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.

The 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 $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 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 contracts worth tens of millions of dollars in digital curricula and related software, mostly beyond the STAT budget—at least $74 million and counting, records show.
  • 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

Embedded Assessments = Testing All the Time

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) ushered in a wave of damaging high-stakes standardized testing.  The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and its emphasis on “innovative assessments” will create, as this 12/1/16 Washington Post article describes, a new threat from embedded assessments.

The New Standardized Testing Craze to Hit Public Schools

A recent piece from FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, asks if it’s Personalized Learning or Continuous Online Testing?

Though couched in humanistic language about “personalization,” such a transformation is leading to even more frequent standardized testing. This narrows and dumbs down instruction to what low-level tests can measure, depresses student engagement, and produces inaccurate indicators of learning.”

Embedded assessments are at the heart of digital competency- (or mastery-) based education (CBE). The BCPS STAT initiative is CBE.  It’s the delivery of education via software. Glitchy flawed test-phase programs like iReady, Middlebury, and Ascend Math — all described below — seem meant to replace the teacher, not provide another tool for the teacher to practice the art of teaching.

When BCPS students and parents are not allowed to see the assessments, how can they  assess where “mastery” of a concept or standard fell short?  If schools are deterring parents from actively participating in their children’s education, there’s a problem.

At a 2016 media event at Greenwood, Dr. Dance discussed embedded assessments — for some of them, instruction time isn’t stopped and students don’t even know they’re being assessed:

Baltimore Sun:  Dallas Dance talks about school assessments

This recent piece by local (and national) journalist and BCPS parent Joanne C. Simpson reveals how embedded assessments are being used in our school system.

{Note: Due to problems downloading the contracts noted below, the actual links are offered at the end of this article; copy/paste the links into a browser.}

The Computer Just Graded My Test, and Gave Me a C

Competency-Based Education (CBE) is a new education fad that emphasizes ongoing online/computer-based assessments and testing. The question is: What percentage of software-delivered lessons and testing will go on at BCPS–and how much will screen time increase–especially in the next year or two as STAT (the laptop initiative) is set to spread to all grades.

Few seem to know that computer-embedded assessments are already being used in BCPS classrooms–for diagnostic, formative and summative (the graded kind) of assessments–a running tally of $12 million in recent spending authorities, and counting.

The following BCPS Board of Education-approved spending authorities for contracts are mostly aligned with STAT. This information has been pulled together, and now seems a good time for parents to know what’s around–and to determine how well these offerings work so far.

One program is iReady/Curriculum Associates, which is used primarily in elementary grades. Read more about problems with iReady here.

BCPS just tripled the spending authority to $1.2 million. Teachers I’ve talked to at BCPS are finding lots of problems, such as iReady not really differentiating learning for each student as advertised. Other feedback? Contract spending authority info here.

Another is Kahoot, a game-based model that ranks students against each other on screens at the front of the room, yet has no evidence of positive learning outcomes. (It also rewards speed above all.)

Others are Padlet and Quizlet (formative, for feedback). And the testing–and grading–of students is already happening via screens. The computer-based testing company Escoreny, as well as Pearson software, are being used for end-of-unit tests and other graded assessments. Some info on Escoreny and its recently expanded $1.3 million spending authority to create constant “end-of-unit” assessments: http://escoreny.org

Overall, we can determine whether these programs seem effective, or not, and let teachers and administrators know. I’ve heard from students and others that some online math assessments have incorrectly graded or processed answers, lowering students’ grades. “Estimation” answers, for example, are unrealistic. The students beat the program to a right answer, but are marked wrong. (So teachers need to go back and regrade by hand.)

These are also costly programs, hitting multi-millions in spending authorities and related software licensing fees and updates, records show. For example, Middlebury Interactive, the flawed Spanish language computer-based program, now has a $7 million, decade-long contract spending authority with BCPS. That’s for an in-development software program. How well is that going for elementary school students?

Even more familiar to elementary students and parents out there: DreamBox, with its required hour per week and push “reminders.” DreamBox collects “50,000 behavioral data points per hour per student.” What are behavioral data points? 50,000?

