Maryland State Prosecutor Investigates Former Superintendent Dance: A few more details . . . updated

State prosecutors are investigating former Baltimore County Public Schools Superintendent S. Dallas Dance, multiple sources told the Baltimore Sun:

The Maryland State Prosecutor’s Office launched a criminal investigation more than six months ago, issuing a subpoena for school system records, and this month several people associated with the system were interviewed by investigators, sources said.”

And the troubles go much farther. Among issues apparently under review by the state: Dance’s “involvement with SUPES Academy,” which did business with BCPS and for which Dance consulted at the time. “In 2014, school system ethics officials ruled that Dance had violated ethics rules by taking a part time job with SUPES after the company got an $875,000 contract with the school system,” the Sun noted. UPDATE: For other reporting on SUPES and Dance, read also this in-depth story chronicling the former superintendent’s history with SUPES, its leaders, and an undisclosed affiliate company Synesi, according to Baltimore Post investigative reporter Ann Costantino.

Dance offered no comment to news reports of a current state prosecutor investigation, but this very recent video by the resigned superintendent speaks volumes.

Other details: the former county schools’ chief is embroiled in yet another contract controversy through his newly formed consulting company, The DDance Group (see below), which apparently contracted with Richmond Public Schools for advising services, including “leadership coaching,” without the knowledge of school board members there. See also a contract doc, RPS board member comments, and post by local news blog RVAdirt.

Soon after leaving Baltimore County, Dance was hired as an RPS consultant at $12,500 per month, and was cut checks for $25,000 before questions were raised about the propriety of the consulting contract, according to a Sept. 25 CBS6 news report.

(To get a look at the many high-dollar contracts approved here in Baltimore County–and $300 million-plus in costs related to Dance’s laptop-per-student “digital ecosystem”– see this post.  Such mostly no-bid contracts, including $10 million for Discovery Education‘s products, are still in place.)

Back in 2013, an investigative news story on SUPES, which first revealed Dance’s consulting job, was published by The Chicago Reporter and then followed by the Sun. Dance dropped the outside job, but stayed on at BCPS.

Former chief of Chicago Public Schools Barbara Byrd-Bennett, a longtime mentor for Dance, was among those embroiled in the SUPES scandal and was among those convicted this year for accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in kickbacks and sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison.

Dance, who promised not to consult again after the ethics finding on SUPES (as his contract also later stipulated), has been cited for other ethics violations and criticized for various “appearances of conflict of interest,” as well as costly taxpayer-funded travel to numerous edtech conferences and events, among other issues. (There are also thousands in BCPS-paid costs related to trips at swanky hotels and resorts in Chicago and Las Vegas during the SUPES/Synesi era, though an employee name is not listed, according to a BCPS database noted here). Dance’s Maryland-registered limited liability corporation Deliberate Excellence Consulting LLC, formed in August 2012 (one month after his hiring by BCPS), was listed as Active and “Not In Good Standing” a few months ago, as also reported in this bloga status which remains.

Many related concerns–including promotional videos Dance did for school system vendors, such as Hewlett-Packard–were first brought up in this op-ed in April 2016.

According to amended financial disclosure forms filed “under penalty of perjury” after the last ethics findings, Dance reported no personal income from his LLC, which according to charter records was formed “to consult and partner with school systems, businesses and organizations around best practices to obtain maximum organizational outcomes.”

Dance unexpectedly announced his resignation in April, partly saying he wanted to spend more time with family. Meanwhile, a few of his post-BCPS consulting positions are no longer listed on those firms’ sites nor on Dance’s LinkedIn profile page, including “Partner, Strategos Group,” and a full-time senior vice president position he announced with MGT Consulting Group when he left the superintendent position on June 30.

On LinkedIn, Dance now only features his own Richmond Va.-based consulting company The DDance Group, Inc. and his role as founder, president and CEO. The DDance Group’s website was launched recently and can be found here. Dance’s overall LinkedIn profile describes him thus: “Father, Leader, Educator, Author & Innovator Reasonably impatient about improving educational outcomes for ALL children.”

Dance’s private consulting group lists numerous testimonials apparently linked partly to his $287,000 annual taxpayer-paid BCPS role as super, as well as conferences and events at which he spoke during his tenure here. The site also showcases photos of Baltimore County Public School children (posted for corporate advertising purposes . . . is that with their permission or that of their parents?).

At least one DDance Group photo prominently features Hewlett-Packard’s HP EliteBook Revolve 810 G2, the centerpiece of Dance’s controversial signature laptop-per-student program, Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow (STAT). The laptop/tablet hybrids have been leased under an unheard-of $205 million single contract spending authority awarded to Daly Computers, Inc. STAT has morphed into a $300-million-plus six-year “digital conversion” (including ongoing digital curricula, infrastructure upgrades, continual software license fees, and professional development—public school district costs that would rise substantially). Daly Computers, then a Hewlett-Packard affiliate, has been a top donor to the Education Foundation of Baltimore County Public Schools. 

Despite Dance’s departure, STAT is still being pursued and expanded under current Interim Superintendent Verletta White, who pressed for a nearly $4 million expansion of just two software contracts, iReady and DreamBox Math, this year (see postscript below), despite questions by school board members about the programs’ high costs and lack of objective evidence of benefits. Via the software programs, elementary school children as young as 6 watch math or English language videos, and do gaming-style lessons, or play video games as “rewards” on the devices during the school day.

Among other topics, SUPES promoted edtech and “personalized” computer-based learning  in its SUPES superintendent training, including “virtual learning,” during the years Dance participated.  Messages offered superintendents from SUPES-related training in Chicago include: “We make a huge mistake by thinking that facts make a difference. Facts don’t build trust, perception does.” And, perhaps partly explaining why the high costs and actual results of digital initiatives (see postscript) have not been examined by regional media so far: SUPES and similar training programs have long advised school leaders that the “key is having the media report “news” from your point of view.” BCPS routinely refers to local news agencies as “media partners.”

As CEO of The DDance Group, Dance remains on the board of directors of ISTE, the International Society for Technology in Education, an edtech industry support group where Dance long held a board position as BCPS superintendent. ISTE also promotes Dance’s new biz contact info and, with language similar to his LLC charter, Dance’s bio features his “consulting management firm that partners with schools, districts, governing agencies and organizations to improve educational outcomes . . . ” He also remains listed as a Senior Fellow at the e-Republic* affiliated Center for Digital Education (CDE), roles reserved for “experienced and respected state and local government practitioners and scholars who have demonstrated records of success in support of public service.”

In the low-tech The DDance Group promotional video posted on Sept. 14, an unshaven Dance says he has 20 clients already and hopes to garner the help of others to solve “tough, tough, challenges:” “I have been very fortunate, very humbled, very blessed by what many would consider a pretty successful career, even though it is nowhere near over.”

— A guest post by Joanne C. Simpson, a university lecturer, BCPS stakeholder, and former staff writer at The Miami Herald, South Florida Sun-Sentinel and Johns Hopkins Magazine.

Postscripts:

*As noted here in The Baltimore Post: The company e.Republic (which backs the Center for Digital Education) works with over 700 companies – from “Fortune 500s to startups” –  to help executives ‘power their public sector sales and marketing success.’ Among those listed: Intel, IBM, Blackboard, Microsoft, Aerohive, Apple, Samsung, Dell and Google.” Intel, IBM, Microsoft, Apple, and other companies are familiar entities at BCPS.

