An Open Letter to Maryland State Legislators: Digital Device Health & Safety Bill — A Win-Win

UPDATE: 2018 BILL : HB1110, “Public Schools – Health and Safety Guidelines and Procedures – Digital Devices.”

Thank you in advance for your time and consideration. Please support proposed bills regarding Health and Safety Guidelines and Procedures – Digital Devices.  This is especially important with the vastly increased use of new devices such as tablets, laptops, and smartphones, as well as screen-based learning and testing in schools.

You might have been told recently that not enough is known about health or safety measures in this arena, especially from school board representatives who may not be aware of what is already available. Yet current medical research clearly indicates the need for digital device safety guidelines in schools, and offers actual tips and training.

Medical and professionally informed guidelines would help prevent ergonomic and other long-term fallout: such as computer vision syndrome, neck pain, etc. (see lists and research below). Many of these devices are being used by children as young as 6-years-old in various school districts.

Support for this bill would be a win-win.

In 2017, the Senate Bill and House bill gained steam:

“Requiring the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, in consultation with the State Department of Education, to develop health and safety guidelines and procedures for the use of digital devices in public school classrooms; and requiring each county board of education to implement specified health and safety guidelines and procedures for the use of digital devices in public school classrooms beginning in the 2018-2019 school year.”

Maryland, which offers some of the best public school districts in the nation, should be a leader on safe student use of tech in classrooms. Based on in-depth research during the past year, here are a few citations for quick reference. Note especially the school-related work of Karen Jacobs, Clinical Professor, Department of Occupational Therapy at Boston University, one of the primary experts in the field.

For example, one six-year cohort study led by Jacobs, cited* below, concludes: “Participatory ergonomics training and use of external devices may have significant health benefits for children involved in notebook programs who have daily exposure to this technology for school and leisure purposes.”

Some of the issues cited by children using the devices: neck and shoulder pain, back pain, and other musculoskeletal discomforts, as well as “visual symptoms such as dry/watery eyes and sore, tired eyes during the study.

As you are likely aware, Baltimore County Public Schools is pursuing a district-wide digital initiative others expect could be replicated around the state of Maryland. This laptop-per-student program (grades 1-12) has a number of extreme cost burdens — approaching $300 million for the first several years alone — and other problems so far, including declining county PARCC standardized test scores. It’s titled Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow, or STAT.

STAT and similar digital initiatives, like those in Montgomery County Public Schools and neighboring Prince George’s County, translate to increased student screen time. Some tech upgrades and digital options in schools are needed, when reasonable and balanced. Safety measures are a digital equity issue as well, because many children in less affluent school districts also have reduced access to appropriate health care screening or mitigation.

You might hear arguments that there’s no evidence of problems, but as you can see that is not true. You might hear pushback about mandates, yet when children are at risk –wrist pain, retinal issues, or behavioral issues related to gaming curricula, etc.– it is our government’s role to serve its people, and to help keep safe the hundreds of thousands of families in Maryland. 

Unfortunately, many school systems are entrenched in digital initiatives and contracts that rely on corporate vendors. As a result, legislators and others might encounter pressure from the education technology industry to halt such bills, as these companies would like to increase student screen time to enable for-profit digital curricula and ongoing embedded assessments or online tests. I have no problem with such companies per se, yet should corporate priorities influence how we oversee the health of the next generation? There needs to be consistent oversight. (School-edtech ties also can prove problematic on a number of levels.)

See this story re: some of those concerns, and possible school leader bias regarding tech.

In terms of overall safety, can much be done? Yes: screen-time guidelines, and limits on per-day usage, are advisable. Ergonomic education for teachers. Frequent breaks. Better posture training. Appropriate lighting. Proper screen height. Supports for neck or forearms. See the in-depth work by advocate Cindy Eckard, as well as researchers from Harvard University, the Curtis National Hand Center, The University of Washington, among others via additional links and quotes below.

Feel free to share this information with fellow legislators and others. Baltimore County Public Schools’ health council offered a few suggestions but has not addressed this issue adequately–which is why we can’t rely on county school systems to do what is appropriate. We also can’t rely on the vagaries of information and medical resources available to various school districts, especially in areas where poverty and equity are challenges. 

The University of Southern California reports that African-American children are most prone to myopia, followed by Asian-Americans, Latinos and Caucasians.

In the end, these parameters and guidelines should also be in place as a reference point for private and parochial schools, as children in these environments should be protected as well.

As the Digital Age progresses, this is a global issue especially for our next generation. Maryland should set a very high standard for the safety of our children.

An open letter from Joanne C. Simpson, BCPS parent, college educator, freelance journalist, to Maryland State Senators on the Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee.

ADDITIONAL LINKS, ARTICLES, SCIENTIFIC STUDIES & RESOURCES:

News Coverage: 

A CBS News story on HB866/SB1089

Background:

Baltimore County Public Schools’ STAT program costs and related issues:

https://statusbcps.wordpress.com/2017/01/22/whats-the-status-of-stat-costs-in-a-dozen-years-that-could-be-a-billion-dollar-question/

Studies, Jacobs: 

Jacobs, K., Hudak, S., McGiffert, J. (at press). Computer-related posture and musculoskeletal discomfort in middle school students. WORK.

*Jacobs, K., Kaldenberg, J., Markowitz, J., Wuest, E., Hellman, M., Umez-Eronini, A., Barr, A. (2013). An ergonomics training program for student notebook computer users: Preliminary outcomes of a six-year cohort study. WORK, 221–230.

Jacobs, K., Foley, G., Punnett, L., Hall, V., Gore, R., Brownson, E., Ansong, E., Markowitz, J., McKinnon, M., Steinberg, S., Wuest, E., Dibaccari, L.,  & Ing, A. (2011). University students’ notebook computer use: lessons learned using e-diaries to report musculoskeletal discomfort. Ergonomics, 54:2, 206-21

——–

Note: “Karen Jacobs, a Boston University clinical professor of occupational therapy, has authored several studies on tech ergonomics, with upcoming findings showing that ergonomic education significantly improves neck posture in middle school students using tablets.

Trained occupational therapists already based at some schools can offer guidance, Jacobs said. “Children don’t want to be in pain,” she added, noting that kids — some of whom experience headaches, eye strain or neck discomfort after using tech devices — need frequent breaks and physical movement, not static postures. “It’s really important that our children are doing lots of different things.”

Debra Milek, a University of Washington associate professor in environmental and occupational health sciences, noted that worn-out tendons, neck pain and carpal tunnel syndrome have plagued computer users and store cashiers, and ended the careers of guitarists. “Discomfort may be an early indicator of future injury,” Milek noted, “which is why it’s important to pay attention to how we use these devices.'”

Article:

Digital Disabilities 

Jacobs’ peer-reviewed articles with others that might also be related. 

http://blogs.bu.edu/kjacobs/publications/articles-refereed/

http://blogs.bu.edu/kjacobs/ (Study breaks and other practical tips)

Other research: Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Jack Dennerlein, Professor of Ergonomics and Safety. In 2012, he led a Harvard University study that found that adjusting tablet viewing angle — to as straight ahead as possible — provides relief.

https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/jack-dennerlein/publications/

Recent posts and Tweets (contact Cindy Eckard):

http://www.screensandkids.us/2016_12_17_archive.html

Quick List of Medical Concerns to watch for:

  1. Increased, irreversible myopia Because long-term fixed distance viewing is very well known to promote nearsightededness, the pre-teen and teenage developmental precondition for myopia is being exacerbated when middle school kids are required to stare at a computer for excessive periods of time. 10 – 15 year-old children are already prone to myopia; it’s the shape their eyes are taking at this stage in their physical development.
  2. Retinal damage and premature macular degeneration The UV blue light emissions that damage the back of our eyes are better able to penetrate children’s eyes because the kids are not blinking, and because a child’s eye doesn’t have the necessary pigmentation to protect against the blue light. So the child is literally staring into a computer with damaging blue light penetrating right to the back of his eye.
  3. Digital eye strain and musculoskeletal discomforts Experts in children’s health are quick to point out that children are not just small adults. When using digital devices, kids are often unaware of the discomfort they are experiencing and do not correct their posture or take a break when their eyes get dry or blurry.  They suffer more than adults, and don’t do anything about it.
  4. Sleeplessness and its damaging side effects Because so much work is done on a computer at school, most homework and studying also has to take place on a computer in the evening. This is especially problematic for our kids because the blue light from the digital devices suppresses a hormone called melatonin, which is necessary for sleep. Our kids are now being deprived of sleep because of the schools’ constant reliance on computers, which brings a host of additional serious health risks to our children. Some kids are actually being misdiagnosed with ADHD, when the truth is, they’re just exhausted.
  5. Increased propensity for psychological issues The constant use of digital devices is emerging as a psychological problem for many young people whose reliance on virtual experiences is replacing actual interaction with friends and family. Some experts, such as Dr. Nicholas Kardaras, are suggesting that digital devices are not only addictive, but lead to additional problems for young children such as depression, anxiety, pornography use and gambling. UCLA research has shown that children are losing their ability recognize emotional expressions in other people’s faces.

Supporting links for the above list:

http://www.screensandkids.us/2016_12_17_archive.html

MD Screen Safety Advocate’s General Assembly Testimony: Documented Health Risks of Children’s Daily Computer Use

November 2016 presentation to the Maryland General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Cybersecurity, Information Technology and Biotechnology (Chairs: Senator Jim Rosapepe, Delegate Bill Frick)

Documented Health Risks to Children Who Use Computers Daily

by Cindy Eckard (screensandkids@gmail.com)

  1. Increased, irreversible myopia

Because long-term fixed distance viewing is very well known to promote nearsightedness, the pre-teen and teenage developmental precondition for myopia is being exacerbated when middle school kids are required to stare at a computer for excessive periods of time. 10 – 15 year-old children are already prone to myopia; it’s the shape their eyes are taking at this stage in their physical development.

American Academy of Pediatrics: “Myopia is the most common eye problem of the teen years,” says Dr. Harold P. Koller, a pediatric ophthalmologist from Meadowbrook, Pennsylvania, and clinical professor of ophthalmology at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. “In kids who are genetically programmed to be nearsighted,” he explains, “the eyeball grows too long from front to back, usually during the growth spurt.” https://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/eyes/Pages/Myopia-Nearsightedness.aspx

USC researchers working with the National Institute of Health concluded that daily screen time has caused myopia to double among children in the U.S.. African-American and Asian children showed a higher propensity for myopia than did Caucasian children. The lead researcher is a former Wilmer Eye Institute resident.