How much is DreamBox costing us in the long run? And what about all that student data mined by a for-profit company? DreamBox Learning’s BCPS spending authority nearly doubled recently for just another 9 months, $636,000 to $1.2 million.

(In terms of math software, other parents probably know Ascend Math for middle schools. Has that been a help? Hope so, as it’s another million-dollar software program so far.

Ascend Math, ~$480,000 expanded to $1.3 million for three more years, plus other agreements.) Contract spending authority here.

In the end, there are likely benefits to some of these offerings. And the practice of skills is one. Another modality is fine, and tech can offer some new approaches for teachers to evaluate, and for students to self-assess. Yet is it worth the millions of dollars? How much will this approach expand here? (I’m not sure BCPS staff is being told what has been outlined in various district plans.)

A primary concern for me as a parent: Are our students just working out the bugs in for-profit software? Whetstones for flawed products, as happened in Detroit (a lot of similarities, including the ‘building the plane as we fly it’ weirdness): http://www.aclumich.org/article/guyette-how-eaas-buzz-program-exploited-detroits-most-vulnerable-kids

One way or the other, it seems these computer-embedded tests and assessments portend more screen time for students, and less direct time with teachers.

Oh, and can we please stop flying a half-built plane with our children on board?

Contract Spending Authorities:

iReady

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

Middlebury 

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

Ascend Math 

http://www.boarddocs.com/mabe/bcps/Board.nsf/files/AANHDC479D32/$file/061416%20JNI-767-14%20Modification%20-%20Secondary%20Mathematics%20Intervention%20Mate….pdf

Part 4 of 4: I Want it, and I Want it STAT! (from The Truth About STAT)

The final installment in the STAT video series.  Thanks to BCPS Chicken Little for caring enough to research, create, and share.

I Want it, and I Want it STAT!

See the rest of the series here.

Here’s the note which accompanied the video:

There are many advocates here in Baltimore County who have worked long and hard — for many months and years.  It is (and has been) incredibly frustrating, depressing, AND quite scary at times.

Sometimes there is a sense that this is so politically and tech-industry orchestrated that no one should DARE get in the way.

It has felt as if this is happening for reasons well beyond our understanding.  That this “pretendathon” absolutely must happen so that someone can move up the ranks to a larger level of influence and power.

It defies logic, insults our intelligence, and (not to be too dramatic) makes some of us lose a little more faith in humanity.

It is also woefully decadent when there are schools in our system that go without the basic necessities and where school systems across the country have – what seems like –  new issues every day, with blatant and mind-blowing problems with school leadership corruption and – what seems like –  willy-nilly closing of schools, firing of teachers and punishments of principals who dare to do the right thing.

In many ways, Baltimore County has it easier.  And I recognize that.  I look at some other school systems across the country and the inhumane treatment of both teachers and students, as if they are “throwaways” to the world.  So much needs to be done to fix this.

I have no idea what or how, but much needs to be done to help those who don’t even have a shot at a good education or a decent place to live or decent wage to earn (because of the lack of education).  I don’t know what the answer is, but I suspect that there are certainly aspects of technology that can help bridge the chasm.  In fact, I am sure of it.  But it is not all technology, either.  Not in this way and not as an end-all solution either.  I do not believe that our most vulnerable citizens need video-game-type learning to succeed, to make passive learning a way to engage them. I believe that they deserve better than this.  And I do not believe that the ed-tech industry has the answers.  I believe educators have the answers and that technology is a tool that educators can use.

What I have learned through the process of studying (by accident) the problems with my school system (which led me to studying that of others) is that some in this education industry are rock stars for the purpose of being rock stars and, yet, the humble go unnoticed or are even punished.  The ones who are in it for the kids, don’t ask for limelight, don’t seek recognition and are probably too busy to even think about receiving ridiculous amounts of awards.

There is an unbelievable imbalance between the life of a rock star superintendent and the realities of our most vulnerable students.  There is something really wrong when superintendents and other top admin (like my own) are staying in fancy luxury resorts all over the country, when schools in their own system are in need, or when school systems across the country have schools barely scraping by.