Also, among a litany of mostly no-bid digital curricula contracts recently implemented at the county’s public school district: the reading/English language software program iReady, which had a $1.2 million BCPS contract spending authority expanded in July to $3.2 million for fewer than two years more, as approved by the Board of Education and requested by interim superintendent White. 
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iReady by Curriculum Associates: contract spending authority
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DreamBox Math, meanwhile, jumped nearly $2 million more to $3.2 million for just three more years.
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Such price tags total a whopping more than $6 million for two software programs alone in a cash-strapped school system with many pressing needs. Contract spending authorities approved by the Board of Education for such no-bid curricula or related contracts are now surpassing $80 million, just for the next several years, BCPS records show. Yet the school district cannot pay for enough social workers, with a BCPS ratio of only one worker to serve more than 1,000 students, when “the American School of Social Work recommends one social worker for every 250 students,” as this post also eloquently reveals. And this in a school district where nearly half of students live in poverty.
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On a hot day in early September, in one of dozens of county schools without air conditioning due to “limited funding,” the temperatures inside classrooms were recorded as high as 114 degrees. One 16-year-old “felt crippled by a pounding headache. Her asthma started acting up. She put her head onto her desk instead of working on how to translate DNA to RNA” in her biology class. It was simply too hot:. “It was impossible to learn.”
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Side note:
In the end, many would agree digital technology has a place as a modern tool of learning, yet where is the balance?  Analyses are required when children’s minds and futures are involved, especially for the young. Consider this objective 2017 National Education Policy Center report on “blended and virtual learning;” and a balanced recent Business Insider story on DreamBox, which also questions the “personalized-learning” computer-based approach, and points out just how many data points are collected on children50,000 per hour per student just by DreamBox. (Children have been required by BCPS to spend a certain amount of time on DreamBox.) Meanwhile, well-conducted research, that’s not funded by tech companies themselves, does not reveal statistically significant positive outcomes. Current software should not replace teachers, as promoters and investors claim it can. And minor tech tools should not be used as silver bullets. Overall, consider the widespread industry marketing campaigns and venture capitalist profit-margins behind it all. — JCS
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STAT Year Three Year-end Evaluation

Despite Dr. Dance’s departure, Interim Superintendent Ms. Verletta White is committed to STAT.  As she noted in her message to the BCPS community, First-Week Thoughts, July 6, 2017:

“I do want to make clear that we are not changing course or introducing new initiatives. Our schools are doing well, and technology is a key leverage tool for personalized learning. S.T.A.T. digital learning and Passport elementary world language instruction are just part of how we do business.”

The STAT digital learning initiative kicked off in BCPS in 2014.  Three years later, here are Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Research and Reform in Education’s (CRRE) Year report and slide-show presentation for 2016-17.  Both were presented at the Board of Education’s August 8, 2017 meeting (click on Meetings tab).  Video available here.  STAT report begins at about 1 hour, 11 minutes into the meeting.

The BOE Curriculum Committee will discuss STAT at its Thursday, September 14 meeting; the meeting begins at 4:30pm in Building E, Room 114.  Meetings are recorded and archived.

Report Highlights:

“An examination of MAP scores in Lighthouse and non-Lighthouse Grades 1 -3 showed some impact on student achievement. Lighthouse students in Grades 1-2 exhibited improvements in reading and mathematics scores across all three years of implementation and Grade 3 increased reading and mathematics scores in all but the present year. Further, all grades exceeded the national average mathematics and reading scores. Non-Lighthouse Grades 1-3 also exhibited improvements in reading scores across all three years and, similarly, Grades 1-2 increased mathematics scores. Grades 1-3 exceeded the national.”

“Principals and S.T.A.T. teachers perceived that enhanced teaching practices and stronger curricula were increasing mastery of CCSS. However, they were generally hesitant to attribute the MAP gains directly or solely to S.T.A.T. We agree with this assessment for several reasons. First, gains in achievement were not projected by the Logic Model this early in the implementation, although we cannot rule out more rapidly occurring impacts. Second, there are numerous programs and initiatives in BCPS, which could contribute to improved student achievement independently of S.T.A.T.”

Lighthouse (LH, pilot) Grade 3 MAP (RIT) Reading Scores:

Pre-program (2013-14): 188.52

Year 1 (2014-15): 194.14

Year 2 (2015-16): 198.37

Year 3 (2016-17): 197.49

Non-LH Grade 3 MAP (RIT) Reading Scores:

Pre-program (2014-15): 194.30

Year 1 (2015-16): 196.30

Year 2 (2016-17): 196.57

STAT-us BCPS NOTE:  While MAP gains are indicated in the report, a close reading shows them to be marginal. The RIT (Rasch Unit) score reflects a student’s academic knowledge, skills, and abilities. RIT scores range from 100 to 350. Additionally, MAP (a growth measure) and PARCC (a proficiency measure) are very different.  As noted on Page 134 of the BCPS FY18 Operating Budget, in FY2016, only 50.2% of third-graders were reading on grade level. Minimal growth in RIT scores is not closing major achievement gaps.

Issues:

~ Off-task device use. “Teachers at all levels described the challenge of monitoring and managing device use during instructional hours, and their comments reflected those when asked to describe off-task/inappropriate use above.”

~ Technical issues. “Some of the technical issues expressed by middle and high school teachers centered on students’ lack of accountability with devices, such as returning to school with a depleted battery, forgetting the device at home, or breaking the devices. Other technical issues mentioned by teachers at all grade level included slow Internet or BCPSOne not functioning.”

~ Lack of support. Teachers at all levels conveyed feeling overwhelmed and not supported with technology integration. Some teachers described not having enough time for planning, as noted by a Lighthouse middle school teacher: “TIME!! More planning time is definitely needed!!!” Others mentioned the challenge of attempting to learn new approaches to instruction along with other initiatives. A Lighthouse elementary teacher described the struggle of “incorporating the new grading system at the same time as technology,” while another noted, “My greatest challenge is just not taking on too much at one time. Learning each new innovative ‘thing’ at a time rather than trying to do it all at once.” Others echoed this sentiment, as a Lighthouse middle school teacher described the challenge of “deciding which resources to use and which to pass on. There were plenty of resources available but it felt as though I was supposed to utilize as many as I could rather than focusing on/mastering a few. I eventually minimized the resources I utilized.”

Of great concern was JHU researcher Dr. Morrison’s statement, made during her presentation to the BOE, that the initiative was overwhelmingly supported by the community.  This was based on the 2017 Stakeholder Survey, which offered three vague and leading questions regarding personalized learning and technology.  These questions would mean little to community members altogether unaware of STAT and high-school students and parents not even connected to STAT (in 2016-17, the initiative was only in place in four Lighthouse (pilot) high schools).

Personalized Learning:  Parents, school-based staff, and central office staff expressed the most agreement that making learning personalized for students helps teachers meet the academic needs of all students.

Access to Technology:  Agreement was high across students, parents, school-based staff, and central office staff that access to technology increases opportunities for making learning more personalized for students.

Teacher Use of Technology:  Students, parents, school administrators, and central office staff had similarly high levels of agreement that teachers can use technology to meet the academic needs of all students.

Resigned BCPS Superintendent Dallas Dance Takes Consulting Jobs: UPDATED

A guest op-ed by Joanne C. Simpson

Dallas Dance could be coming to a school district near you. For a visit anyway. Dance’s new role after leaving his $287,000-plus annual superintendent job at Baltimore County Public Schools–a cocktail of national consulting gigs.

Two companies, MGT Consulting Group and the Center for Digital Education, have had at least tangential relationships with numerous BCPS vendors, the superintendent, and/or the school system itself.

UPDATE: A third was recently posted on the former superintendent’s LinkedIn site:Partner, Strategos Group, Jul 2017 – Present. Work with SELECT clients who are committed to high-impact business growth and transaction advisory services.” (The co-founder and managing partner of Strategos, A. “Trey” Traviesa, is also CEO and chairman of the board at MGT. In the for-profit companies’ skill set: “leveraging strategic relationships.”)

The day before Dance’s final day on June 30, the superintendent announced the full-time position with MGT Consulting Group, a large Florida-based educational consulting company with offices nationwide. Among MGT goals: “Future-Facing. MGT recognizes the changing face of education, as requisite knowledge shifts and desirable goals are reimagined so students are prepared for a 21st century workplace.”

A current focus of MGT Consulting, one shared by Dance, is “technology strategic planning:” “Our experts know how to effectively produce strategic planning documents including all necessary inputs and are able to present the technology strategic plans to governing bodies in a way that encourages adoption.”

Dance’s strategic planning skills are evident in reports for BCPS, including Blueprint 2.0. Yet there are questions about the financial efficacy–as well as no objective evidence of positive student learning outcomes–for Dance’s signature laptop-per-student initiative known as Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow (STAT). Among other controversies, Dance was criticized when Baltimore County’s standardized PARCC student test scores last year came in lower than districts in the region, and in some cases dropped below the state average. Still unproven since launched in 2014, STAT nonetheless is being used widely–by Dance and others, including BCPS’ digital director Ryan Imbriale–as an example to replicate in other school districts around the country. 