University of Southern California: “While research shows there is a genetic component, the rapid proliferation of myopia in the matter of a few decades among Asians suggests that closeup work and use of mobile devices and screens on a daily basis, combined with a lack of proper lighting or sunlight, may be the real culprit behind these dramatic increases.” https://news.usc.edu/91007/usc-eye-institute-study-seeks-cures-to-childhood-myopia

The Vision Council: “While adults with computer-oriented jobs seem to be the prime targets of over-exposure to digital devices, one in four children use these devices more than three hours a day. This exposure, which occurs both at school and at play, poses a risk to children’s developing eyes. accelerated myopia, or nearsightedness, is just one potentially troubling byproduct of too much screen time.”

https://www.thevisioncouncil.org/sites/default/files/VC_DigitalEyeStrain_Report2015.pdf

Students are further disadvantaged in middle school, because right when they need recess the most — the one activity that has been proven to mitigate myopia — they are denied any regular outdoor play:

American Academy of Ophthalmology: “Encouraging children to spend more time outdoors may be a simple and cost-effective way to improve their vision as well as general health, according to several recent studies. They add to the growing evidence that spending time outdoors may lower the risk of nearsightedness in children and adolescents. Nearsightedness is more common today in the United States and many other countries than it was in the 1970s.” http://www.aao.org/eye-health/tips-prevention/time-outdoors-reduces-nearsightedness

All About Vision: “Moderate and high myopia sometimes are associated with serious, vision-threatening side effects” such as cataracts, retinal detachment and glaucoma. http://www.allaboutvision.com/parents/myopia-progression.htm

  1. Retinal damage and premature macular degeneration

The UV blue light emissions that damage the back of our eyes are better able to penetrate children’s eyes because the kids are not blinking, and because a child’s eye doesn’t have the necessary pigmentation to protect against the blue light. So the child is literally staring into a computer with damaging blue light penetrating right to the back of his eye.

University of Iowa: “As we stare at the computer screen or while reading, our blink rate decreases. We actually blink 66% less while working on the computer. This will cause your eyes to feel dry and to burn.” https://www.uihealthcare.org/2column.aspx?id=225650

WRAL (Raleigh-Durham): Children’s and teen’s eyes are still developing, and the protective pigments in their eyes that is beneficial in filtering some of the harmful blue light has not fully developed yet… Children and young adults who use smart phones and tablets are at risk of potential irreversible eye damage because of blue light emissions from digital devices. Serious problems begin to occur with your eyes when too much exposure to blue light is encountered thru the use of LED Devices. http://www.wral.com/eye-care-center-kids-bluelight/14543845/

Prevent Blindness America: “According to a recent study, children’s eyes absorb more blue light than adults from digital device screens, which is a growing concern as the popularity of cell phones, computers and tablets for school reading and personal use continues to grow each year. Increasing public health data and scientific research describes the eye health effects linked to exposure to digital device light emissions, including Computer Vision Syndrome, eye strain, sleep cycle disruptions and premature retinal damage risk.” http://www.preventblindness.org/childrens-vision-and-electronic-devices

The Washington Post (January 11, 2016) “Computer, iPad and smartphone screens are thought to strain the eyes because they emit blue light or high-energy visible (HEV) light, which reaches far deeper into the eye than other kinds of light and can cause effects that are cumulative.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2016/01/11/blue-light-from-tech-gadgets-and-digital-eye-strain-more-than-73-percent-of-young-adults-suffer-from-symptoms/

A very good video that explains the physiology of blue light on the eye: http://collettsmart.com/how-much-sleep-do-teenagers-need/

Surgical Specialty Center of Northeastern Pennsylvania: “Continued exposure to blue light can affect the eyes in two ways. First, it may cause eye fatigue. Your eyes may feel dry, irritated and tired after hours of work on the computer or reading emails. This happens to children as well, but it may happen much more rapidly. Children can get headaches from digital eye strain, but it is easy for parents to attribute headaches to other sources. Secondly, blue light is harmful because it is the highest wavelength of visible light. The energy from blue light penetrates all the way to the back of the eye and passes through the eye’s natural filter. Adult eyes have protective pigments that filter some of the harmful wavelengths of blue light, but those pigments are not fully developed in children which leaves them susceptible to eye damage.” http://kingstonsurgerycenter.com/news-article/limit-screen-time-to-protect-your-childs-eyes-04282015

  1. Digital eye strain and musculoskeletal discomforts

Experts in children’s health are quick to point out that children are not just small adults. When using digital devices, kids are often unaware of the discomfort they are experiencing and do not correct their posture or take a break when their eyes get dry or blurry. They suffer more than adults, and don’t do anything about it.

National Institute of Health: “Children can experience many of the same symptoms related to computer use as adults. However, some unique aspects of how children use computers may make them more susceptible than adults to the development of these problems.” For instance, children don’t self-adjust when they experience eye or muscle strain. They just keep working on the computer: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2776336/

OSHA has regulated the use of computers in the workplace since the 1990s (https://www.osha.gov/Publications/osha3092.pdf) when significant environmental health symptoms were first documented: dry eyes, painful and blurry eyes as well as muscle pain in the neck/shoulders were the chief complaints. These symptoms are worse for today’s young children who are required to use a device as much as an office worker does. But kids aren’t self-aware enough to recognize and mitigate their own discomfort. And there are no regulations to protect them.

American Optometric Association: “Computer Vision Syndrome, also referred to as Digital Eye Strain, describes a group of eye and vision-related problems that result from prolonged computer, tablet, e-reader and cell phone use. Many individuals experience eye discomfort and vision problems when viewing digital screens for extended periods. The level of discomfort appears to increase with the amount of digital screen use.” http://www.aoa.org/patients-and-public/caring-for-your-vision/protecting-your-vision/computer-vision-syndrome?sso=y

“Computer Vision Syndrome Threatens Returning Students: (Aug 13, 2007 ) The American Optometric Association (AOA) warned on Aug. 7 that children heading back to school are at risk for developing Computer Vision Syndrome, which leaves them vulnerable to problems like dry eye, eyestrain and fatigue. According to VSP Vision Care, nearly half of U.S. children spend four hours a day or more using computers or other portable electronic devices.” https://ohsonline.com/Articles/2007/08/American-Optometric-Association-Computer-Vision-Syndrome-Threatens-Returning-Students.aspx

Princeton University: “Carpal tunnel syndrome is probably the most widely known repetitive strain injury (RSI), but eyestrain is the most common. If uncorrected, eyestrain can lead to general fatigue, increased myopia (nearsightedness), and a decrease in overall efficiency. Everyone is at risk for eyestrain, especially those who work at a computer for more than three hours a day.” http://uhs.princeton.edu/health-resources/ergonomics-computer-use#eyestrain

The Washington Post (January 11, 2016 ): Blue light from tech gadgets and digital eye strain: More than 73 percent of young adults suffer from symptoms (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2016/01/11/blue-light-from-tech-gadgets-and-digital-eye-strain-more-than-73-percent-of-young-adults-suffer-from-symptoms/)

The Chicago Tribune (January 6, 2016) Digital eye strain: Symptoms include, in order of prevalence, neck/shoulder/back pain, eye strain, headache, blurred vision and dry eyes. (http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/ct-digital-eye-strain-0106-biz-20160105-story.html).

  1. Sleeplessness and its damaging side effects

Because so much work is done on a computer at school, most homework and studying also has to take place on a computer in the evening. This is especially problematic for our kids because the blue light from the digital devices suppresses a hormone called melatonin, which is necessary for sleep. Our kids are now being deprived of sleep because of the schools’ constant reliance on computers, which brings a host of additional serious health risks to our children. Some kids are actually being misdiagnosed with ADHD, when the truth is, they’re just exhausted.

Frontiers in Health: “The role of light and its influence on many aspects of our physiology, behavior and well-being is increasingly well understood (4–6). In particular, the light/dark cycle is critical in synchronizing the circadian (daily) clock to the 24 h day. The hormone melatonin (“the hormone of darkness”) is produced at night, with the duration of secretion mirroring the dark period, and its production is associated with sleep.” http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpubh.2015.00233/full

NIH: “Youth should be advised to limit or reduce screen time exposure, especially before or during bedtime hours to minimize any harmful effects of screen time on sleep and well-being.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4437561/

Harvard University: “Exposure to blue light at night, emitted by electronics and energy-efficient lightbulbs, [is] harmful to your health. At night, light throws the body’s biological clock—the circadian rhythm—out of whack. Sleep suffers. Worse, research shows that it may contribute to the causation of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.” http://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/blue-light-has-a-dark-side

The Sleep Foundation: “Children and adults behave differently as a result of sleepiness. Adults usually become sluggish when tired while children tend to overcompensate and speed up. For this reason, sleep deprivation is sometimes confused with ADHD in children. Children may also be moody, emotionally explosive, and/or aggressive as a result of sleepiness. In a study involving 2,463 children aged 6-15, children with sleep problems were more likely to be inattentive, hyperactive, impulsive, and display oppositional behaviors. ” https://sleepfoundation.org/sleep-disorders-problems/adhd-and-sleep

The Washington Post: Blue light from electronics disturbs sleep, especially for teenagers. Harvard sleep expert Dr. Steve Lockey: “Sleep is important for learning, memory, brain development, health … We’re systematically sleep-depriving kids when their brains are still developing, and you couldn’t design a worse system for learning.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/blue-light-from-electronics-disturbs-sleep-especially-for-teenagers/2014/08/29/3edd2726-27a7-11e4-958c-268a320a60ce_story.html

  1. Increased propensity for psychological issues

The constant use of digital devices is emerging as a psychological problem for many young people whose reliance on virtual experiences is replacing actual interaction with friends and family. Some experts, such as Dr. Nicholas Kardaras, are suggesting that digital devices are not only addictive, but lead to additional problems for young children such as depression, anxiety, pornography use and gambling. UCLA research has shown that children are losing their ability recognize emotional expressions in other people’s faces.