There is something wrong when our superintendents (and other admin) find little side-jobs in which they can cash in on their positions and expertise.  There is something really wrong with this and it is so prevalent (and all over the country).  In this way, it honestly seems to me that “school superintendency” is its own industry which has little to do with education.  It is as if they are the portal to many things.  To impacting social change, to geography, to how communities are built, to what happens to pieces of land, to how tax money is spent.  They are in a position to wield a lot of power and I suspect that a great deal of temptation comes along with that.

In my view, we need a different type of leadership in education if we are going to finally solve our country’s problems.  I realize that there is more to it than this, but I think that is a good start.  We don’t need rock stars.  We need people with an expansive vision, who are educators at heart.

In closing and be clear, the videos are in no way an attack on a man.  They are intended to help awaken parents and are a response to the insult of all of the above, to the obfuscation, to the frustration, to the dishonesty.  They were also made as a way to help disallow this from spreading as easily – elsewhere – in the way this has consumed us.

They also make a very frustrating situation a little bit humorous sometimes. I honestly laughed my ass off at points (and THANK GOD for that!)

Peace.

Excellence Through Equity

So here’s what’s happening in Towson starting tomorrow:

BCPS and the National Center for Education and Innovation (Hope Foundation) are co-hosting the Maryland Excellence through Equity Summit 2016, August 15-16, 2016 in Towson at the Carver Center for Arts and Technology.  The summit is co-hosted by Dr. Dance and Alan M. Blankstein, Founder, Solution Tree & HOPE Foundation.

Dr. Nancy Grasmick, Presidential Scholar for Innovation in Teacher and Leader Preparation for Towson University and Former State Superintendent of Maryland Public Schools, will present at the conference.

Also presenting will be Dr. Marcus Newsome, who is Dr. Dance’s mentor, was a member of his transition team, and whose brother was a BCPS Assistant Superintendent.

Conference topics include:

  • Anytime/Anywhere Learning: Best Practices in Blended and Project-Based Learning
  • Data Analysis for Equity-Focused School Improvement Planning

https://www.eiseverywhere.com/ehome/165163/376599/

Dr. Dance is all about excellence and equity.

But for Dr. Dance, it’s equitable access to a digital learning environment, which, in his view, will close the achievement gap.

“Excellence Through Equity” should ring some bells, since it’s the title of a book co-authored by the summit’s co-host Blankstein (along with Pedro Noguera) available through ASCD.

http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/classroom_qa_with_larry_ferlazzo/2016/08/excellence_through_equity_an_interview_with_pedro_noguera.html

ASCD, founded in 1943, is the “global leader in developing and delivering innovative programs, products, and services that empower educators to support the success of each learner.”  It’s been considered a respected professional organization for educators and leaders, but it appears to have sold out to become a part of the ed-tech reform movement.

In February 2011, it was granted nearly $3 million by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to “provide teachers and school leaders with supports to implement the Common Core State Standards at the district, school, and classroom levels.”

Well-known education blogger Anthony Cody in a 2013 post questioned if ASCD was “embracing market-driven education reform” based on the fact that it had first endorsed CCSS, then accepted the Gates Foundation grant.

So here’s the problem with “Excellence Through Equity” as it applies to BCPS:

Blankstein and his co-author Noguera call for equity by addressing the needs of the whole child.  This is admirable and is the basis of the “community school” model, which BCPS will begin piloting.

However, the Blankstein-Noguera-ASCD ETE model also calls for personalized learning and detracking.  BCPS already has both.

If the good “community school” changes — feeding hungry children, mentoring, etc. — are layered atop the obscenely expensive personalized learning reforms, these changes will no doubt make STAT appear successful (which it is not). The truly needed and most basic changes on their own would close the achievement gap. And think of how much could be done to create equitable access to new, safe, and excellent “21st-century” schools if STAT had not been implemented and nearly $300 million in taxpayer dollars had not been spent …

Opt-out Co-opted: One Blogger’s View

Education blogger Kevin Ohlandt of Exceptional Delaware just published a fascinating, and disturbing, post about how high-stakes tests were created to be terrible on purpose to generate push-back and to open the floodgates for charter schools and “personalized digital learning empires.”

