Op-Ed: More than $60 million in BCPS contracts linked to controversial private clients

Thanks to the Towson Flyer and journalist Joanne C. Simpson for continuing to shed light on BCPS and, in particular, its dealing with the Education Research & Development Institute (ERDI).

November 11, 2017

“At the heart of a widening scandal enveloping Baltimore County Public Schools is a company that apparently brokers access to superintendents. And in the case of BCPS, a shadowy trail might have led to more than $62 million in mostly no-bid digital curricula and related school contracts.”

Read more here.

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NYT, Sun Articles Lead to Call for State Audit

What a week it’s been in Baltimore County.*

On November 3rd, the front page of the New York Times carried the article “How Silicon Valley Plans to Conquer the Classroom” about how the ed-tech industry used its playbook on BCPS. The article talked about Dr. Dance’s and Ms. White’s connection to the Education Research and Development Institute (ERDI).  From the article:

“Ms. White, the interim superintendent, has been involved with ERDI since 2013, according to Mr. Dickerson. He said Ms. White used vacation time to attend events, where she “provided guidance to education-related companies on goods, services and products that are in development to benefit student performance.”

Asked whether Ms. White had received ERDI payments, Mr. Dickerson said, “Participation in ERDI is done independently of the school system.” In an email, Ms. White said she found ERDI to be a “beneficial professional learning experience.” She didn’t respond to a question about ERDI compensation.

She added, “I do not believe there are any conflicts of interests” related to the district’s tech initiative.”

On November 5th, the local article “New York Times Probes Baltimore County School System Records” summed up other coverage (including a write-up by national education policy scholar Diane Ravitch) and offered details on Dr. Dance’s extensive speaking engagements.

On November 7th, Natasha Singer was interviewed by an Ohio NPR affiliate (starts at minute 14) about the article.  Ms. Singer talked again about ERDI and the ethical issues tied to it. A Stanford University ethicist called it a pay-to-play arrangement.

Then, on November 8th, the pace didn’t just pick up; it turned into a media frenzy.

*To catch up on how this chain of events started, read this piece about Dr. Dance’s travel and this op-ed about the Education Foundation and the ed-tech takeover of BCPS

On Wednesday, the Baltimore Sun revealed that while ERDI paid both Dr. Dance and Ms. White for consulting, Ms. White hadn’t disclosed this outside income.

On November 9th, Ms. White wrote the following to the community:

“Good Afternoon Team BCPS Family,

This message is to ensure that you hear from me directly about the recent article published in the newspaper.  The first thing I’d like to share is that I take great pride in being a person who strives to maintain high moral character every day.  Any suggestion otherwise, by the media or anyone else, is simply wrong and a bridge too far.  For those of you who know me, you know that I do not dwell in excuses.  If I am wrong, I will admit my mistakes.  No one is perfect, but I will not have my integrity questioned without directly addressing and disputing the accusations.  Facts matter and I would like to take a few moments to outline the facts, as I believe you deserve the full story.

The fact of the matter is that the Education Research and Development Institute (ERDI) is not a technology company.  It is an educational research and development company, meaning that ERDI coordinates efforts for companies and educators to collaborate on products and services that are in development.  Sales are not involved in this process.  This process is purely for feedback.  The developers know their products, and the educators know how to best meet the needs of students.  I have never been paid by a company doing business with our school system, and the school system has never paid for trips where I participated as a consultant. ERDI does not conduct any business with BCPS.  I participated in these sessions on my own time, using vacation days, to do so.  These are the facts.

Like many of you, throughout my career, I look for opportunities for professional development and to stay current on the ever-growing educational resources being introduced in classrooms in Baltimore County and across the country.  Early in my career, these classroom tools were textbooks and other written materials.  At that time, teachers and administrators engaged with textbook companies to provide insight on how they might best serve students’ needs during instruction.  Now, many times, these classroom resources come in the form of technology and digital curriculum, which can be used as supplements or alternatives to traditional paper resources.  It should not come as a surprise that engaging with companies (some of which may be technology based) is now one way to learn about these products and to provide input on what works and what does not work with and for children.

In some instances, I was paid as a consultant to review and provide feedback on ideas for instructional products.  The superintendent, my supervisor, recommended and approved my participation in these opportunities.  The honest mistake I made was not writing these consultants fees on school system financial disclosure forms.  When I completed these forms, I was under the impression that I was to only list companies with whom the school system had a contract or a pending contract.  I was mistaken.  I will amend them as allowed by policies.

I promise each of you that I will not make that mistake again, but more importantly, I will not allow an honest oversight to be misconstrued as something untoward or unethical.  It is not who I am and it is not who you know me to be.  My message to each of you in the Superintendent’s Report during this week’s Board of Education meeting was to rise up and to speak out for our profession.  We deserve the same respect as anyone else.  As I said during the report, I am you, and I will always stand up for who and what we are.  We must accept no less.”