TIME Magazine, Dr. Nicholas Kardaras: “Indeed, over two hundred peer-reviewed studies point to screen time correlating to increased ADHD, screen addiction, increased aggression, depression, anxiety and even psychosis.” TIME Magazine, August 13, 2016. http://time.com/4474496/screens-schools-hoax/

UCLA: “UCLA scientists found that sixth-graders who went five days without even glancing at a smartphone, television or other digital screen did substantially better at reading human emotions than sixth-graders from the same school who continued to spend hours each day looking at their electronic devices.” http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/in-our-digital-world-are-young-people-losing-the-ability-to-read-emotions

Advice to BCPS Parents from “Wrench in the Gears” and Why iNACOL Loves ESSA

Recent days have seen an uptick in conversations about online Competency-based Education or CBE, the scary wave of educational transformation rapidly sweeping over the country.  BCPS students, teachers, and parents are at the front edge of this wave with STAT. 

Here is a post by a parent of a public school student who advocates for doing much more than just opting out of end-of-the-year tests.

From Wrench in the Gears (A Skeptical Parent’s Thoughts on Digital Curriculum):  Stop! Don’t opt out. Read this first.

National education expert Diane Ravitch recently linked to the blog.

One of the main “benefits” of our 1:1 initiative, according to Dr. Dance, is that it would allow children to be assessed anytime, anywhere. We’re spending millions on contracts to use and sometimes develop computer-based assessments at the end of every unit.

If you have any doubts about whether the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) replacement, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), is ripe for computer-based personalized learning assessments, iNACOL, the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, a major trade group, and its partners love ESSA.  Review the slides from this recent webinar hosted by the iNACOL president, iNACOL’s VP for Federal and State Policy, and KnowledgeWorks’ Senior Director of National Policy and you’ll begin to understand why.

During a keynote presentation at iNACOL’s annual meeting, our own Superintendent said:

“The other conversion was this whole idea around the assessment conversion.  There’s a lot of talk around the country about that right now.  Let’s get away from this idea of paper and pencil, you know, multiple-choice assessments.  How do we assess our students without even stopping class, space and time to do that?  Great teachers do this all the time with formative assessments.  But, we also know, in order to personalize learning for young people, we should be able to assess students at any moment, to figure out what level they’re on, what standards they’ve mastered, so they can move along the continuum as [sic] appropriately.”

Watch here. Go to minute 33.

Read, share these links, ask questions, and follow the suggestions from “Wrench in the Gears” that already apply to those of us in BCPS:

~ If your school offers a device for home use, decline to sign the waiver for it and/or pay the fee.

What happens if you don’t sign the waiver for middle and high school?  BCPS needs to make that clear.  We also have elementary students using a 1:1 (that means their own) device at school in first grade!   Many parents are totally unaware how much time students are spending with it, or what they are doing.  Turns out, BCPS leadership doesn’t know how much time students are spending on it either (at approximately 1:00, we hear that there’s “very limited research” on safe screentime in an educational context)!

~ Refuse to allow your child’s behavioral or social-emotional data to be entered into third-party applications. (e.g. Class Dojo)

Ask questions about all the third-party applications being used in BCPS.  Class Dojo tracks behavior.  Check out whether Common Sense Media’s privacy evaluation team has rated the applications. Subscribe to the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy’s blog and check out their back-to-school advice.

~ Refuse in-class social networking programs (e.g. EdModo).

We’re curious about how this is being used in BCPS classrooms and what other social networking software is used.  In general, parents should be very cautious about introducing social media to children – BCPS’ own advice for parents says so.  Parents should have a say about when and how their children are introduced to social networking for school.

~ Set a screentime maximum per day/per week for your child.

Research has shown that when children are spending more than a half-hour per day on the computer, learning outcomes are worse.  The evaluation of STAT thus far has NO data on learning outcomes.  Read the JHU STAT reports here. Ask for homework alternatives that do not require use of a computer.  Ask for textbooks so that reading can be done without more time on the computer.

~ Opt young children out of in-school screentime altogether and request paper and pencil assignments and reading from print books (not e-books).

Parents Across America (PAA), a grassroots, non-partisan organization, has a number of useful linksHere are some questions to ask your school.

~ Begin educating parents about the difference between “personalized learning” modules that rely on mining PII (personally-identifiable information) to function properly and technology that empowers children to create and share their own content.

Dreambox and iReady, so-called “personalized learning” software, are being used in BCPS.  Neither empowers children to create their own content.  See this link on iReady, and this one; this link concerns Dreambox.  Look in BCPSone.  Ask your kids.  Ask your teachers and principals.  What else are they using?  Log in at home with your child if you can and check it out – if you don’t have access to a computer at home, ask your school to show you the programs in action.  You have a right to know what your child is doing at school.

~ Insist that school budgets prioritize human instruction and that hybrid/blended learning not be used as a backdoor way to increase class size or push online classes.

The County Auditor’s report of 2015 notes that class sizes have increased with the implementation STAT.  STAT teachers used to be classroom teachers – they are no longer, instead focusing on professional development.  Hybrid and blended learning have a host of definitions, but here are some examples of how it is playing out so far for kids as young as first grade in BCPS. 

http://lighthouse.bcps.org/reflections/february-26th-2016

http://lighthouse.bcps.org/reflections/flipped-learning-to-differentiate

As Dr. Dance says:

“Most of the nation’s classrooms have about 30 students in them. How can a teacher personalize and customize unless you leverage technology?  In BCPS we have five-year journey to go 1:1 in grades K-12 to where every single kid has a device.” 

But wait.  Respected education policy center NEPC at the University of Colorado says:

“Smaller classes are particularly effective at raising achievement levels of low-income and minority children.”

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. 

Moving to Pennsylvania for the Schools

May 15, 2016

To Whom It May Concern:

At the start of 2016, my husband and I made the decision to move our family to southern Pennsylvania for several reasons; one of the main being to leave Baltimore County Public Schools.  This letter serves to inform Baltimore County Board of Education and other county officials of the rationale behind our decision.  This is not a specific criticism of our particular school, which I will not name, but rather concerns we have with BCPS systemically.  With one child in kindergarten and one entering in 2016-17, we have many more years in a school system and do not feel as if Baltimore County is going to give our children the foundation that we feel is important to their educations.

We began kindergarten in the fall of 2015 with cautious optimism despite being warned by a former BCPS employee that we would not be happy with our zoned school.   We were met the first week of school with a list of playground rules.  I understand the need for rules and the need to make sure the children understand the rules.  But when the first rule for kindergarten recess is “No running on the playground”, I begin to have a problem.  Five and six year-old children are expected to focus on academics 6 hours a day with a 20-minute recess, and they are not allowed to run?  I spent time touring and interviewing the elementary schools in Southern York County School District.  Each school representative I spoke with was stunned to learn that my kindergarten student was not permitted to run on the playground during recess.

An excerpt taken from “The Crucial Role in Recess in School”, published by The American Academy of Pediatrics, stresses the importance of unstructured play in the development of children; “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines recess as ‘regularly scheduled periods within the elementary school day for unstructured physical activity and play.’1 The literature examining the global benefits of recess for a child’s cognitive, emotional, physical, and social well-being has recently been reviewed.2 Yet, recent surveys and studies have indicated a trend toward reducing recess to accommodate additional time for academic subjects in addition to its withdrawal for punitive or behavioral reasons.”

Our children will begin the 2016-17 school year in Southern York County School District where they will have recess two times a day, with regular opportunities to earn additional recess as a class.  They will also participate in a district wide “Walking Wednesday” program where all teachers, students and administrators in the district walk the school campuses as an additional opportunity to get outside.  Studies have shown that more opportunities for recess and outside time actually helps children refocus, and there is data to support higher test scores.

Our next concern is the use of technology in BCPS.  This year, my son has not had a tablet and has not participated in the “personalized learning” of which our superintendent is so fond.  My husband and I have some serious concerns regarding the use of technology in the classroom, including decreased interaction between students and teachers, lack of traditional and proven teaching methods and safety of the students-both online and physically.  There is no data to support the use of technology as Superintendent Dance envisions it in BCPS classrooms is an effective teaching tool, and yet BCPS is rolling out the use of personal devices throughout the entire county, without having all security measures in place or even knowing all the possible risks.  There are too many studies to cite here directly but I encourage you to visit

www.waldorfresearchinstitute.org/research-technology/

to see studies on “How Screentime is Affecting Kids’ Moods and Attitudes”, “The Impact of Technology on the Developing Child” and how note-taking is a more effective learning tool than technology.  If you take the time to read any of these articles, you will understand the concerns that parents of young children have regarding one-to-one technology in the classroom.   There has been no reassurance or proof that our children’s identities will be secure with these online learning programs proposed by Mr. Dance.  In fact, a recent article stated that ” ‘75% of schools don’t tell parents that kids’ data is shared’ according to Cheri Kiessecker.” (edworkforce.house.gov).  It should be noted that my husband and I are not alone in these concerns.  There are many parents in Baltimore County who share our concerns and do not want our children learning from a computer instead of a teacher.

The next area of concern we have is the Common Core curriculum and PARCC testing.  Pennsylvania does not participate in Common Core.  The school districts follow a curriculum laid out by the state.  There is the Pennsylvania State Assessment (PSA) as a means of measuring student achievement.  The PSA, however does not cause the high levels of stress and anxiety in students and teachers that PARCC testing seems to.  And taking the PSA is not a requirement for graduation.

Finally, Pennsylvania schools are funded differently than Maryland schools.  We will pay a “school tax” when we move and each year thereafter as long as we reside in the state.  And that’s okay with us.  Because of the school tax, Pennsylvania schools are better funded.  We received our kindergarten supply list recently.  The comparison between our new school and our current school is not only astonishing, but very telling of the use of funds allocated to the schools.  In PA, we have 6 items on the list with one optional item.  In BCPS, there are 35 items and 10 optional items.  The kindergarten supply list is just one example of the funding differences between the two school districts.

My husband and I thought it was important that we share our concerns about BCPS to those who can help facilitate a change.  We are Baltimore County taxpayers who are in the position to purchase a house and we have chosen to take our purchase and our money to another state.  We may only be one family, but most of the houses we looked at during our search were owned by someone who was commuting to MD.  I know of other BCPS families who are considering a similar move for the same reasons cited here.

Thank you for your time.