Dance and other top district administrators have also traveled widely across the U.S., spending hundreds of thousands in taxpayer dollars to do just that. See post with details here.

The backdrop: Computer and software sales to schools in the U.S. are increasingly big business—a Silicon Valley-born market projected to hit $21 billion by 2020.

***

Among other links, MGT Consulting Group had a contract with Baltimore County Public Schools in the past, Dance later said, noting he will be a senior vice president for MGT, in part “to lead a new effort to provide school systems advice on improving academic performance.”

And a second part-time consulting position: a Senior Fellow at the Center for Digital Education (CDE), advising technology industry companies creating educational products. Dance, a longtime public school official, will now work inside that industry, yet consult with school districts as well.

As recently reported: “Specializing in K-12 and higher education technology trends, policy and funding, the CDE is also a division of e.Republic, a national research company which focuses exclusively on education on the state and local government levels.  According to their website, e.Republic works with over 700 companies – from “Fortune 500s to startups” –  in order to help those companies ‘power their public sector sales and marketing success.’  Among the companies listed: Intel, IBM, Blackboard, Microsoft, Aerohive, Apple, Samsung, Dell and Google.” Intel, IBM, Microsoft, Apple, and other companies are familiar entities at BCPS. (See contracts below).

Why these consulting groups? And why now? (Dance resigned just one year into a second four-year contract, giving the district just two months notice). Perhaps an answer is partly here: A recently approved change in BCPS’ Ethics Code apparently raises questions about any employee participating in, or negotiating a job with, an entity doing business with BCPS and related (see below).

Ethics code revisions also appear to put limits on any employee participating/holding a position in a Limited Liability Corporation. (Dance has just such an LLC.) The timing of all this is quite likely not coincidental.

Dance unexpectedly announced his resignation on Tuesday, April 18, the day various Ethics Code changes were set for a first read by the Board of Education. BCPS’ Policy Review Committee, which is also advised by the district’s General Council Margaret-Ann F. Howie, had suggested the following amendments, among others:

See the policy here and linked below: http://www.boarddocs.com/mabe/bcps/Board.nsf/files/AN3JHM4B9A7F/$file/8363_Policy_PRC_3-13-17.pdf

The Ethics Code details: Policy 8363 “Conflict of Interest–Prohibited Conduct,” with added language in ALL CAPS, notes that except as otherwise permitted, a school official may not participate in any matter in which the following is a party: “A business entity, INCLUDING A LIMITED LIABILITY COMPANY OR A LIMITED LIABILITY PARTNERSHIP, for which the school official or a QUALIFYING relative of the official is an officer, director, trustee, partner or employee.”

In Dance’s 2016 financial disclosure forms, he acknowledged ownership of the LLC Deliberate Excellence Consulting. Dance wrote that Deliberate Excellence, registered in Maryland, was formerly in the name of his father, Roy Dance, in statements made “under penalties of perjury,” according to the forms. (See more on discrepancies with the LLC in Postscript/Update2 below). 

Does this Ethics Code revision, which would take effect after Dance leaves, make such directorship a complication or a conflict? Seems so. Maybe that LLC was too important to let go?

Dance–who has declined to comment on STAT ‘s more than $300 million in costs, his taxpayer-funded travel and related issues–reported no personal income from the LLC.

Among other recent developments, Google Alerts on June 12 noted that Dance is also publishing a book by the same name as his LLC: Deliberate Excellence.

“SAGE Publishing: Shaun Dallas Dance Baltimore County Public Schools, Superintendent. Deliberate Excellence. Professional Book.” It’s unclear if Dance has received a financial advance for the book, which is due out in early 2018, or if that would be prohibited under the district’s ethics code; his role as superintendent is cited specifically. Any income would need to be reported on financial disclosure forms, where disparities have led to recent financial disclosure violations for Dance. 

Also, under the revised Ethics Code Policy 8363 is 2 (c and d), which notes that a “school official may not participate in any matter in which any of the following is a party [including] a business entity with which the school official . . HAS APPLIED FOR A POSITION OR is negotiating EMPLOYMENT.” It appears that also covers any business with a contract with the district, according to the policy. (The language is rather convoluted. Any employment attorneys out there?) A quick search of BCPS procurement databases does not reveal a current contract for MGT Consulting Group. Will we see one down the pike?

Dance does have numerous crossover affiliations with the Center for Digital Education, its partners, and a related publication, Converge, winning awards and accolades here, here and here–the last in which Dance was named “Maryland Outstanding Leader Using Technology in 2017,” just several weeks before the superintendent announced his resignation: “Dr. Dance’s honor also qualifies him to compete at the national level for an award from the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE).” The state award was given by the Maryland affiliate of ISTE, which is also listed as a CDE “collaborator.”

Yet Dance also serves on the board of ISTE, and did so while superintendent. He presented at ISTE conferences and conducted numerous “telephone conferences” with ISTE’s board members, according to his superintendent Weekly Updates. See this Bloomberg profile of ISTE, Inc., which notes Dance’s board re-appointment, as well as ISTE revenues and tax forms–annual revenue topping $15.2 million in 2014, the most recent year included.

ISTE edtech sponsors and corporate members, meanwhile, include Microsoft, Discovery Education, CDW-G, and other for-profit companies also awarded mostly no-bid multi-million dollar contracts with BCPS under Dance’s tenure. (Just the three named above approach nearly $18 million over the next few years alone; See also contract links below). ISTE’s sponsor contribution levels are marked here, including ‘Mission’ sponsors like Microsoft at $150,000 annually.

There are way too many edtech ties here . . . 

(Even during the superintendent’s last week on the job, according to his 6/30/17 Weekly Update, Dance spent two school days attending the “International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) quarterly board meeting in San Antonio, TX.” CDE officials apparently also attended, announcing Dance’s fellowship position in a press release prior to his actually leaving).

The Ethics Code revisions, approved by the board at the June 13 meeting, would apparently need to be reviewed by state officials before being made law, which is expected in July. Dance’s last day: June 30. Interim superintendent Verletta White officially takes the helm of the 112,000-student school district on July 1. (A BCPS top administrator, White is also linked to the CDE as a member of the center’s Chief Academic Officers Group.)

Overall, were Superintendent Dance’s consulting and travel proclivities too much for our cash-strapped public school system, with its many unmet needs? Whether or not recent Ethics Code changes factored into the superintendent’s departure, various violations or perceptions of conflicts of interest could be underlining issues.

Perhaps this mostly private-sector consulting scenario better suits his promotional charms. The new positions do allow him the flexibility to live close to family in Richmond, Va. Either way, it seems the nationwide trips promoting the expansion of technology in education–much of that travel on the public dime–has indeed paid off for the superintendent’s career and future, and might yet do the same for other edtech traveling BCPS administrators.

In the end, however, what does it all mean for BCPS students?

Joanne C. Simpson is a former staff writer at The Miami Herald, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, and Johns Hopkins Magazine, as well as a BCPS stakeholder, college educator, and freelance writer based in Baltimore.

Postscript/Update 2:

Dance’s Deliberate Excellence Consulting (DEC, LLC) also has a checkered history. Even though the superintendent vowed not to consult after his first ethics violation for a side job with the SUPES Academy–with which BCPS was doing business–questions remain. Dance “agreed that he will not take any other consulting jobs as long as he works for the school system. Dance also said in a statement that he would be more careful to avoid conflicts,” according to the Baltimore Sun.

Here is a thorough post on the LLC’s history.  And, as of now, Deliberate Excellence Consulting LLC (ID no. W14868442) is still ACTIVE, yet also listed as “Not in Good Standing” with the State of Maryland. The document still cites Roy R. Dance as the resident agent. See possible reasons for the new status, excerpted below.

https://egov.maryland.gov/BusinessExpress/EntitySearch/BusinessInformation/W14868442

Not in Good Standing” means the business entity is not in compliance with one or more Maryland laws that apply to businesses and their responsibilities in this State. The status can be returned to Good Standing by addressing the manner in which the business is out of compliance.”

