCPS students, yet received none. Here a PowerPoint of the evaluation and video of a September school board meeting, where, among other concerns, then-board member Michael Collins spoke at 1:30:45, noting that students are “not learning Spanish to any significant degree” and that “the program is not moving along well at all.”

A second taxpayer $750,000 evaluation with American Institutes for Research (AIR) is another piggy-back contract with a data-oriented group, for BCPS to “procure these services under the Chicago Board of Education contract 16-0127-PR2.” Chicago Public Schools was a cornerstone in the SUPES kickback scandal. (*See UPDATED POSTSCRIPT below).

All of these contracts—these many many contracts which could be ended at any time under BCPS contract policies—are still being pursued or expanded under Interim Superintendent Verletta White, who has publicly supported BCPS’ digital initiatives, and also consulted with ERDI. Currently, thousands of children spend hours in front of screens in headphones watching MIL videos.

For related info on contracts and BCPS digital initiatives’ spending overall, from which some of this info is excerpted, see STAT and related costs.

A follow-up guest post by Joanne C. Simpson, a freelance journalist, college educator, BCPS stakeholder, and former reporter for The Miami Herald. 

POSTSCRIPTS:

Chicago Public Schools, at the center of the SUPES Academy kickback scandal, also brought in Middlebury Interactive Languages (MIL) a couple years back. Now, BCPS has taken on the exorbitant $750,000 piggy-back contract with CPS to evaluate the BCPS language program, which is centered on MIL. This merits a closer look all around.
FuelEducation, which now sells MIL, gave a similar “award” to CPS, for implementing MIL, an ERDI-client. http://resources.fueleducation.com/…/chicago-public… ….
Tangled indeed.
Related history on SUPES contract controversy at Chicago Public Schools http://www.chicagotribune.com/…/ct-gary-solomon-supes… ….
 
Again, BCPS documents on MIL:  https://www.boarddocs.com/…/052416%20MWE-813-14… 
 ——
Update 2/1/18: More on that evaluation contract:

The $750,000 Second Language Acquisition evaluation being done by American Institutes for Research (AIR), a firm that also evaluates 1:1 digital initiatives like the failed Los Angeles Unified District’s is increasingly troubled.

“This contract will provide evaluation services for the Second Language Acquisition program in Grades 3–8. The evaluation will continue to build on the initial evaluation by examining previous constructs such as program implementation and student engagement,” school records show. “The initial evaluation phase was completed in the spring of 2016, and a report was published in the fall of 2016. In addition, the scope of the evaluation will expand to include middle school grade levels and student performance in acquiring a second language. BCPS and American Institutes for Research.”

———-

Update 2: As later exposed by investigative reporter Ann Costantino, that cooperative contract is fraught with conflicts, including being originally slated for an entirely different study on “social emotional learning,” see Another Questionable No-Bid Contract in Dance’s Wake, Baltimore Post, Feb. 8).

Meanwhile, “Social Emotional Learning” has morphed into a recent edtech catchphrase. Our Maryland Board of Education VP, Chester E. Finn, Jr. is apparently not too impressed with the concept, See this recent essay in EdWeek, subhead: “Social-emotional learning is rooted in ‘faux psychology’ —- https://www.edweek.org/…/why-are-schools-still-peddling…

And Chester Finn’s bio at the state department of education: http://marylandpublicschools.org/…/pages/chesterefinn.aspx

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