Sincerely,

Noelle S. Wilson

Health Risks Posed to Children by Daily Computer Use

Thanks to Cindy Eckard, a Maryland advocate for computer safety in schools, for sharing this research.  Cindy has published op-eds regarding screentime in the Baltimore Sun and Washington Post.

Additional Research: Some of the health risks posed to children by daily computer use

by Cindy Eckard

screensandkids@gmail.com

There are a variety of issues that are working against the health of children using computers daily. Many of the challenges these devices create for children affect their psychological and social skills: isolation, depression and the growing inability to recognize emotions in the faces of the people around them, for instance. There is a growing body of evidence in these areas that schools need to consider as they increase the use of computers in the classroom. The latent functions of these devices pose larger risks than generally realized; there are more significant prices to be paid than most school administrators are willing to admit or explore.

Here’s a UCLA study: http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/in-our-digital-world-are-young-people-losing-the-ability-to-read-emotions

Basic, common sense protection for our children’s physical health is required. 10-15 year-old children are already prone to myopia; it’s the shape their eyes are taking at this stage in their physical development: https://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/eyes/Pages/Myopia-Nearsightedness.aspx

And because long-term fixed distance viewing is very well known to promote nearsightedness, the pre-teen and teenage developmental precondition for myopia is being exacerbated when middle school kids are required to stare at a computer for excessive periods of time. The students are further disadvantaged in middle school because right when they need recess the most — the one activity that has been proven to mitigate myopia — they are denied any regular outdoor play.

http://www.aao.org/eye-health/tips-prevention/time-outdoors-reduces-nearsightedness

This is a complete recipe for disaster, and the scientific community has already begun to tally the damage. The latest USC study specifically identifies screens as the cause for childhood myopia doubling in the U.S. in the last 50 years. The schools must pay attention to this.

https://news.usc.edu/91007/usc-eye-institute-study-seeks-cures-to-childhood-myopia/

The blue light from the monitors is another significant concern. Kids blink 66% less often when they use a computer. That’s why dry eyes are so frequent.

https://www.uihealthcare.org/2column.aspx?id=225650

The UV blue light emissions that damage the back of our eyes are better able to penetrate children’s eyes because the kids are not blinking, and because a child’s eye doesn’t have the necessary pigmentation to protect against the blue light. So the child is staring into a computer whose damaging light penetrates right to the back of his eye. That’s why it’s so dangerous for children’s vision and people are now talking about computer-related macular degeneration instead of age-related macular degeneration. Start a child in kindergarten on these devices, and good luck by the time they graduate.

Experts say the damage is cumulative.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2016/01/11/blue-light-from-tech-gadgets-and-digital-eye-strain-more-than-73-percent-of-young-adults-suffer-from-symptoms/

Blue light emissions have also been shown to reduce melatonin levels which interrupts circadian rhythms and sleep patterns. Because kids are forced to use computers in the evening, to complete assignments that are exclusively online, they are beginning to suffer the effects of sleeplessness: fatigue, irritability and inability to concentrate. As a result, some kids are now being misdiagnosed as having ADHD, when they are simply exhausted.

Here’s a citation: This constant blue light exposure, while inflicting long-term damage to the retina, can also affect our ability to fall asleep. Exposure to these wavelengths after dark will affect our internal clock, causing the pineal gland to suppress the excretion of melatonin, our sleep hormone. This affects our ability to fall asleep. In kids this can lead to loss of focus and concentration, irritability, and hyperactivity, sometimes being mistaken for symptoms of ADHD.

http://www.eyecarebusiness.com/webexclusives/why-should-you-care-about-blue-light.aspx

This link has more information about blue light and sleeplessness and a very good video that explains the physiology: http://collettsmart.com/how-much-sleep-do-teenagers-need/

Environmental and ergonomic considerations also must be addressed: bad lighting, poor contrast settings and glare on the screens all make the children’s eyes work harder, causing more eye strain. Princeton University has a comprehensive outline of considerations to maximize the ergonomically safe use of computers: http://uhs.princeton.edu/health-resources/ergonomics-computer-use#eyestrain

The following article is an excellent overview of computer vision syndrome concerns; it also illustrates how long experts have known about these issues. The AOA has been warning about the vision risks for students at least since 2007. This piece also touches on another unique aspect of children using computers: the inability of children to accurately identify or report physical discomfort, so they continue to work without adjustments, even if their vision gets blurry.

American Optometric Association: Computer Vision Syndrome Threatens Returning Students Aug 13, 2007 THE American Optometric Association (AOA) warned on Aug. 7 that children heading back to school are at risk for developing Computer Vision Syndrome, which leaves them vulnerable to problems like dry eye, eyestrain and fatigue. According to VSP Vision Care, nearly half of U.S. children spend four hours a day or more using computers or other portable electronic devices.

https://ohsonline.com/Articles/2007/08/American-Optometric-Association-Computer-Vision-Syndrome-Threatens-Returning-Students.aspx

Letter to County Council Regarding S.T.A.T.

Dear County Council Members,

I am writing on behalf of concerned BCPS parents regarding the newest rounds of BCPS policy involving STAT (especially the leasing of 1:1 devices, the amount of assessment and instructional time spent on devices, and data privacy).

Today, I was listening to a radio broadcast of the hearing involving Governor Rick Snyder from MI and the Flint MI water crisis. One thing is very clear: politicians chose to ignore the warnings of the community who knew something was wrong with their water, and these politicians put money over human health and well-being. While there was data proving problems with the new water source existed, the data were ignored. Meanwhile, decisions to switch water sources were made with NO data proving that switching the water sources was a good thing.

The flood of technology-driven policies being launched in Baltimore County Schools are like lead-based water. BCPS is switching our water from one source to another (water being the parallel for learning). Certain parallels should be made clear to you:

  • We, the community, know there is something fundamentally wrong with the increased push toward technology-based instruction and assessments in lieu of human and collaborative interactions. Yet, our voices are being ignored.
  • There is no data to suggest that moving away from existing models of instruction and assessment and toward (so-called) “personalized” device driven instruction is any better for children.
  • There is ample evidence suggesting that the switch toward more online providers for teaching and learning are driven by economics (saving money for the district and profits for the companies who lobbied for the policies) thus outing money over human health and well-being. The people directly involved with education technology industry and policy are quick to tell you that every child “needs” 21st century skills, that they “need” to be educated more and more via online methods. Yet, they have NO evidence to show this is in fact “necessary.” So ask….WHY? It’s on YOU, the BCPS policy makers to pause and ask yourselves this question.

Because here’s what we DO know. Online device-driven instruction leads to:

  • Increased risks of obesity-increased seat time
  • Reduction of opportunities to engage with multiple learning styles: kinesthetic, social, verbal, environmental…all reduced to visual screen time.
  • Loss of socialization and development of social cuing.

“You can’t learn nonverbal emotional cues from a screen in the way you can learn it from face-to-face communication,” said Yalda Uhls, a senior researcher with UCLA’s Children’s Digital Media Center, in a news release. “If you’re not practicing face-to-face communication, you could be losing important social skills.”

http://www.ctvnews.ca/mobile/health/excessive-screen-time-may-hurt-a-child-s-ability-to-understand-emotions-study-1.1972211

Kids are spending more time than ever in front of screens, and it may be inhibiting their ability to recognize emotions, according to new research out of the University of California, Los Angeles.

http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2014/08/28/343735856/kids-and-screen-time-what-does-the-research-say

  • Damage to eyes, hands/wrists, and neck.

“Children can develop pain in their fingers and wrists, narrowed blood vessels in their eyes (the long-term consequences of which are unknown), and neck and back pain from being slumped over their phones, tablets and computers.” http://mobile.nytimes.com/blogs/well/2015/07/06/screen-addiction-is-taking-a-toll-on-children/?referer=

  • Loss of data privacy = online platforms delivered to third-party organizations who track every response and behavior your child makes in their learning process. Every bit tracked and monitored and managed. My child is not an unwilling consumer forced to share private information simply because a private company (like Pearson or KIPP) has been made an LEA.
  • Increases ADHD-like symptoms. “Children who are heavy users of electronics may become adept at multitasking, but they can lose the ability to focus on what is most important, a trait critical to the deep thought and problem solving needed for many jobs and other endeavors later in life.” http://mobile.nytimes.com/blogs/well/2015/07/06/screen-addiction-is-taking-a-toll-on-children/?referer=
  • An adrenaline-driven mentality to learning (like addiction). As a practitioner, I observe that many of the children I see suffer from sensory overload, lack of restorative sleep, and a hyper-aroused nervous system, regardless of diagnosis—what I call electronic screen syndrome.These children are impulsive, moody, and can’t pay attention…excessive screen-time appears to impair brain structure and function. Much of the damage occurs in the brain’s frontal lobe, which undergoes massive changes from puberty until the mid-twenties

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/mental-wealth/201402/gray-matters-too-much-screen-time-damages-the-brain

So please, as you decide to vote to spend more monies on technology (simply because it seems like the “in” thing or “cool” thing to do because well, “everybody’s doing it”) consider this: Years from now, after learning has been destroyed for a generation of our children because of the lack of thought you put into the decisions you are making for them today, you may find yourselves taking the stand, like Rick Snyder. We, the community will be demanding from you an account for your ignorance and negligence in the face of facts, concerns, and plain common sense which we are presenting to you today. If we learn from anything from history its how not to repeat the same mistakes. Don’t destroy a generation of our children for the sake of politics and profits. Be better than that. Hit the pause button and learn the facts before making decisions that will lead to irreparable harm for our children and our public schools.

Morna McDermott McNulty

BCPS parent and Professor of Education, Towson University

Occupational Therapists Speak Out

A Baltimore County occupational therapist writes about the 1:1 tablet initiative in Baltimore County Public Schools and the health implications for the national push for more computer time in school.

There remains mounting concern over the initiative for children to have increased access to technological devices throughout a typical school day.  Between parents, pediatricians, occupational therapists and other developmental specialists, our voices should be heard and acknowledged.

Research continues to evolve that analyzes the developmental effect the increased use of tablets and other screen devices have on children and their growing brains.  While many may argue that students are more “engaged,” appear to pay more attention, and learn some academic skills at a quicker rate, they are fast to ignore the decrease in social engagement, play skills, fine motor skill use and muscle strengthening.