Why Companies Like Achieve, Inc. Now Want You To Opt Out Of State Assessments

https://exceptionaldelaware.wordpress.com/2016/07/09/why-companies-like-achieve-inc-now-want-you-to-opt-out-of-state-assessments/

NOTE:  The non-profit Achieve, Inc., a corporate entity made up of financiers, academics, lobbyists, former lawmakers, and select state governors, is responsible for developing the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) to which Pearson’s Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test is aligned.  Here’s the Board of Directors’ roster. One notable member is Maryland State Board of Education Vice President Dr. Jim Gates, Jr.  One of Achieve’s main agendas is standards-based data-driven education. DATA attached to a person from kindergarten to college and/or the workplace!
“Longitudinal data systems should follow individual students from grade to grade and school to school, all the way from kindergarten through postsecondary education and into the workplace … states … must follow students through K–12 into postsecondary and the workforce and establish feedback loops to the relevant stakeholders to make informed decisions that improve policies and practices.”

CHARTER SCHOOLS AND MAGNET SCHOOLS

Read the Exceptional Delaware post and think about what’s happening in BCPS.  While we don’t have charters as the City does, we do have a rapidly expanding magnet-school program and Dr. Dance’s regional “supermagnet” concept, only outlined so far in a Sun editorial, resulting from a meeting between Dr. Dance and the Sun’s editors.

Exactly one month after publishing this editorial, the Sun highlighted BCPS’ magnet-school expansion.  According to the article, admission is  based on luck (lottery), and at least one new magnet is based on a business-school partnership, the new Northwest (as in Hospital) Academy of Health Sciences at Old Court Middle.  More disturbingly, the focus change at Old Court is part of Dr. Dance’s “rebranding” of the school:

“I had been looking for a way to rebrand Old Court,” he said, adding that the school has made progress in the last several years. “It’s hard to change the perception of Old Court. It just had this reputation.”

There is clearly value in preparing students for the workplace in a tough job market, however, considering the magnet expansion countywide, the article neglects to ask, “What happens to the comprehensive schools when the top students are siphoned off?”  This is exactly the question many in the City are asking about charter schools.

DITCHING HIGH-STAKES TESTS

As for moving away from high-stakes tests to testing all the time (Competency-Based Education or STAT), Dr. Dance has publicly recognized that PARCC is flawed and cannot be used to compare Lighthouse and non-Lighthouse Schools, an admission that STAT has not improved test scores.  BCPS will now use the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) to monitor achievement:

BCPS has chosen to use the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) to monitor growth in achievement in reading and mathematics for students in Grades 1-8. MAP is used by over 5 million students across the country and allows comparisons to be made between the performance and growth of our students with their peers across the country. BCPS will continue to use the MAP results as indicators of student growth during this period of instability in the State assessment model (PARCC).

The PARCC comments and move to MAP were covered in the BCPS Follow-up to the Baltimore County Council on STAT.  This came after the May 2016 County Auditor’s Report on the BCPS budget (more on that here), which offered scathing comments on STAT’s exorbitant costs and opportunity costs.

Another blog post will be coming on MAP, as assessment developed by Portland-based Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA).  NWEA believes in guiding instruction “using valid, reliable, and real-time data.”  Read about NWEA here.

Note that NWEA has a nearly $4-million 5-year contract with BCPS, which was drastically modified in June 2014, directly before STAT’s implementation: https://www.bcps.org/apps/bcpscontracts/contractFiles/061014_RGA-125-14%206%20Mod-Measures%20Academic.pdf

and that NWEA was a major donor to the State of the Schools (SOS) event held to benefit the school system’s Education Foundation, the primary mission of which is to FUND STAT. 

Conflict of interest?

In short, MAP, which is being used to “prove” STAT’s success (since PARCC apparently cannot), is not independent or objective, especially when one considers NWEA’s claim that “highly targeted, 1:1 instruction helps maximize student growth.” https://www.nwea.org/solutions/

Here are some distressing questions:

How much money, time, and effort have been put into PARCC?