“The most common reasons that a business is not in good standing are
– A missing Business Personal Property Return (PPR), also called a Form 1 – A monetary penalty resulting from the late filing of a PPR
– An issue with the Maryland Office of the Comptroller
– An issue with the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation – A check or other form of payment that was dishonored
– Not having an active resident agent.”

And related BCPS contract spending authority links:

Microsoft, $2.9 million

https://www.bcps.org/apps/bcpscontracts/contractFiles/060915%20JMI-624-15%20Microsoft%20Software%20Solutions.pdf

Discovery Education, $10 million

https://www.bcps.org/apps/bcpscontracts/contractFiles/092716%20RGA-127-14%20Modification%20and%20Extension%20-%20Faculty%20Professional%20Development%20Streaming%20Content%20and%20Related%20Services.pdf

CDW-G, $5 million (partial)

https://www.bcps.org/apps/bcpscontracts/contractFiles/120616%20RGA-107-07%20Modification%20-%20The%20National%20Joint%20Powers%20Alliance%20Purchasing%20Consortium.pdf

IBM $2.6 million

https://www.bcps.org/apps/bcpscontracts/contractFiles/JMI-614-04%20BOARD%20EXHIBIT%202-3-2015.pdf

And among many others, a contract spending authority for tech just approved 6/13/17. Apple, Inc., within a consortium that also includes Dell and CDW-G: $20 million

https://www.bcps.org/apps/bcpscontracts/contractFiles/061317%20JMI-631-17%204%20Information%20Technology%20Hardware%20LB%20.pdf

Johns Hopkins University’s Mid-Year STAT Evaluation

STAT Year Three Mid-Year Evaluation Presentation by the Johns Hopkins Center for Research and Reform in Education (CRRE), which is working under a 2014-19 $711,000 contractwith the Baltimore County Public School system.

STAT Year Three, Mid-Year Evaluation Report by various CCRE researchers, some of whom also conduct reports for edtech industry companies and organizations; That includes a $80,000 study for DreamBox Learning Math, which is also a BCPS vendor with a nearly $1.2 million contract, set to be expanded. “Co-Principal Investigator (2015 – 2016). Efficacy study of DreamBox Learning Math. DreamBox ($80,000).”

February 16, 2017 Baltimore County Board of Education Curriculum and Instruction Committee meeting at which the evaluation was presented.

During the meeting, which was live streamed (see link above), BOE Member Ann Miller posted on her Facebook page: BCPS Board Member Ann Miller (NOTE:  LH = Lighthouse, the schools where STAT is piloted):

BCPS Board Member Ann Miller
BCPS Board Member Ann Miller Gilliss: What is explanation for performance changes? A: results are not statistically significant. LH schools were slightly more economically disadvantaged. Learning curve. Not enough data to show but encouraging on PARCC compared to state.
BCPS Board Member Ann Miller
BCPS Board Member Ann MillerGilliss: should we expect continued growth as we go forward? A: PARCC we are looking at LH schools in Y2. I would expect performance to be still low for new program. These results aren’t saying STAT was effective in achievement, but does say STAT didn’t interfere in achievement in Y2.

Videos: A Tale of Three Policies; Save BCPS Policy 8120 & STAT Conversations; A Side-by-Side Analysis

Two more enlightening videos detailing what’s happening behind the scenes.

The first video illustrates how Board of Education policies are being altered to advance STAT when no one is watching (except for BCPS Chicken Little, that is).

Policy 8120: Purpose, Role and Responsibilities of the Board of Education

BCPS Chicken Little’s second video carries the tagline:

Conversations about Baltimore County Public Schools’ 1:1 “Student-Centered,” “Computer-Centered,” Personalized and Competency-Based Learning Digital Initiative, its associated costs, convinced elected officials, and the always tardy evaluations.

What’s been lost to pay for STAT?  Compare what was said about this at a recent Board of Education meeting and on the national stage at the ASU GSV ed-tech summit.

A related conversation from Discovery Future@Now Conference Panel: http://www.discoveryeducation.com/futurenow2014/roadmap.cfm 

“I build a case: we will either pay for it now or we pay for it later. And what we can do, and school systems do this, is find the money for things we want to find money for. But we have to be, I think the best superintendents are salesman and saleswomen.

But the other thing, too, is that before we ask for additional money — because we know it’s going to cost more — we have to do serious scrubs of our own budgets, so as positions come open, do we need to fill those positions?

But we’ve also been very upfront with our county as it costs additional money, we’re going to be very upfront and honest whether there are positions that we can decrease in the school system that are non-school based.  How do we then redirect our funds? But we’ve been very upfront that it’s going to cost more. But, we have to demonstrate those early wins, those success stories in our 10 Lighthouse Schools to give us the leverage to say that we need to continue this.”

What’s the Status of STAT’s Digital Costs? In a Dozen Years, that Could Be a Billion Dollar Question. Updated.

A year ago, the public first glimpsed the costs of Baltimore County Public Schools’ digital initiative when the “STAT budget” was released. A revised tally is back, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

A guest op-ed by Joanne C. Simpson

A blur of money is spinning around the virtual vortex where our Students and Teachers are supposedly Accessing Tomorrow via STAT. The question: Is this a space-time passage to the future or a budgetary black hole?

The $1.6 billion Baltimore County Public School’s proposed operating budget for next school year was just released—and the cost of the laptop-per-student initiative still remains nearly as opaque as wormholes and astrophysics.

Overall, the schools’  digital initiatives’ scenario seems a mash-up of multimillion-dollar “techbooks,” controversial Spanish-language software, unclear rising expenses, possibly stealth purchasing policies, and interactive projectors that could tap a school’s budget for nearly $6,000—per classroom projector.

(For example, review links and other info below regarding nearly $80 million in mostly no-bid digital curricula contract spending authorities in place at BCPS.)

An early 2017 “updated” BCPS “6-Year Proposed Instructional Digital Conversion Plan” predicts spending on the one-laptop-per-student program at $257 million by 2018-19, including an initial $13 million for wireless network infrastructure and nearly $200 million for students’ and teachers’ laptops. See plan here, p. 11.

At first, it seems the “Total Cost” of the 6-year conversion comes in about $28 million less than last year’s spending projections—mostly because of deleted or redirected millions slated overall for projectors, a project temporarily slowed last year by a school board vote. “Total Annual Costs,” are pegged at $57 million (including about $52 million annually just to lease laptops that turn over every four years).

A lowered overall price estimate would seem welcome since STAT, touted as a model for other districts, is one of the costliest and most experimental digital school initiatives in the nation. Recent documents and administration responses, however, reveal the actual price tag is likely higher. Much higher. (See also Postscript below).

BCPS Superintendent S. Dallas Dance has declined to comment for op-eds regarding the digital initiative’s costs, but he downplayed STAT’s financial heft at the Jan. 10 Board of Education meeting when he presented the proposed 2017-18 budget, which requests an 8.5 percent increase—$64 million more—from the county. “To dispel a rumor, STAT has not driven the Baltimore County Public School’s budget,” Dance said, highlighting increased spending on salaries. “I’ll say that one more time: STAT has not contributed to growing budgets.”

Yet concerns about rising costs under the superintendent’s overall Blueprint 2.0 plan clearly remain:

  • Spending authorities* have been approved for mostly no-bid contracts worth tens of millions of dollars for digital curricula and related software, the majority funded outside the “STAT budget:—a staggering $75 million and counting, BCPS records show. (See various contract links below).
  • Costs will likely rise as the student population at 112,000 is expected to increase by more than 6,700 within the decade.
  • And BCPS’ pilots under Blueprint 2.0 are already creating financial woes: more than $4 million has gone out the door on the dysfunctional computer-based ScholarChip ID program alone–mostly for equipment bought, and sitting idle or underused. And this in a school district with many dire needs, and nearly half of its students living at the poverty level.

See these links on When School Dollars Go to Waste, and a similar tech equipment debacle, including maintenance fees on unused equipment and software in Fort Worth, Tx. “Meanwhile, audits regularly find wasted funds at the district level, including one last summer that identified more than $2.7 million in misspent technology funding for schools in Fort Worth, Texas,” notes The Atlantic.