As a pediatric occupational therapist working with children with various mild to severe diagnoses or delays, it is evident that there is a rise in children presenting with motor delays, which at times can be linked to overuse of tablets, cell phones and other technological devices. Overexposure to the vast pieces of technological equipment can be linked to impaired learning, increased impulsivity, executive functioning delays, decreased ability to self-regulate and tantrums. 

What about eye strain? Or posture maintenance as a child’s neck is constantly looking down at a tablet and they begin to hunch over in their chair? Finger strength diminishes as they no longer need to maintain a grasp pattern on a pencil or crayon and apply or assert pressure to write and color.  Can a child become addicted to technology? Some studies seem to think so.  Even more alarming is the thought of radiation emission from wireless devices flooding the classroom. It has even warranted the American Academy of Pediatrics to request review of EMF radiation emissions from technology devices.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a policy statement titled “Media Use by Children Younger Than 2 Years” in 1999 with the purpose to provide parental education about the negative effects of media exposure to this age group.  As the years have passed and further research has been conducted, a more recent policy statement was released by the AAP and published in November 2011 in their Pediatric journal.  This article states that media use has been associated with obesity, sleep issues, aggressive behaviors and attention issues.  The AAP continues to stand by its statement that there are no known positive effects, but yet potentially negative effects for children younger than two years when exposed to media use.

In an article written by Perri Klass, M.D., in the New York Times titled “Fixated by Screens, but Seemingly Nothing Else”, screen use and attentional issues were discussed.  The author stated that increased screen time may be linked to and also a consequence of A.D.H.D.  This article also referenced a study in 2010 in the journal Pediatrics that stated viewing more television and playing more video games were associated with attention problems in school age children and college undergraduates.

(Editor’s note: The difference between gaming/TV time vs. “educational” screen time is quickly diminishing with the current mode of software-delivered lessons via “gamification” (dopamine-surge video game-style) and numerous videos accessed by isolated students wearing head phones. See also this article by longtime education researcher and expert on the proper use of laptops in classrooms, Larry Cuban “Some Technology Leaders Worry about Children and Digital Devices: They Should.” )

Children are exposed to bright screens with intense visual stimulation which can alter the wiring of the brain. As children become so accustomed to the screen and intense visual stimulation, they are in turn less able to focus on a teacher or a “still” environment that does not produce the same visual stimulus.  Dr. Dimitri Christakis, a pediatrician at the University of Washington School of Medicine stated “if a child’s brain gets habituated to that pace (of a video game or highly stimulating screen) and to the extreme alertness needed to keep responding and winning, the child may find the realities of the world underwhelming, understimulating.”  Learning and functioning behind a screen is not always indicative of the real world.

In an article in the Huffington Post, Cris Rowan writes “diagnoses of ADHD, autism, coordination disorder, developmental delays, unintelligible speech, learning difficulties, sensory processing disorder, anxiety, depression, and sleep disorders are associated with technology overuse and are increasing at an alarming rate.”

While I am a strong component of the use of technology, I suggest limits should be set and a healthy occupational balance should be maintained.  This means shorter time periods of tablet/device use and the continuation of functional activities such as handwriting, creative and imaginative play and sensory motor play and experiences.  I occasionally use an iPad as a therapeutic tool in therapy sessions; but, it does not replace the use of various other practical tasks.

With the growth of technology in today’s world, we can assume that a majority of children have access to tablets and devices at home. If they are spending so much time at home on them, is it necessary that we also force their use in the classroom?  I welcome the opportunity to further discuss this emergent epidemic as we watch our children grow in an environment overwhelmed with screens.

Letter by Lindsay Marzoli, one of two occupational therapists who spoke recently before the Baltimore County Board of Education.

Lindsay Marzoli, MS, OTR/L #06167

Licensed and Registered Pediatric Occupational Therapist

Director of Occupational Therapy Services

Learning and Therapy Corner, LLC

1818 Pot Spring Road, Suite 100

Lutherville, MD 21093

410-583-5765

Lmarzoli@LTCorner.com

http://www.LTCorner.com

References:

American Academy of Pediatrics. (2011). Policy Statement: Media Use by Children Younger Than

2 Years. Retrieved November 21, 2013 by pediatrics.aappublications.org

Blog Post by Cris Rowan, Pediatric Occupational Therapist. Posted on 3/6/2014 and updated on

3/24/2014 titled 10 Reasons Why Handheld Devices Should Be Banned for Children

Under the Age of 12.

Huffington Post. The Impact of Technology on the Developing Child.

Cris Rowan, OTR. Posted on 5/29/2013 and updated on 7/29/2013.

The New York Times. May 9, 2011. Screen Fixation and A.D.H.D- Fixated by Screens, but

Seemingly Nothing Else. Dr. Perri Klass. NYTimes.com

And here is an anonymous response by another Baltimore County occupational therapist:

I agree with the OT’s perspective about technology in the classroom. The STAT program can play an important role in learning, but it needs to be used in moderation. BCPS OTs report to each other that they are seeing more referrals and the students do not have the same quality of fine motor skills than in previous years. They attribute this to children spending more time indoors and on devices. The children are not playing with toys and are not playing outside with other children. Eye strain, decreased finger coordination and strength, and decreased sustained attention to tasks that are not on a screen are all concerns from my point of view. Every year I observe 2-3 kindergarten students who just cannot hold a pencil. They are “all thumbs.” I ask them if they play on their i-pads a lot at home. Every single one of them lights up and tells me, “Yes!”.

I see both pros and cons for the use of technology, but the demise of handwriting skills because of technology is not the only reason; the alignment of the curriculum to the state curriculum also plays into children’s difficulties with handwriting. Developmentally appropriate pre-writing and handwriting is not stressed in the Pre-K, K, and 1st grade curriculums. By the second quarter, kindergarten students are encouraged to compose ideas, but they do not know how to form the letters with the appropriate sequence of strokes. They draw the letters to the best of their abilities and do not receive feedback about their letter formation. They receive feedback about their thoughts. I do not want to have their creativity squelched, but they also need to learn the basics of writing. Pencil grasp and the accurate sequence of strokes for letter formation take a back seat to composing ideas. I have 1st and 2nd grade teachers tell me that it is painful to get these ideas out of the children because they do not have that higher level thinking at this time in their development. I see Pre-K students copying words without instruction on how to hold a pencil or how to hold a crayon. They are copying words but can’t identify all of the letters, much less pronounce the words. I see Pre-K students drawing and coloring with full-fisted grasps and their fingers wrapped all around crayons. Schools need to stop purchasing standard pencils and standard crayons for Pre-K and K classrooms. All of the children would benefit from using beginner crayons and the thicker beginner pencils. Modify the tools so that it is easier for them to complete the task. This way they are not holding onto the pencil or crayon with a tight grasp and hyperextension at their finger joints. Stop pushing human development. School curriculums and social norms change, but the rate of human development has not changed over these past 20 years. Pre-school classrooms also should have less worksheet activities and more multi-sensory instruction. Letter instruction: make playdoh letters, shaving cream letters.

Cursive handwriting is barely taught in BCPS schools. This is a national trend, not just a BCPS trend. It is taught as filler time. Some people believe that cursive is a dying form of communication and it is true that school systems have phased it out of the curriculum. Cursive writing has been shown to be a more effective mode of communication than manuscript for children with learning disabilities because it eliminates the constant starting and stopping of each individual letter. The letter formation also discourages letter reversals. Despite this research, BCPS does not provide in-depth instruction in cursive handwriting for children with diagnosed learning disabilities. Are the occupational therapists then allowed to provide this instruction to the children with learning disabilities? No, because that is considered handwriting instruction. The occupational therapists are to focus their interventions on the visual motor and fine motor components of handwriting, not teach handwriting. Unless a parent intervenes with private OT services or works on cursive handwriting at home, the child will not be provided with this intervention.

There is a benefit to having the STAT program for children with learning disabilities. Before the children were provided with 1:1 devices, it was difficult to obtain devices for the students. The majority of these children did not have IEPs; they had 504 plans or no formal accommodations. Accommodations are provided at the school level, not through Assistive Technology, and the schools were not providing devices to these children. My child has a learning disability of dysgraphia. His teacher was putting him on her teacher laptop (this was before the teachers were provided with their own devices), because the computers in her classroom were antiquated. I could have gone the Assistive Technology route, but that would have taken months by the time he was teamed, assessed, and provided with a device. I bought him a Chromebook and he used that for 4th and 5th grade. It worked out great, but not every family has the resources to purchase a computer for their child for in the school. Now I see students with dysgraphia having the opportunities for keyboarding everyday. That was not true before STAT. Children are also provided with having Kurzweil for reading and writing difficulties.

If we are providing 1:1 devices, we also need to provide keyboarding instruction. Do we expect kindergarten students to automatically know how to form their letters? No, so why does BCPS assume that children will know how to operate a keyboard and touch screen? It is up to the teacher to fit it into their day. This time does not exist unless it is mandated by the curriculum. Dreambox math program is mandated by BCPS. Teachers are told that the children must have X amount of minutes of Dreambox per week. If Dreambox can be mandated, why can’t a typing program be mandated by BCPS? Before STAT, I would recommend that children with processing difficulties use word processing and I would always hear that their typing was too slow. Of course their typing was slow. They didn’t know the keyboard. Teachers would be told to fit it into their day. This time did not exist. These children had difficulties with attention and processing; everything already took longer than their peers. Providing keyboarding instruction for all children helps level the playing field for all of the children.

I have concerns about screen time and altering the wiring of the brain. I see children having difficulties with sustaining their attention to paper/pencil activities. Life is not an actively moving pixel. I do not like seeing Pre-K students dancing to song after song from YouTube. The movements are so fast and they cannot keep up with the movements. They are also watching the screen, like it’s a giant TV. Daily calendar or question of the day using the white board also eliminates the fine motor and visual motor aspects of the task. Also, in the upper elementary grades, the teachers cannot monitor that the children are using the technology appropriately all of the time.

One aspect that has not been brought up is how does this decrease the socio-economic gap in education? Outside of my current school, I work in Title I schools. Many of the families do not have internet access and do not have the ability to access BCPSOne, much less a tablet with a keyboard or a computer. Are we unintentionally increasing the gap as our more affluent families access BCPSOne? What programs are in place to encourage our less affluent families to play more educational games and access BCPSOne? Could STAT be a way of encouraging these families to be a more active participant in the educational process? If BCPS is going to be a leader in STAT, they need to think outside of the box so that all socio-economic levels are participating in STAT.