How much instruction time and true learning have been lost to PARCC?

How many students and teachers have suffered because of PARCC?

Just to have the Superintendent of a major school system basically deem it a failure?

Observations of the Baltimore County Council Meeting, May 18, 2016

I have repeatedly heard our superintendent state, “How we tell our story matters”.  From this I can conclude that he means that my story matters, too, and that the perspective from which a story is told can change how one thinks about that narrative.  This is my story of attending the Baltimore County Council Budget meeting on May 18, 2016. 

I had seen the auditor’s report the night before and was excited to read the questions the auditor thought needed to be answered.  I carved time out of my day to attend the meeting, scheduled at 3pm, because I wanted to hear the BCPS administration answer these questions.  What I saw instead was disappointing.  The meeting started an hour and fifteen minutes late, so I was able to watch the County Council members adeptly praise and raise concerns in regards to all manner of waste pick up, recycling, snow removal, and pot hole repairs, even to the suggestion of leaving beer as a tip for your trash removers.  So, after the long awaited BCPS representatives’ appearance, I thought we would hear the same level of analysis of the crucial concerns about the budget of Baltimore County Public Schools, which was appropriately identified as the largest chunk of the budget that the Baltimore County Council will be discussing.

There was much discussion about capital budget, new elementary schools, fixing schools, and air conditioning.  However, the budget as it pertains to the STAT initiative was glossed over.  The county auditor appropriately identified many areas of concern regarding STAT; see page 16 of the auditor’s report:

  • Why its budget document does not align to its actual spending patterns in recent years for key instructional costs such as salaries and instructional supplies;
  • The opportunity costs of funding the digital conversion/S.T.A.T. initiative and why BCPS has chosen to prioritize this initiative over other competing funding needs;

Research repeatedly shows that small class sizes are better than computer programs, such as those employed under STAT, but that lost opportunity cost was not identified.  (Read more here,  here, here and here ) Dr. Dance again stated that STAT allows for “student choice,” including where a child sits, and for personalized learning.  He reported that MAP testing scores will be released which show that STAT is improving academic achievement in our schools.  We will look forward to seeing that data released.  Or will it only be released to the County Council?  Since this meeting was not recorded and what they send to the council will likely be a private exchange, where is the transparency in these issues of great concern for students and parents in BCPS?

Dr. Dance went on to say that BCPS has “never overspent” and class sizes “have not increased” during his tenure as superintendent.  That being said, he leaves out that when he began his tenure as superintendent, BCPS was at austerity measures for class sizes- they had been increased because of the economic downturn in 07/08 and have never been returned to what they were previously.

Councilman Kach did raise an interesting question about class sizes and asked if there is a universal way to discuss class size. Dance answered no, and claimed that <2% of classrooms exceed classroom size limits. Is that on average (with small classes such as special education skewing the larger numbers down) or is it an actual?

Councilman Marks appropriately asked about how the budgets of other counties are kept so much smaller with their digital learning environments.  Dr. Dance said he could not speak to those other counties. No one asked about the increasing administrative costs. And no one asked about where the money is coming from for the cost of Dr. Dance and his administration to travel the world discussing the perceived successes of STAT. Who is paying for that? 

Councilman Kach did request that Dr. Dance provide his office with a “fact sheet” which will address health and screen time concerns.  Dr. Dance said he will get that to Mr. Kach by Friday.  We will look forward to seeing that as well.  What Dr. Dance did say was that the American Academy of Pediatrics states that if the screen media is not “entertainment media,” there are no limits to how much time children should spend on computers; he added that our kids are not on the computers “all day every day,” anyway.  Dance described his recent visit to a school in which he was in eight classrooms for ten to twelve minutes each, and in only four of those classrooms were the children using the computers.  I am guessing this was meant to be a description of overall use; however, it just showed how little is actually known about how much time kids are spending on the devices if this is his only concrete example.

This bind is quite confusing to me as a county taxpayer and parent of a young child in BCPS.  By Dr. Dance’s assessment, our kids are not using the computers much at all (although they could, because as he states the AAP says that would be okay if it is educational).  Why then is there the great expense of STAT, which is stripping the county of resources which could be otherwise used to improve the lives of young people in the school system?