Overall, what exactly has been spent on digital-related curricula, services, hardware, personnel, training, and infrastructure from anywhere in the public school budget—or is slated to be spent? At the current rate, STAT and related costs could approach $1 billion by the first dozen years, sources say. More BCPS transparency would be helpful, yet an external or state legislative audit might be the only way to know for sure.

A school board budget work session, open to the public, is set for Jan. 24 and 31. The overall FY 18 superintendent’s budget will go before the board, County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, and the County Council for consideration. As people review this 328-page document (nearly $2 billion including the capital budget), here are a few areas to explore:

How Much is that ‘Tech Book’ in the Window?

Overall, most STAT and related costs are perpetual if BCPS plans to remain a highly digital school district—expenditures that could rise substantially. School districts do need better tech options and wifi, but the scope of what’s going on here seems alarming.

A flurry of digital curricula spending authorities for vendor contracts were approved or expanded by the school board in 2016. For example, Discovery Education ($4 million expanded to $10 million (!) for just two more years); Middlebury Interactive Languages ($7.5 million) for 13 years (a part of the BCPS Blueprint 2.0 plan); and DreamBox Learning, Inc., whose contract would nearly double for just the next 9 months, to $1.2 million. (See contract spending authority links for such vendors below, or at bcps.org.)

Discovery Education’s contract will include “techbooks,” which do seem to offer some cool new options: a blend of text and visual media in different languages, and text-to-speech (read-aloud). Yet students’ laptops are already loaded with some of those services, such as text-to-speech in seven languages via Kurzweil 3000 Firefly.

Costs for “techbooks” gave pause to nearby Montgomery County Public Schools, a larger system with 159,000 students. MCPS is also known as a digital district.

“We clearly as a system are looking at what the possibilities are for the future in terms of digital resources and digital textbooks,” Betsy Brown, MCPS’ director of curriculum, has said. “But we have to consider cost effectiveness, and we also have to examine how current the resources will be.”

Brown told the Gazette: “There are no big savings incentives in making the transition from textbooks to digital tech books.”

MCPS has elected to focus district funds on Discovery Education’s popular video streaming services, at about $260,000 annually since 2014, according to MCPS records.

BCPS, which already had video streaming before the $6 million expansion, has said the “techbooks” would cost less than regular textbooks, yet long-term licensing fees have not been fully disclosed. Here are some struggles other districts have found, especially when they cut paper textbook funding in favor of digital options.

Meanwhile, Middlebury Interactive Languages (MIL), the centerpiece of BCPS’ Passport Program, has been a primary element of Blueprint 2.0’s second-language acquisition goal.  This year it expanded to 40 elementary schools, and there are plans to bring the computer-based language program to middle schools as well. MIL also exemplifies ongoing software and other 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 licensing fees, online or cloud subscriptions can increase digital costs to districts.

MIL also has raised controversy elsewhere. Until recently, the computer-based language program partnered with Middlebury College, whose professors staged a revolt and no-confidence vote in 2014 because of quality problems and questions about co-owner K12, Inc,. a troubled online education company. In 2015, the Vermont college sold its 40 percent stake in MIL to the for-profit K12, which is now the sole owner.

Note Dr. S. Dallas Dance’s testimony in company ads for Education Week, and MIL’s website, which features Dance and BCPS in SEVEN separate sites/links for the for-profit company. Google the connections, and see Here. This fledgling software’s $7.5 million contract authority with BCPS goes out 13 years, to 2029 (!).

Numerous other spending authorities for digital curricula or related contracts have been approved or expanded by the school board in the last year, including Curriculum Associates/iReady ($1.2 million); Code to the Future ($1 million); and Apex Learning ($3 million, with $2.5 million for about two more years). The list goes on.

Overall, such big-dollar figures certainly surpass the $1 million slated per year in the STAT budget under Curriculum Resources/client software, some of which is being piloted in schools and set to expand. What will the costs be then? Can these vendor expectations even be met?

Consider other BCPS pilots, like the student lanyard ID program, whose vendor, ScholarChip Card LLC, was paid at least $3.7 million by mid-2016, according to BCPS sources (and now past $4 million, see postscript). Superintendent Dance did a promotional video for ScholarChip as the program launched here in 2014 (among other edtech tie-ins to BCPS vendors, and a recent superintendent ethics violation finding).

ScholarChip is a Pearson Independent Software Vendor.

More than $4 million for a mostly failed pilot? (Students no longer wear the ID lanyards, which were onerous; swipe-in attendance kiosks were sent back or sit idle, and other problems.) Just ask teachers or principals. The original spending authority was for a whopping $10 million; are payments still going out? Does BCPS have this kind of champagne budget? Could other cash-strapped school systems pay for all this? (See a few answers below. In short: $220,000 is still going out every year. Until 2024 (!).

When school board members in September asked how the STAT budget could cover the Discovery Education contract alone, administrators cited funding from other district curriculum coffers. A county audit of last year’s budget noted significant “areas of under-spending” by BCPS, including textbook supplies, special education operational supplies, and transportation professional services.

The Office of the County Auditor wanted to know: “why BCPS has chosen to prioritize this initiative over other competing funding needs.”

Creative Procurement 101

Many of these for-profit companies, meanwhile, are being awarded no-bid contracts under a BCPS curriculum policy, Superintendent Rule 6002 and related. https://www.bcps.org/system/policies_rules/rules/6000series/rule6002.pdf

Under the policy, curricula are evaluated by BCPS staff and others, without ‘requests for proposals’ or other bidding processes. (Discovery Education’s contract also includes professional development services, not just curricula.)

And this despite the fact that no-bid contracts have raised concerns in area school districts and elsewhere. The Maryland Office of Legislative Audits in 2015 also criticized BCPS for a lack of “competitive procurement methods” for various services. BCPS said the district is complying with state laws. https://www.ola.state.md.us/Reports/Schools/BCPS15.pdf

Board-approved “spending authorities” usually mean BCPS could spend up to a listed amount. Dance has pointed out that actual contract costs sometimes come in lower (though many spending authorities return to the board for a vote to expand).

In addition, and possibly more concerning, the superintendent apparently has other sole powers: “Contracts or contract modifications of $500,000 or less may be executed by the Superintendent or his/her designee,” under a BCPS Policy 3215 questioned at the Jan. 10 board meeting. It remains unclear how often this option is used and how.

This all seems to leave the door open for a frightening lack of oversight.

The superintendent does seem savvy at finding money for STAT (which the FY18 budget notes “requires a significant funding commitment”) from various sources, including federal E-rate funds for networking, and a $1.3 million grant to help support STAT—which will run out after next year. With all the financial pressure, the squeeze is on. BCPS internal “redirect” efforts have been noted elsewhere. In the 2015 Maryland State Education Technology Plan, BCPS staff answered survey questions about the district’s tech integration, including: “What are your consistent sources of funding?”

The BCPS response: “Continued cuts and redirects to budgets in all areas of operation within BCPS are impacted.” http://dlslibrary.state.md.us/publications/JCR/2015/2015_98a.pdf

So, again, what are the real costs of STAT, lost opportunities and all?

Overall, there’s lots of uncertainty about “forever costs” for BCPS’ out-in-front digital initiative being watched by districts around the nation, nay the world, as a model for tech in education—despite unknown long-term learning outcomes, high costs, and student measures like BCPS’ 2016 PARCC standardized test scores lower than area counties.

Still, BCPS wins awards for STAT, here, here and here, mostly from edtech industry-supported groups. Regarding one event cited: “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,” notes the DILA 2015 Open Door Policy Award, hosted by EdSurge, Inc. and Digital Promise.

BCPS is using Hewlett-Packard tablet/laptops, and Microsoft software, in its classrooms: The spending authority for the HP device contract: $205 million.

How is STAT Going So Far?

First rolled out in Fall 2014, STAT’s $1,400 HP EliteBook Revolve 810s are now in grades K-6th, and 7th in several test schools known as “Lighthouse Schools.” Three high schools are testing the laptops and digital curricula in grades 9-12, including Owings Mills, Chesapeake, and Pikesville, and will continue to pilot STAT next year, Dance said.