Parents Do Their Homework: An Engineer and a Professor on STAT

A Parent and Engineer Speaks:

I’m a parent of a BCPS student. I’m an engineer and I also mentor a middle school robotics team, so I’m not averse to kids using computers or learning as much as they can about science and technology. In fact, when I first heard that our students would soon be getting a laptop to use in school, I thought it sounded like a great idea, especially considering how heavy my son’s backpack was beginning to get. At first glance, the STAT program looked like a good idea. But as I took a closer look, I have grown increasingly concerned that we in BCPS are not so much the recipients of some grand proven technology but instead we are being used as guinea pigs for the digital education industry.

When Dr. Dance announced the launch of the STAT program in the Spring of 2013, I wanted to learn as much as I could about the educational technology they planned to use and this new way of teaching they call “student-centered learning”. I wanted to make sure that I could assist not only my own child with his classwork but also help his robotics team utilize this new educational approach as much as possible. I was naturally curious about the body of basic research that led Dr. Dance to make such a bold, not to mention pricey, decision. Whenever faced with an unknown, it’s my practice to look at the fundamentals of something and try to work my way up.

To my dismay, however, I found very little research that actually covered this new approach. On the internet I could easily find hundreds of articles discussing how promising this kind of approach might be but I could find no solid positive examples that really satisfied me. While there were lots of opinions about how awesome something like STAT might be, I could find nothing that linked increased test scores with this kind of system-wide laptop-centered learning.

My concerns were heightened when I read the following article in Education Week:
(http://www.edweek.org/ew/issues/technology-in-education/)
“While there is much on-going research on new technologies and their effects on teaching and learning, there is little rigorous, large-scale data that makes for solid research, education experts say. The vast majority of the studies available are funded by the very companies and institutions that have created and promoted the technology, raising questions of the research’s validity and objectivity. In addition, the kinds of studies that produce meaningful data often take several years to complete—a timeline that lags far behind the fast pace of emerging and evolving technologies.”

Also, in the same Education Week article: “For example, it is difficult to pinpoint empirical data to support the case for mobile learning in schools—a trend that educators have been exploring for several years now—let alone data to support even newer technologies such as tablet computers like the iPad. The studies that do look at the effects of mobile technologies on learning are often based on small samples of students involved in short-term pilots, not the kind of large-scale, ongoing samples of students that educators and policymakers would like to see.”

Instead of success stories, I found examples of district-wide failures. For example, there is the Education Achievement Authority (EAA) in Detroit, a situation that became so bad for students that the Michigan ACLU stepped in to investigate. http://www.metrotimes.com/detroit/the-eaa-exposed-an-investigative- report/Content?oid=2249513

Also: http://archive.freep.com/article/20140616/NEWS01/306160149/EAA-Covington- resign

And in Los Angeles, there was the 1.3 billion dollar iPad fiasco: http://www.wired.com/2015/05/los-angeles-edtech/

Then I came across the National Education Technology Plan 2010 (NETP 2010), issued by the Department of Education in November 2010. This report seemed to be a call to the nation for exactly the kind of technology that the STAT program is promised to be.

https://www.ed.gov/sites/default/files/netp2010.pdf

From page 78 of the NETP 2010, we read: “What we do not have is an integrated system that can perform all these functions dynamically while optimizing engagement and learning for all learners. Such an integrated system is essential for implementing the individualized, differentiated, and personalized learning called for in this plan.”

From page 80:”…we have yet to see highly effective systems that can be brought to scale. ”

The NETP2010 report implies that at the start of 2011, experts in the Department of Education were aware that there was no viable technology capable of doing exactly what the STAT program now claims to be capable of achieving. And yet it was hardly 2 years before Dr. Dance announced the STAT program. If such a program didn’t exist in 2011, how could Dr. Dance have derived the conviction needed to aggressively drive such an experimental program into our school system?

Perhaps the NETP 2010 provided Dr. Dance with all the grit necessary to plow forward as it calls for a radical, high-risk/high-return approach to educational experimentation involving rapid cycles of trial and error. From NETP 2010 pages 76-77: “… recruit and bring together the best minds and organizations to collaborate on high-risk/high-gain education R&D projects. It should aim for radical, orders-of-magnitude improvements by envisioning the impact of innovations and then working backward to identify the fundamental breakthroughs required to make them possible…..Through the funding of rapid and iterative cycles of design and trial implementation in educational settings, the national center can demonstrate the feasibility and early-stage potential of innovative tools, content, and pedagogies that leverage knowledge, information, and technology advances at the cutting edge.”

In his Transition report of 2012 November, Dr. Dance made no mention of STAT. In fact words such as “digital” or “computer” or “laptop” show up nowhere in his entry plan.
https://www.bcps.org/offices/super/pdf/EntryPlan.pdf

And yet STAT was announced in the Spring of 2013. The White House named Dr. Dance a Connected Educator Champion of Change soon afterwards, in 2013. Do Dr. Dance’s connections with the White House have anything to do with imposing STAT upon our county? How could the STAT program burst onto the Dance floor fully formed in such little time?

The NETP 2010 plan calls for swift action. From page ix: “The National Education Technology Plan 2010 (NETP) calls for revolutionary transformation rather than evolutionary tinkering.”

Even the name of STAT seems to have derived its inspiration from the NETP 2010 report.  From page xv: “The Time To Act Is Now. The NETP accepts that we do not have the luxury of time: We must act now and commit to fine-tuning and midcourse corrections as we go.”

Also, from page 3: “Above all, we must accept that we do not have the luxury of time. We must act now and commit to fine-tuning and midcourse corrections as we go. We must learn from other kinds of enterprises that have used technology to improve outcomes and increase productivity.”

So my concern is that STAT is being imposed upon our school system by outside interests, specifically the Department of Education and the many computer hardware and software companies that stand to benefit by digitally transforming education in the United States. And I worry that these outside interests are in a gold rush fever to try out their latest technologies and experimental software packages and to get them to market before anyone else. What these corporate interests require, however, is a large, diverse group of guinea pigs on which to run their countless experiments, shake out the bugs in their software, and optimize their algorithms using human test subjects. And I fear BCPS is now handing over to these corporate interests exactly what they demand: 111,000 guinea pigs otherwise known as our students.

This type of guinea pig scenario is one of the main reasons the Michigan ACLU decided to investigate the digital revolution that took place in Detroit’s EAA. The digital reformation there devolved into a situation in which “…teachers and students were, over the course of two school years, used as whetstones to hone a badly flawed product being pitched as cutting-edge technology.” http://www.metrotimes.com/detroit/the-eaa-exposed-an-investigative- report/Content?oid=2249513

We only need to look at the March 2011 Department of Education’s “Winning the Education Future: The Role of ARPA-ED” to see where such initiatives are probably coming from and where they are likely headed.
See http://www.ed.gov/sites/default/files/arpa-ed-background.pdf

While ARPA-ED has not been formally funded, it has been repeatedly called for in the proposed federal budget and, if nothing else, its mere proposal reveals the social philosophy of the people who are operating the Department of Education.

In “Winning the Education Future,” we read the following:
From page 7:  “The education sector currently suffers from the lack of directed development. Directed development is a means to fund transformational or game-changing technology that the private sector alone cannot or will not support because of high risk, uncertain returns, or extended time horizons for completion. Federal support for public-private partnerships that are high-risk and high-return can play an important role in education, as it has in other areas.

From page 8:  “The National Education Technology Plan 2010 called for ―revolutionary change through technology and noted the power of a DARPA-style approach to research. In September of 2010, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology explicitly called for the creation of an ARPA-ED to help technology ―play a transformative role in education.” ARPA-ED is aimed at developing the following:

From page 2: “Digital tutors as effective as personal tutors. Researchers have long aspired to develop educational software that is as effective as a personal tutor, one of the grand challenges in the President’s innovation strategy. …

“Courses that improve the more students use them. Internet companies like Netflix and Amazon have devoted significant resources to develop tools that analyze consumer data to identify patterns, tailor results to users’ preferences, and provide a more individualized experience. Researchers are exploring whether similar techniques can be applied to education. …

“Educational software as compelling as the best video game …. The insights from great game designers can and should be applied to develop rich and compelling learning environments for students.”

“Digital tutors” and “Courses that improve the more students use them” are examples of adaptive learning systems, artificial intelligence software that models the student’s mind as the student interacts with the program. Software companies need lots and lots of kids to interact with these algorithms so the software will “learn” how best to teach. While I can imagine that these sort of programs might someday be made effective, I can also easily imagine it might take months or years for that software to “converge” on effective teaching methods. And during those months and years, our kids will be suffering with the countless glitches and experimental dead ends typical of software products that are being tested by start-up companies.

What’s most distressing about this scenario is that the insertion of these types of digital tutors into our school system might require outstanding teachers to stand off to the side (as “guide on the side”) and not interact with the students at all. While I’m sure many excellent teachers feel they will simply “ride out” the STAT initiative and teach students the proven way they have always taught them, the introduction of these digital tutors would require the teacher to do next to nothing as the students remain plugged in and interacting solely with the software. If teachers were to interact with the students, then the digital tutor algorithms would not be able to properly model the student’s mind and, in effect, the teacher would introduce a variable that the software would have a hard time predicting.

Students taking ownership of their learning might just be a clever way of saying that the laptops will take over their teaching. With teachers relegated to “guides on the sides” rather than “sages on the stage”, the software stands alone as the student’s single source of instruction. Therefore the algorithm is free to do its work without outside interference from teachers, parents, or even other students.

It’s possible we already see this kind of situation with a math tutoring program called Dreambox. At Vincent Farms Elementary School, for example, parents were instructed to NOT help their children with their math homework but were, instead, instructed to have the child click on the Dreambox question button. Such an instruction to parents to provide zero assistance to their child is consistent with the kind of digital tutor system called for in the ARPA-ED proposal.

See the link labeled in tiny letters “Dreambox Parent Presentation” here: https://vincentfarmes.bcps.org/for_parents/dream_box_information

Dreambox has been around for years so I’m not saying that Dreambox is bad for kids but it is an example of the kind of technology our kids will be exposed to, and perhaps, unlike Dreambox, such software might show up in BCPS classrooms in its early infancy, to be tested on our kids.