The auditor raised this issue on page 23, but it was not addressed by the Council:

  • Results of independent (non-tech industry) studies regarding the benefits and drawbacks of classroom technology that BCPS has consulted during the implementation of the digital conversion/S.T.A.T. initiative;

We did find out from another question on the same page of the auditor’s report that most computers previously used in schools were ten to thirteen years old, and that those computers will be removed and disposed of.  The more recently purchased desktop computers are being recycled to the middle and high schools that do not have the STAT initiative.  This makes me wonder if one of these tablets would last ten to thirteen years and not be obsolete beforehand.  Why are we going from a technology that lasts that long to one in which we will be signing four year leases, presumably because there will be upgrades every four years which we will be paying tremendous amounts of money for annually.

I also did not hear this addressed (page 23):

  • Any impacts associated with redirecting school-based funds on the day-to-day operations of schools and activities (e.g., field trips, assemblies).

The auditor did not include things such as the reduction of money for paper, books, and copiers, but these are day-to-day operations that went completely unaddressed.

This point was also not discussed (page 27):

  • How BCPS responds to parent concerns regarding screen time and radiofrequency exposure and if consideration is being given to an “opt-out” alternative to digital learning environments; 

We wonder if the auditor’s question about the Risk Management position being vacant (Dr. Dance answered that this position has been vacant for 3 months) has to do with them leaving because of the concerns over a program with so little consideration of children’s safety in terms of data privacy, ergonomics, and impact of screen time on developing bodies and brains.  The auditor cited this recent article in the Baltimore Sun. And herehere, here, here and here are more about risks and benefits of computers used in classrooms.

Dr. Dance did mention that one concerned parent would be getting a tour of the STAT program from his staff.  This made me wonder who that person is and why they are getting a tour that is not offered to others.  Why don’t they hold an open forum for concerned parents to have our questions answered—many go unanswered, just like the auditor’s questions.  We wonder if maybe Dance had the tour confused with the “STAT stakeholders” that he and the Baltimore County Education Foundation were tweeting about hosting on the same day as the County Council meeting.  These stakeholders, however, are only the companies that BCPS does business with for STAT. Here is one example, but there are many on Twitter: https://twitter.com/foundationbcps/status/733120972249792512  Where are the parents, students, and genuine stakeholders? You can read more here.

When the topic of computer-based curriculum was addressed, Dr. Dance reflected on the computers being able to “meet and even accelerate”  kids’ learning needs. What  exactly does this mean?  And is this something that only a computer can do?  Small class sizes and talented teachers can do this too, with far more warmth and reliability than machines. Dance specifically stated that it would be “unfair” for a teacher to have a classroom of 25 children without the use of technology to help this teacher address all of the children’s needs at the same time.  It made me wonder, if that is the case, what age group are we talking about?  Can kids not read independently in the grade he is talking about?  Are there enough teacher aides in the class he is describing?  What would happen if the kids had more human help in the classrooms?

Dance mentioned that BCPSOne is what protects children’s data, but he leaves out the corporations included on BCPSOne, and where the data is going, not to mention the issue of kids who can bypass the firewalls of BCPSOne to roam the Internet during class time.

Dr. Dance did answer the question about “opt out” of digital learning environments, and he deferred to the Maryland State Department of Education, stating that a curriculum used by a public school is not one that can be “opted out” of by parents in that system.  We would love more information about this from the state and will follow up on this important concept for all different kinds of reasons, from the philosophical “I don’t want my kid being taught by computers” to the real physical concerns of  “My child has visual problems that the ophthalmologist recommends he not be on computers for more than 30 minutes per day.”

There were other questions answered, such as bus drivers’ and substitute teachers’ pay, which are very important in the functioning of BCPS.  I do not want to diminish the importance of topics I have left out of this description of the meeting. The big announcement of central AC for all schools supposedly being funded by July 1, 2016 removes the focus on the timeline of when that central AC will be actually be bid for and installed, and also distracts from the issue of why the county continues to fund the expensive and unproven STAT computer initiative.