A series of evaluations revealing successes and flaws so far have been conducted by the Johns Hopkins University Center for Research and Reform in Education (CRRE). Parent responses have been mixed—with some support for the tablet/laptop hybrids and digital learning options, yet ongoing concerns about increased screen time and physical or visual fallout for students, as well as software glitches, increased reliance on computer-embedded assessments, funding and other issues. (See agenda/video under Meetings tab for public comment, Jan 10 meeting.)

One parent noted recently on ABCSchools: Advocates for Baltimore County Schools Facebook public group that it seems BCPS is serving as an example to convince other school districts to “engage in this great experiment that was really all about using the public ed system to research and develop the EdTech products [that] private industry is trying to develop with no knowledge if it all will even work or be beneficial to children.

“And in the meantime we will spend hundreds of millions on STAT which we could have spent on what we already know through research already works. Smaller class sizes, equitable healthy facilities, and we might even give every child in every school free breakfast and lunch.”

With two children in the school system, I share many of the same concerns.

There are other worries. The proposed budget indicates downward trends in student performance, (p.103), including a drop in Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) scores for grade 3 students, from 57 % reading on-grade level in 2013-14, before STAT, to 50 % of third-graders in 2015-16—after all grades 1-3 had the devices.

At the Jan. 10 meeting, Dance emphasized a focus on human capital over tech in the superintendent’s FY 18 budget. “Eighty-three percent of our budget is going to people, with salaries and benefits,” he said. “And we want to make sure we focus on our people.” The budget does includes a 2 percent pay increase for employees “and a plan to hire more than 100 new teachers.” (The district had that many unfilled teaching positions just a couple weeks before school started in the Fall.)

Yet there’s the ongoing 168 teacher/mentor positions to support STAT—with nearly all annual salary costs outside the STAT budget (about $8 million for teachers not assigned to classrooms), an issue raised recently in TABCO teacher association campaigns.

BCPS school board member Kathleen Causey has voiced concerns about high-dollar contracts, purchasing Policy 3215, and opportunity costs: “This is an unprecedented expense for untested curriculum,” Causey said after the meeting, noting that children “need to develop their humanity before we focus on all this intensive data learning.”

Pricey Interactive Projectors: In The House

The Tale of the Interactive Projectors reveals the push-and-pull of trying to create what some term a “digital ecosystem” in a school district whose physical ecosystem is already plagued with crumbling school buildings, brown drinking water, a lack of functioning AC and heat, oft-scarce classroom supplies, and ever-challenging student nutritional needs.

(Transportation woes have been on many parents’ minds, as noted lately in social media. Yet at a school board Building and Contracts Committee meeting that reviewed tire contracts, the issue of using “retread” tires on school buses was discussed. A few board members expressed concerns, but staff said it was “okay,” because recapped tires were being put “on the back wheels.” See contract # ARA-206-16, $1 million.)

For the proposed Boxlight projectors (the administration wanted 6,900 for each classroom-plus), the virtual rug was pulled out when, in February 2016, a contract for $41.4 million (!) was rejected by the school board and sent out to be rebid under different parameters.

Trouble is: The projectors are still being bought, apparently outside board purview.

Individual schools are being told to pick up the tab out of dwindling BCPS allocations. A July 29 superintendent’s weekly bulletin to staff: “School administrators who plan on purchasing projectors in school year 2016-2017 should review the approved projectors.”

The required options, according to BCPS documents: $5,899 with amplified sound system; $4,522 (sans that sound system); and a non-interactive table-top projector and package, $1,051.

Yet schools’ per-student BCPS allocations for instructional materials and supplies—including such projectors—have dropped, nearly 6 percent in elementary schools by FY 15—from $142 per student to $134, a tightening of discretionary purchases to “ensure compatibility with STAT specifications,” notes the 2016 STAT Biannual Conversions Update.

In fact, under STAT “all technology will be fully transitioned to a central budget” by next year, and instructional supplies centralized further (see pp. 83, 118 of the FY 18 budget).

At what cost in the long run? Those interactive projectors for 6,000 or so classrooms would still top $30 million to purchase, and they have a shelf life of 5 or so years. Meanwhile, the Boxlight projectors, which board members and county officials questioned because of high pricing and other issues, are already showing up in BCPS’ new elementary schools. The ‘selected’ projectors also use components by Clinton, the firm whose contract the board turned back. When the issue was raised, administrators said the board never told them not to buy single projectors.

(They might be terrific classroom tools, though comparable or more-established classroom projectors could be purchased for less, experts say. Once a model is bought, there’s pressure to buy that same model for consistent teacher training and compatibility. Either way, some digital services, such as Discovery Education, seem to rely partly on getting them in place pronto.)

School board member Causey brought up the projector discrepancy in comments at the board meeting. “It has come to my attention recently that there is one major contract that somehow has gone awry,” Causey said.

“There is a requirement for schools to choose from one of two or so choices in a new interactive classroom set-up,” she added. But “is that the equipment the board feels is the best use of taxpayer dollars?”

Resistance is Futile?

No matter how the pixels fall, taxpayers—that means us—are the ones footing the Very Big Bill for STAT, the Digital Ecosystem, 24/7 Learning, A Digital Conversion, or whatever this “transformation” might be called. Are we heading down a financially unsustainable path? At this point, I’d call for a state legislative audit to find out.

Among pressing FY 18 budget questions:

  • What constitutes “other instructional costs/contracted services,” which have jumped from $10.6 million in FY 14 to $53.6 million in the proposed budget? (p. 80) That’s a 500 percent increase. (See postscript below.)
  • Which vendors are getting paid an “increase of $6.2 million in one-time expenditures” for “new BCPS curriculum materials.” (p. 69). About $7 million is also listed in the budget of the Chief Academic Officer, who selects curricula for “instructional textbooks & supplies.” (p. 223).

These and other queries were posed to BCPS officials last week, with no answers by the time of this post. Baltimore County Councilwoman Vicki Almond’s office has forwarded the questions to county auditors who will review the school budget.

Some responses, and the updated “STAT budget,” can be found in this board Work Session document released 1/24, and in postscripts below.

Yet we still have no tally on superintendent and staff travel expenses for dozens and dozens of conferences to promote STAT. Consider this Jan. 24-27 Future of Education Technology Conference in Orlando, FL, where at least four BCPS staffers, including Ryan Imbriale, executive director of Innovative Learning—and his wife, Jeanne, director of Enterprise Applications—are presenting to school leaders, with such themes as: “Learn the value of utilizing a digital ecosystem in your district.”

In the end, this all seems the tip of the proverbial iceberg (oddly enough, school administrators compare BCPS to the Titanic (see this video, 9 min. 35 sec), apparently since a large school system is hard to turn. Maybe they don’t know what affect that analogy has on concerned parents).

The mid-2016 BCPS STAT Biannual Conversions Update (a story for another day) offers clues to other future costs. Just consider STAT’s projected “Eight Conversions: Curriculum. Instruction. Assessment. Organizational Development. Infrastructure. Policy. Budget. Communications.” Among the policies “revised to align with STAT:” the much-troubled new Grading and Reporting Policy 5210.

Are we converted yet?

Alarms are sounding—at least in my ears. That document, handed to board members, notes: “As we conclude year three, the eight conversions are progressing toward the goal of systemic institutionalization by the year 2018.”

And I’ll say that one more time: Systemic Institutionalization.

Joanne C. Simpson is a former staff writer for The Miami Herald, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, and Johns Hopkins Magazine, as well as a BCPS parent, college educator, and freelance writer based in Baltimore. She can be reached at jcscribe@yahoo.com

Postscript:  2/7/17 — The BCPS Board of Education Votes on the FY 18 Budget

In keeping with getting things on the record, for posterity perhaps, here are a few answers on cost-related questions—and other areas yet to explore. BTW: If one wonders how deep this “digital conversion” goes, consider this tidbit:

BCPS’ 161 school library media specialists are now categorized as “digital learning teachers.”

Probably the most alarming issue in the FY 18 budget: the district is set to spend more than $6 million next year for software license fees not previously discussed publicly, plus millions in other license or site fees not yet determined. That’s apparently on top of $57 million STAT will cost our schools every year. STAT’s overall price tag is indeed closer to $300 million. Just for the first several years.