Meanwhile we find ourselves in the middle of a student testing upheaval that makes “before” and “after” performance comparisons nearly impossible. And Dr. Dance has decided to not even look at test data until year 3 of his STAT program. “Regarding any assessment data points, our S.T.A.T. Evaluation logic model clearly states that quantitative measures like MAP and PARCC will not be used in an evaluative manner until Year 3.” https://www.bcps.org/academics/stat/STAT-Eval_FAQ.pdf

And yet, in the absence of any performance data, Dr. Dance has been willing to take his STAT program on the road and advertise it to the world as an unqualified success. Rarely a month goes by without Dr. Dance or one of his staff receiving some kind of award for digital innovation. The incoming stream of congratulations is seemingly never ending. Of course, a closer look at who is handing out the awards often exposes the fact that these “non-profits” are sponsored by corporations that will benefit from sales of educational hardware and software. It is this sort of tangled web of relationships that calls into question the validity and objectivity of all that is happening here in BCPS.

Until we have actual test data, we parents are asked to accept the observational data of an “independent” study of STAT being conducted by the Center for Research and Reform in Education (CRRE) at Johns Hopkins University. These data are highly qualitative and depend very heavily on brief classroom observations, which can be woefully subjective.

The person in charge of this “independent” evaluation of STAT just so happens to be a big fan of the ARPA-ED approach to reforming education. Dr. Robert E. Slavin is the Director for the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University

http://education.jhu.edu/faculty/CRRE.html

Dr. Robert E. Slavin had this to say about ARPA-ED: “ARPA-ED projects would be risky. Many would fail to come to fruition, or would be found in later evaluations to be ineffective. However, this is the nature of innovation, and if we want to find giant leaps forward, we also have to be ready for a few pratfalls, too.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robert-e-slavin/arpa-education_b_2957138.html

And in another article, Dr. Slavin had this to say: “Many groups might try out prototypes and many, perhaps most, might fail. But if just one or just a few programs succeeded in making the world’s most effective Algebra I course, the impact would be dramatic.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robert-e-slavin/education- innovation_b_855260.html

Dr. Slavin, again: “In education, ARPA-ED would emulate the structure of DARPA in trying to provide rapid, flexible support for experimentation and innovation, especially applications of cutting-edge technology to enduring educational problems. Like DARPA, ARPA-ED could seek to entice non-traditional bidders to apply. These might include technology companies, entertainment companies, or others willing and able to create and take to scale exciting and innovative applications. Think of Microsoft, Apple, or Disney creating algebra programs, science programs, or beginning reading programs using new or established technologies in new ways.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robert-e-slavin/arpa-education_b_2957138.html

Dr. Steven M. Ross, who works at the CRRE and is the principle investigator for the STAT evaluation, while giving a presentation about STAT before the BCPS Board of Education in November of 2014, made it clear that the CRRE researchers perceive our school system to be a giant laboratory.

“We’re ecstatic to be part of it, too. We couldn’t ask for a better laboratory. A real laboratory doing very important work.”
Video time approximately = 01:34:00 http://original.livestream.com/bcpslivetv/video?clipId=pla_af935b8e-d426-4584- 892c-3e4df3038d6f

It concerns me when I hear people speak of our school system as a laboratory, and when people who are close to the independent evaluation of something like STAT see nothing unethical about running “risky” experiments on our children, experiments that might result in “pratfalls,“ whose failures are merely shrugged off as “the nature of innovation.”

Frankly, I’m uneasy about applying a DARPA-like approach to educational reforms. No doubt DARPA has cranked out some amazing technologies since it was founded in 1958, but it has also cranked out far, far more failures. There is a great deal of accepted risk associated with anything DARPA undertakes – that’s their fundamental philosophy, high risk/potentially high reward. But I don’t think it’s an acceptable philosophy to apply to our children. It’s the test pilot mentality – you salute them for their bravery while quietly questioning their sanity. But at least test pilots are aware of what they have signed up for – our county didn’t sign up for test pilot duty and neither did our kids.

Of course, some members of the BCPS board of education don’t seem bothered by the lack of objective data in evaluating STAT. BCPS school board
Chairman Uhlfelder had this to say on 3 February 2015 when decisions were being made concerning the expansion of the STAT program: “I don’t have to wait for a study. I can’t imagine the study is not going to be anything but positive.”

At time approximately = 1:36:20. http://original.livestream.com/bcpslivetv/video?clipId=pla_ae4e8aa9-3004-42c3- 8d3c-e1e93e6a1952&utm_source=lslibrary&utm_medium=ui-thumb

At about the same time the Department of Education was pushing for ARPA-ED, they were also unveiling another program called Digital Promise. In September 2011 Education Secretary Arne Duncan unveiled this initiative. “The center will receive start-up funding from the U.S. Department of Education as well as the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and will be overseen by a board of ed-tech leaders selected based on Congressional recommendations.”

http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/DigitalEducation/2011/09/duncan_announces_di gital_promi.html

Digital Promise has presented Dr. Dance with a 2014 Digital Innovation in Learning Awards (“Walk the Walk”), and the 2015 Open Door Policy Award, which “shares what’s working and what’s not with other schools”. http://dilas.org/winners/walk-the-walk/ https://www.bcps.org/news/articles/article8050.html

http://www.digitalpromise.org/districts/baltimore-county-public-schools
On their profile page of Dr. Dance, Digital Promise applauds Dance because he “Redesigned Chesapeake High School as a national leader in STEM education, using virtual simulations and gaming to increase student engagement and atten­dance.”

According to Digital Promise, “Chesapeake High School is the district’s launch point for its Learning in Virtual En­vironments (LiVE) project, and the school launched one of the nation’s first Virtual Learning Environments (VLE) ….. In lieu of textbooks and lectures, the VLE uses simulation and gaming to teach rigorous standards and allows students to actively pursue their own education. …. BCPS is looking to scale some of the successes at Chesapeake High School to 25 more high schools, including the development of a Virtual High School.”

Despite these awards, however, the historically low and declining SAT scores at Chesapeake High School perhaps paint an unflattering picture: http://reportcard.msde.maryland.gov/college_readiness/SAT/2015_SA T_031574. pdf

Unfortunately, this governmental applause for game-ifying education is not limited to just the Digital Promise organization. In its most recent National Education Technology Plan (NETP 2016), the Department of Education called for the gaming industry to help solve the nation’s education problems. In the 100 page report, the NETP2016 mentions the word “game” at least 77 times. http://tech.ed.gov/files/2015/12/NETP16.pdf

http://tech.ed.gov/netp/

But where is the evidence that game-ifying education can actually help? Or is this just a ploy by the computer gaming industry to get its share of America’s 650 billion dollar education budget?

Another questionable aspect of the STAT program is its practice of so-called “personalized learning”, an educational technique that promises to move the teacher away from being “sage on the stage” to being merely the “guide on the side.” We are told this practice allows the students to “access and create content that best meets their needs.” https://www.bcps.org/academics/stat/STAT-Eval_FAQ.pdf

BCPS points to a RAND study published in November 2015 as evidence for the efficacy of “personalized learning”.
(See: the “Continued Progress” download at http://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1365.html)

First of all, this study was not published until just recently, so it could not have been part of Dance’s original decision to launch a program like STAT. More importantly, this RAND study was not performed with “regular” randomly-selected schools: it was performed with schools that were funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. And some of the schools were completely new.

From page 3 of the RAND study:  “All of the schools received funding from the Gates Foundation, either directly or through intermediary organizations, to implement personalized learning practices as part of at least one of the following three foundation-supported initiatives: Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC), Charter School Growth Fund’s Next Generation School Investments, and the Gates Foundation’s Personalized Learning Pilots.”

The “Methods and Limitations” section of the RAND report enlightens us as to why the results of this report are probably not applicable to a school system like BCPS.

From page 6:  “Despite the increased interest in personalized learning, the field lacks evidence about its effectiveness. This study is designed to address this need using the most rigorous method that can be applied to the foundation-funded set of schools.”

Also from page 6:  “In particular, given the implementation design for the portfolio of personalized learning schools in the study, it was not possible to create randomly assigned treatment and control groups; nor did we have access to data from neighboring schools that might have matched the personalized learning schools.”

And again from page 6:  “As new schools, they lack a history of data from before they began implementing personalized learning, which would have enabled other analytic methods for determining achievement effects.”

Page 14 reveals that these schools were not operated like normal schools: “Most schools had extended school days or school years, and the extra time was used primarily for additional instruction or to provide individualized support. “ Also, nowhere in the report do they discuss the possible effects of class sizes on achievement. Where is the data for class size? Oddly, these funded schools also spent more time taking their achievement tests, as noted on page 41.

There were a handful of funded district schools involved in the study, but page 13 tells us the effects of personalized learning on those district type schools were not very impressive. “Although two of the district schools produced significant positive results, this was offset by negative results in three other district schools…”

So maybe the only line in this entire RAND study that is actually relevant to BCPS is that one little fact we already read about in its “Methods and Limitations” section located on page 6: “Despite the increased interest in personalized learning, the field lacks evidence about its effectiveness.”

Maybe Dr. Steven M. Ross, the STAT evaluator from the Johns Hopkins CRRE, summarized it best when he said, “Student-centered learning is very hard to do on your own and we failed for 30 or 40 years to do that.” See the video from the 14 July 2015 BCPS Board of Education meeting, time about = 02:36:00 http://original.livestream.com/bcpslivetv/video?clipId=pla_51cf90c7-2189-4803- af77-28903c16e952&utm_source=lslibrary&utm_medium=ui-thumb

On a totally different note, I’d like to point out that student engagement, while always necessary for learning, is not a sufficient metric for evaluating educational software. By that metric alone, Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty, and Duck Dynasty would be splendid educational resources. So I think it’s clear that we need metrics deeper than just student engagement.

Also, graduation rates should not be the primary metric for evaluating the efficacy of education initiatives. As was pointed out in a recent New York Times article, “…the number of students earning high school diplomas has risen to historic peaks, yet measures of academic readiness for college or jobs are much lower.” Apparently it is easy for school districts to manipulate graduation rates so the districts appear to be making progress even when true progress is lacking. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/27/us/as-graduation-rates-rise-experts-fear- standards-have- fallen.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story– heading&module=first-column-region&region=top-news&WT .nav=top-news&_r=1

In closing, I’m sorry to say that in observing how STAT has been managed these past 18 months, my BS detector has been triggered more times than I care to count. I’m worried the STAT initiative is very similar to one of those “high- risk/high-gain education R&D projects” called for by the Department of Education’s ARPA-ED proposal. And I’m concerned that instead of being evolutionary, the STAT program will continue to be thrust upon our community by administrators and corporate interests operating out of a “radical” and “revolutionary” mindset. I’m concerned that our entire county has been toe- tagged as an easily-accessible test bed for “high risk/high gain” experimental software aimed at creating “digital tutors”, adaptive teaching systems, and game- ified educational products “as compelling as video games”. I’m afraid that our school administrators, instead of keeping our children’s best interests at heart, have instead been carried away by the circus-barkering of snakeoil salesmen from Silicon Valley and their numerous promises of digital panaceas delivered via laptop.

By itself, the mere fact that our student performance metrics are in a state of flux should be cause for pausing the expansion of the STAT program. We should pause expansion of STAT until we can properly evaluate its strengths and weaknesses with metrics that really matter. Otherwise, I’m afraid that we will not only be building the airplane while we fly it, but we will also be flying it completely blind.

Furthermore, I urge BCPS to adopt some kind of policy that prevents software companies from testing out their software on our children. Any software that is used to deliver significant amounts of instruction should have a substantial track record with clear proof of its efficacy. The STAT program should not be a pipeline between our children’s minds and the product developers who are trying to develop their software on the cheap.

We don’t want our children to suffer the same fate as those of the poor kids in

Detroit’s EAA, who, as the Michigan ACLU investigators put it, were used as “whetstones to hone a badly flawed product being pitched as cutting-edge technology.”

A Professor’s Thoughts:

Baltimore County Public Schools is “transforming the state’s third-largest school system into a fully digital learning environment through a variety of initiatives collectively known as Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow, or S.T.A.T. The initiative this [first] year included extensive teacher training, a “Lighthouse Schools” pilot that provided 1:1 digital devices for students in Grades 1-3, and the BCPS One information portal for students, parents, and educators.” (http://www.bcps.org/news/articles/article7967.html, June 2015)

Many parents and teachers who believe there is a role for technology in education have significant concerns about this initiative.

Regarding the evidence behind S.T.A.T. and its ongoing evaluation:

There is limited data available that is relevant to this type of initiative, and much of the data that is available comes from for profit companies or non-profits that are funded by corporate interests.  The leading voices in American Education do NOT support this type of initiative.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development report on Students, Computers and Learning states that it is beneficial when children spend up to ½ hour per day on a device at school, more than that is more likely to be harmful than helpful.1 You don’t need your own 1:1 device for this amount of time – you can share.  Further,  “technology is of little help in bridging the skills divide between advantaged and disadvantaged students,” so Baltimore County Public Schools may in fact be harming children instead of addressing equity by diverting attention and resources away from more effective strategies.1

With the freed up resources, you can have smaller class sizes, more support for hungry or homeless children and many other pressing needs.2   And, you actually can load individualized content for multiple children who share a device, for that ½ hour or so per day.

Baltimore County Public Schools now cites a study by Pane et al. as justification for claiming that personalized learning is beneficial.    The report by Pane et al. was published in November 2015; and 90% of the schools were charter schools.

(https://www.bcps.org/academics/stat/STAT-Eval_FAQ.pdf)  (http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR1300/RR1365/RAND_RR1365.pdf)

Several of the most trusted voices in American education believe there is no trustworthy data to support an initiative like ours. 

In fact, the National Education Policy Center, based at the University of Colorado, wrote a detailed critique of the Pane study, showing that it is impossible to use this study as a valid justification for Baltimore County Public Schools’ S.T.A.T. initiative.

“Broad conclusions about the efficacy of technology-based personalized learning, however, are not warranted by the research. Limitations include a sample of treatment schools that is unrepresentative of the general population of schools, the lack of a threshold in the study for what qualified as implementing “personalized learning” in the treatment schools, and the reality that disruptive strategies such as competency-based progression, which require the largest departures from current practice, were rarely implemented in the studied schools.”

http://nepc.colorado.edu/thinktank/review-personalized-learning

Diane Ravitch, a nationally and internationally respected educator at New York University, recently wrote:

“The Baltimore County Public Schools are embarking on a risky gamble that will put all students online. At present, there is no research base to prove the value of this expensive venture. What we can predict is two nefarious consequences: 1) the computers will be used for ”embedded assessment,” so that students are tested daily or continually without knowing it. Second, the students will be data mined continually, and their personally identifiable information will be available to third parties or subject to hacking.”

http://dianeravitch.net/2016/01/28/teacher-baltimores-risky-expensive-bet-on-technology/

What are some of the health concerns?:

Young minds, and hearts, need far more non-screen time than most children get in the 21st century world –  educational content or otherwise.  Clearly there is a role for technology in education  – but the interpretation of available research needs to be nuanced.   Effective technology that is recommended by physicians, occupational therapists, and special education teachers etc. should be accessible for all who would benefit.  A modest use of technology in schools and for schoolwork, increasing as children grow older, is not likely to be harmful.       However, there is much we do not know about the effects of personalized learning and technology on learning and health.  Some examples from science:

  • When you take away technology from middle schoolers for a week, their ability to read social and emotional cues improves. 3
  • When you give young children electronic toys that make noise and flash lights, the grown-ups in the room actually talk to the children less than when they are given less “engaging” toys. Talking with real people less often is bad for verbal, and social development.4
  • Video games, even educational ones, change the way our brains develop and work. 5
  • This generation is not better at multi-tasking their parents – in fact, science shows that everyone must really focus on just one thing in order to do it well and learn complex concepts. In fact,  undergraduates learn complex concepts better if they take notes by hand on pen and paper, than they do if they type them on a tablet.6

Reference List:

  1. “The results also show no appreciable improvements in student achievement in reading, mathematics or science in the countries that had invested heavily in ICT (information and communication technology) for education. And perhaps the most disappointing finding of the report is that technology is of little help in bridging the skills divide between advantaged and disadvantaged students. Put simply, ensuring that every child attains a baseline level of proficiency in reading and mathematics seems to do more to create equal opportunities in a digital world than can be achieved by expanding or subsidising access to high‑tech devices and services.”

http://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/education/students-computers-and-learning_9789264239555-en

  1. “Class size is an important determinant of student outcomes, and one that can be directly determined by policy. All else being equal, increasing class sizes will harm student outcomes.

The evidence suggests that increasing class size will harm not only children’s test scores in the short run, but also their long-run human capital formation. Money saved today by increasing class sizes will result in more substantial social and educational costs in the future.

The payoff from class-size reduction is greater for low-income and minority children, while any increases in class size will likely be most harmful to these populations.

Policymakers should carefully weigh the efficacy of class-size policy against other potential uses of funds. While lower class size has a demonstrable cost, it may prove the more cost-effective policy overall.”

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2014/02/24/class-size-matters-a-lot-research-shows/  and     http://nepc.colorado.edu/files/pb_-_class_size.pdf

http://www.classsizematters.org/research-and-links/

  1. UCLA scientists found that sixth-graders who went five days without even glancing at a smartphone, television or other digital screen did substantially better at reading human emotions than sixth-graders from the same school who continued to spend hours each day looking at their electronic devices.

‘Many people are looking at the benefits of digital media in education, and not many are looking at the costs,’ said Patricia Greenfield, a distinguished professor of psychology in the UCLA College and senior author of the study. ‘Decreased sensitivity to emotional cues — losing the ability to understand the emotions of other people — is one of the costs. The displacement of in-person social interaction by screen interaction seems to be reducing social skills.’”

http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/in-our-digital-world-are-young-people-losing-the-ability-to-read-emotions

Uhls et al. Computers in Human Behavior, Volume 39, October 2014, Pages 387–39, available at  http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0747563214003227

  1. There’s simply no evidence that a young child can learn language directly from a toy. It isn’t responsive enough. It isn’t social.” http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2016/01/11/462264537/the-trouble-with-talking-toys

Sosa A.  JAMA Pediatr. Published online December 23, 2015. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2015.3753  available at http://archpedi.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=2478386

http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/12/23/traditional-toys-may-beat-gadgets-in-language-development/?_r=0

http://www.npr.org/2013/12/29/257922222/closing-the-word-gap-between-rich-and-poor

  1. The group examined the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans of 154 14 year old boys and girls. When they compared the brains of frequent gamers (defined as those who played video games more than 9 hours per week( to moderate gamers, they discovered that the first group showed larger volume in the left striatum, a brain area involved in risk and reward processing….. ‘This could explain a potential mechanism that makes people play more,’ says Kuhn. ‘Even when facing losses, the reward center of the brain is activated – suggesting a potential mechanism for non-substance addictions.’

http://www.dana.org/News/Details.aspx?id=43201

Kuhn et al.  Translational Psychiatry (2011) 1, e53; doi:10.1038/tp.2011.53 , available at http://www.nature.com/tp/journal/v1/n11/full/tp201153a.html

  1. As technology allows people to do more tasks at the same time, the myth that we can multitask has never been stronger. But researchers say it’s still a myth — and they have the data to prove it.”

 http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=95256794

As tested on a group of undergrads, the research proved that laptop users type almost everything they hear without processing the meaning or devoting much thought to what it is they’re taking notes on. Basically, when you type, all you’re doing is mindlessly transcribing, and that does not require much cognitive activity.  When you take notes by hand, however, you obviously can’t write down every single word your professor utters. So you listen, summarize, and list only the key points. Your brain is more engaged in the process of comprehension and so the information processed this way is remembered better.”

http://www.lifehack.org/articles/productivity/heres-why-you-should-take-notes-hand-instead-with-laptop.html

Taking notes on laptops rather than in longhand is increasingly common. Many researchers have suggested that laptop note taking is less effective than longhand note taking for learning. Prior studies have primarily focused on students’ capacity for multitasking and distraction when using laptops. The present research suggests that even when laptops are used solely to take notes, they may still be impairing learning because their use results in shallower processing. In three studies, we found that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand. We show that whereas taking more notes can be beneficial, laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning.”

Mueller and Oppenheimer. Psychological Science June 2014 vol. 25 no. 6 1159-1168;   available at http://pss.sagepub.com/content/25/6/1159