So, STAT costs are not lower, as the updated “STAT budget” indicates, but higher. Perhaps way higher.

In fact, some items briefly listed in the digital conversion plan also show up big in additional costs tucked elsewhere in the FY 18 budget or approved contracts: “client software,” “license fees,” “staff,” and “network infrastructure upgrades.” Logic would indicate: If they’re STAT/digital costs in the plan, then they’re STAT/digital costs period. (See the op-ed for details and related costs).

Overall, a full audit—both financial and thematic—seems in order. And that would be something to keep in mind for any district with a digital initiative. Because, even after rounds of questions, the amount of money being spent by BCPS, even on specific digital curricula, is mind-numbingly unclear. And we have to wonder why.

For example, expenditures for Discovery Education and Curriculum Associates/iReady next year are listed at different dollar figures in budget materials. (Discovery Education is $196,000 in administration responses, and $536,000 for Discovery Ed’s contracted “techbooks.” For iReady, $223,500 is noted in the budget executive summary, then later it’s $720,000. What’s going on?)

On a more global level, board members recently asked why STAT is crowding out other school needs:

Question: Why did BCPS fund STAT over competing priorities? Hundreds of millions spent on STAT so far while funding for instruction flat. STAT crowding out poverty programs, driver pay increases and critical capital projects to improve student environment.

Answer, sort of: “S.T.A.T. aligns with the BCPS Strategic Plan, Blueprint 2.0, which was approved by the Board. The initiative was evaluated by the Board and funded along with other critical educational priorities.” BCPS noted cost-of-living and other pay increases for drivers and said capital funding is separate. [Though there’s apparently been some crossover with AC funding and other spending, an issue that also needs to be explored].

Overall, everyone needs to question exactly how money is being spent on STAT and similar digital initiatives in other school districts. Because every dollar spent (overspent? misspent?) on the digital initiative and related is a dollar not spent on other school needs. 

And, despite BCPS’ particularly single-minded focus on STAT’s “significant investment,” our board and elected leaders must provide oversight to better meet the needs of our children, such as students facing poverty or too hungry at school to learn, among other challenging issues. A device won’t fix such things. And a pricey-yet-glitchy $1,400 laptop-per-student can’t be equity if the ongoing use of such devices is not even good nor developmentally appropriate for learners as young as seven years old.

Adjustments can be made and advanced tech options still offered. One board member asked why our school system doesn’t follow 3:1 ratios—or a device for every three children—in elementary schools, as Maryland’s education technology plan stipulates. The cost savings would be $13.6 million annually, according to the district, but does not match current STAT instructional plans. (Other digital-minded public school systems, such as Montgomery and Anne Arundel Counties, focus on providing student access to tech, not one-device-per-child in lower grades. They have cited developmental appropriateness and fiscal responsibility concerns. And $13.6 million a year would equal the yearly salaries of more than 220 teachers).

And lastly, from the op-ed, the question about that 500 percent jump under “other instructional costs/contracted services?’ (from $10.6 million in FY 14 to $53.6 million for next year alone.)

The answer: “As articulated in the 6-year Instructional Digital Conversion Plan, this increase is consistent with the roll-out of devices in alignment to the S.T.A.T. strategic plan and instructional software license fees.”

Follow-up question:  “Who are the vendors paid under “other instructional costs/contracted services?” What exactly are these services? What is the list of vendors/providers?”

Answer: “Daly is the primary vendor for 1:1 devices and related services and support. In addition, the largest vendors related to software license fees are Northwest Evaluations, Engrade Inc., Discovery Education, Curriculum Associates, Dreambox, Learnings, [Dreambox Learning] and Creative Enterprise Solutions, which provide services for curriculum, instruction, and assessments.”

Included in that huge $53.6 million figure: “Ongoing software license fees: $4.9 million,” according to recently posted 2/7/17 BCPS responses  to board member questions, an amount not discussed publicly. Hmmm, yet there’s another $1.2 million in software license fees also cited (see below). So what is the grand total amount BCPS is paying each year just in any digital-related license fees—i.e. “forever costs?” 

QUESTION 2: Which vendors and/or costs and services, etc. fall under: “Other Instructional Costs: $1,289,663”?

ANSWER: $1,259,283 will be used for software license fees for programs such as Destiny resource manager, Library Manager, State Standards, Softchalk, Blackboard Web conferencing, and WebPath Express. The remaining funds will be used for equipment, travel and conference fees, professional dues, and miscellaneous contract services for the office of Digital Learning.

(And, btw, is this how they are tucking conference travel costs into various budget line items?)

When asked by a board member in late January: “Is the S.T.A.T. program financially sustainable in the long-run, or are we setting our school system up for a fiscal disaster down the road that different leadership will have to deal with?”

The administration’s assurance: “Yes, the program is sustainable.”

How can that be known? A year ago, the question was asked: What are the true costs of STAT? We know more than we did then, when costs were publicized as $200 million total (the local media still digs no deeper on costs for the experimental program, even when basic BCPS documents themselves cite higher numbers).

Overall, the lack of clarity and transparency in the latest BCPS budget—and in the end how our schools are funded and our children’s needs met—is just one more indicator that few in power want to admit how costly this digital conversion really is.

Postscript:  2/23/17 — Another Note on Why the Money Matters, and ScholarChip Woes

As shown in this op-ed, every dollar spent on STAT or troubled BCPS pilots is a dollar not spent on the many needs that deeply concern parents. For example: What could that $13.6 million annually fund if elementary students simply had one device for every three children, the 3:1 ratio? Here is a personal op-ed from a BCPS school board member on the opportunity costs of STAT, and related.

A bit of the Orwellian glosses over these issues: “Good News Ambassadors in each Lighthouse school are documenting S.T.A.T. through the collection of digital artifacts to share via social media and the Lighthouse Web site.” What about the not-so-good news? A few more specifics on unmet needs that frustrate parents and educators, as noted very frequently on Facebook and other social media:

  • BCPS should pay highly certified teachers and not rely on long-term substitutes;
  • ensure sufficient staffing for small class sizes and efficient bus routes;
  • allow more school discretionary funds for updated classroom books and physical supplies;
  • hire actual teachers for the math Head & Shoulders and other advanced programs;
  • set aside money to meet nutritional needs (free breakfasts would go a long way for those who arrive at school hungry and struggle to concentrate);
  • provide pupil personnel workers to help serve the many students facing poverty;
  • ensure the essential environmental basics of proper heat and AC;
  • pay drivers a competitive wage and keep retread tires off children’s school buses… the list goes on.

Parents out there: compare such priorities to the quality of the software programs our children encounter, Middlebury or iReady, and others that will cost us tens of millions of dollars in the next several years.

Not Yet Exposed — Another detail that reveals just how out-of-whack things seem to be lately:

BCPS has a $1.1 million contract just to pay for laptop cases— another lucrative bonus deal for Hewlett-Packard, provider of the $1,400 HP Revolve 810 G2 laptop/tablets.

Check out the contract below, as well as budget docs that reveal that this $1.1 million was supposed to be spread out until 2021, yet nearly all that money will have flown out the window in just THREE YEARS — at $951,174 by 2018-19, budget documents show. How many children have even seen these million-dollar cases?

A million bucks is also still a million bucks. Again, an outside expert audit of STAT is necessary to find wasteful spending that could instead personally educate, cool, transport, tutor, feed and keep safe our children.

https://www.bcps.org/apps/bcpscontracts/contractFiles/MWE-840-15%20Board%20Exhibit%20Final.pdf

And, lastly, (my head is truly spinning by now) here’s the low-down on ScholarChip, the IDs students no longer wear and the kiosks that have been mostly sent back. (The latest Fall bi-annual conversions report notes yet another planned “picture-based attendance” system for students.) The cost deets from BCPS administration responses on the $4 million-plus fiasco:

QUESTION: “The student lanyard ID program, whose vendor, ScholarChip Card LLC, was paid at least $3.7 million by mid-2016, according to sources. The original spending authority for these ID cards was $10 million. Explain the current status of ScholarChip? What has happened in terms of usage, software integration, kiosk issues, and later payments? Are payments still being made currently to this vendor, and why?”

ANSWER: “BCPS has purchased all equipment and implemented the One-card system ($2.4M in FY 2014 and $1.6M in FY 2016). BCPS chose not to pursue the attendance module for students.” The annual costs to be paid to ScholarChip for a “data center license” (more license fees!) and “hardware maintenance” (for what exactly?)

$212,000 a year.

Every year. Ongoing until 2024. Should we consider any of that money–our money, taxpayer money–well spent on pieces of plastic, hung on strings?

— JCS

——

Also, a version of this op-ed on STAT costs was featured on the national education blog Nancy Bailey’s Education Website: Revive, Rally and Recover Public Schools

*Discovery Education:

http://www.boarddocs.com/mabe/bcps/Board.nsf/files/ADRH6P463371/$file/092716%20RGA-127-14%20Modification%20and%20Extension%20-%20Faculty%20Professional%20Development%20Streaming%20Content%20and%20Related%20Services.pdf

Middlebury Interactive Languages (MIL):

http://www.boarddocs.com/mabe/bcps/Board.nsf/files/A9TSUL6984F7/$file/052416%20MWE-813-14%20Modification%20World%20Languages%20Elementary%20Second%20Language.pdf

Dreambox Learning:

http://www.boarddocs.com/mabe/bcps/Board.nsf/files/AANHDY47D60B/$file/061416%20JNI-778-14%20Modification%20and%20Extension%20-%20Mathematics%20Supplemental%20Resources.pdf

Curriculum Associates/iReady:

https://www.bcps.org/apps/bcpscontracts/contractFiles/071216%20JMI-618-14%20Modification%20-%20Teaching%20Resource%20for%20English%20Language%20Arts.pdf

Code to the Future:

http://www.boarddocs.com/mabe/bcps/Board.nsf/files/AAHPAZ6197B4/$file/061416%20MBU-525-16%20Computer%20Science%20Immersion.pdf

APEX Learning:

http://www.boarddocs.com/mabe/bcps/Board.nsf/files/AGDVC970F7A1/$file/122016%20RGA-128-12%20Modification%20and%20Extension%20Online%20Student%20Courses.pdf

ScholarChip:

http://10ba4283a7fbcc3461c6-31fb5188b09660555a4c2fcc1bea63d9.r13.cf1.rackcdn.com/03/d6869a0dc672eaa5d41cd8231c707cda.pdf?id=231361

Daly Computers/Hewlett-Packard reseller:

https://www.bcps.org/apps/bcpscontracts/contractFiles/MWE-807-14_Board_Exhibit_03-11-14.pdf

The Best Laid Plans; More on BCPS Grading Policy 5210

It is rumored that while plowing in the fields back in 1785, poet Robert Burns inadvertently destroyed a mouse nest which inspired his poem “To a Mouse.” This poem, known for “best laid plans of mice and men,” a phrase widely used to describe the inevitability of things not turning out quite as planned, is perhaps more recognizable by the truncated: “best laid plans…”.

There are plans that “go as planned,” plans that don’t, plans that are unexpected and last minute, and sometimes plans you wish you could cancel. Sometimes plans are too grand to accomplish by oneself and very often plans are not planned by oneself.

And that is precisely the question for Baltimore County Public Schools regarding the grading policy change: exactly whose plans are these?

After two December 2016 BCPS grading policy meetings, some new information has come to light regarding the actual order of events, which exposes more clearly how the grading policy plans came to be in BCPS.

The facts:

First, Grading Policy 5210 was drafted by BCPS staff and was approved by the former Board of Education in June 2015, with its implementation delayed until July 2016.  Currently, only five members remain from that board that voted: Ed Gilliss, David Uhlfelder, Chuck McDaniels, Romaine Williams, and Marisol Johnson.  Those five members were present to approve those grading policy plans and proposed changes, which means that seven of the current board members were not.

Next, it is important to note that the Grading Policy Superintendent Rule 5210, which was also drafted by staff and revised on June 9, 2015, effective June 1, 2016, included some different language than the policy, itself.  Each BCPS policy is accompanied by a corresponding Superintendent Rule which is expected to align with the approved policy. It is also important to understand that the board votes on BCPS policies, but does not have the power to vote on its respective Superintendent Rule. This gives the Superintendent the power to implement what the rule states, irrespective of what the policy states.

The difference between the grading policy and rule can be seen by comparing the two: Policy 5210 and Rule 5210. The variance between the two includes the language: “Permissible grade symbols, scales, and procedures used for grades and grade reporting are set forth in the BCPS Grading and Reporting Procedures.”

This is important to note. The Grading and Reporting Procedures Manual, which includes the procedures mentioned in the wording of the change to Rule 5210, further served to remove – yet by another degree — board oversight and input into the actual grading policy, as it continued to evolve through the rewriting by staff.  The board did not vote for that change; it was never part of the policy. Additionally, board approval of this manual is not required and was not sought, despite the changes and the inclusion of the names of all board members on the actual document.

Lastly, what started as a plan, grew into a two-page policy, evolved into a six-page Superintendent Rule, and ultimately materialized into a more detailed 50-page document that was first presented to all principals and other school administrators on June 21, 2016 at their Professional Development meeting.  Teachers and other 10-month employees were gone for the summer when scant professional development was offered, and returned the week of August 17, 2016 during which a 45-minute multi-subject meeting occurred. School commenced on August 24, 2016, which gave teachers one week to read, comprehend, and plan the implementation of BCPS’s new Grading Policy and 50-page manual.

After the extremely rocky and disorienting rollout of this new grading policy, TABCO president Abby Beytin and Bill Lawrence of CASE complained to the board and Dr. Dance about the lack of time teachers and administrators had to comprehend the manual, plan for it and implement it a week after receiving it. This frustration was echoed by the current student board member and by way of parent complaints at meetings, through emails and petitions, as well as coverage in newspaper articles written by neighboring private school leadership, parents and other professionals.

As the grading policy change is occurring across the country, there are additional questions about how the 50-60 member taskforce – called the District Grading Committee – was directed to arrive at such a strangely similar plan to that of other school systems. Strange also is how in sync BCPS seems to be with the grading policy changes written about by organizations such as Competency Works, the brainchild of The International Association of K-12 Online Learning or iNACOL.

Whether planned from within the school system, or a plan inspired from outside of it, this plan has not been the collaborative effort it has been made to seem.

It may have been laid out – and it certainly has plowed through – but its impetus and implementation are questionable. With BCPS vendors and ed-tech organizations ramping up to digitalize students’ curriculum here for STAT, BCPS parents would be wise to inquire about all future plans BCPS leadership has for our school system.

NOTE:

Be aware that although BCPS staff has worked hard to address grading policy concerns, unacceptable issues are still plaguing students.

Parents say that in elementary schools, End-of-Unit assessments, which teachers are pressed to pull together and sometimes put online, can end up being 30% of a student’s grade, or basically Finals for 5th graders, who barely even have time to study.

Some of the online tests are considered “secure,” presumably because they’re going to be used over and over online in subsequent years, and cannot even be seen by parents or students, unlike paper tests which parents signed off on. So there’s no opportunity for students to do actual ‘error analysis’ and learn from their mistakes. If a parent wants to see a test, they need to make a conference with the teacher, cutting into everyone’s time. So these online tests are basically useless to students and parents — it’s all about data collection by schools.  And kids are failing them left and right.

Perhaps even more alarming, a point value on an assignment might double or triple in the BCPS One grade book, as teachers are pressured to hit a new balance of points (outlined in the grading policy addendum) between assignments and quizzes/tests, with assignments being worth more. That is a welcome change. But when an essay worth 25 points is entered as 40 points, and then that grade value is doubled to 80 points after the fact (because the ratios weren’t matching up) that could spell unexpected disaster. That one assignment, if there’s a less-than-stellar outcome, might tank an entire quarter grade–because now it’s suddenly worth 40% of the quarter. Teachers are trying to do their best in what BCPS administrators call a “transition phase,” but this chaos is unfairly lowering grades, deeply affecting students’ “career-and-college-ready” goals, and causing reams of stress for everyone.