Ms. White’s statement absolutely mischaracterized ERDI.  ERDI doesn’t sell directly to school systems, but it does facilitate sales by selling ed-tech vendors private access to superintendents.

The Sun on November 9th responded with the editorial, “Baltimore County schools’ ethics gap.”

We hadn’t even gotten through the week. Then came the call for a state-level investigation and audit.  The Sun on November 9th reported that Sen. Jim Brochin “has called for an investigation and audit of the Baltimore County school system’s purchasing of digital devices and software after reports that administrators were working as paid consultants for a company that represents education technology firms.”

The NYT jumped back in at this point to offer this same update.

It’s getting messy, but at least people are starting to pay attention to STAT.

On November 10th, four members of the Baltimore County Board of Education (the four paying attention to STAT) reached out to the state for assistance:

“Four Baltimore County Board of Education members: Kathleen Causey, Roger Hayden, Julie Henn, and Ann Miller are seeking immediate action in response to multiple reports of possible ethics violations within Baltimore County Public Schools.

Wednesday morning, Causey, Hayden, Henn, and Miller sent an email to Board Chairman Ed Gilliss requesting an emergency administrative session to discuss Board action in response to major concerns raised by extensive media reports on the ethical issues surrounding BCPS relations with edtech vendors.  Board Chair Gilliss did not respond to this request.  While the full Board was included on the request, no other members responded.

The four members also wrote to the Maryland State Board of Education and State Superintendent, Dr. Karen Salmon requesting advisory assistance addressing these concerns.

“These are complex, system-wide issues that this Board needs help in understanding and tackling.  It’s our duty to make informed decisions that put the needs of children first,” Mr. Hayden explained.

Other elected officials have contacted the State Board expressing similar reaction to recent reports.

“We are thankful for the support of Governor Hogan, and other state and local elected officials, who recognize the seriousness of these concerns and who have asked for immediate action,” Mrs. Miller stated.

The State Board is scheduled to discuss these matters at a meeting on December 5.

In the meantime, the four members will continue to investigate in an effort to determine an appropriate course of action.

“We have a lot of questions that need to be answered. Even the appearance of impropriety is something we must take seriously and investigate fully.  That’s our job and we owe it to the public – especially our students – to act,” Mrs. Henn said.

The members have repeatedly called for greater transparency and accountability to improve Board / system relations and effectiveness.

“We need open and honest communications between the Board and the system for us to effectively address conflicts of interest  and wider issues that ultimately affect our students. Currently such an environment does not exist. It is our hope that can change,” Mrs. Causey concluded.

* This statement is made by the individuals listed above. The Chair of the Board is the official spokesperson for the Board of Education of Baltimore County.”

Here’s the actual request:  State Board Request 110917

On November 10th, the Sun reported that, in response to the above request, the BOE would hold an emergency session on Monday to discuss possible ethics code violations.

The TeamBCPS spin continued on November 10th, when it decided it would be a good time to recap its first quarter achievements, including some related to STAT/digital learning and, of all things, excellence in procurement (just when we’re hearing that no-bid contracts most likely resulted from ERDI consulting).

For the seventh consecutive year, Baltimore County Public Schools earned the prestigious Annual Achievement of Excellence in Procurement® (AEP) Award from the National Procurement Institute, Inc.

To top it all off, on November 10th, a member of the Education Foundation said in a Sun op-ed that things were getting too political, calling the NYT article a “hit piece” and the Sun article “click bait.”  According to the op-ed, BCPS is a model school system and the multi-million-dollar STAT initiative is an incredible investment in our children’s future.

The author also said his “charity” should be applauded for organizing fundraisers to support grants and scholarships.  You can read about this fundraiser here.  The truth is that the op-ed’s author sits on the Education Foundation board with representatives of major ed-tech vendors/BCPS contract holders (Microsoft, Pearson, Discovery Education) whose products are central to STAT. These companies are sponsors of the major annual fundraiser for the Foundation, the State of the Schools event, the proceeds of which, beyond grants and scholarships, also support STAT.  In fact, according to the Foundation’s website, their GOALS are:

Provide support and assist (sic) to S.T.A.T. (Students and Teacher Accessing Tomorrow) where all students have the access to curriculum through technology so learning is available anytime and anywhere.

Provide scholarships opportunities to BCPS students to attend post-secondary education and obtain the knowledge and skills needed to be globally competitive.

Provide schools the opportunity to apply for school-based grants that address one of the 21st Century themes.

So, supporting STAT is actually the Foundation’s major goal.

No – no conflicts of interest at all.

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.”

More on JHU Researchers and Services; JHU/BCPS and JHU/EIA Connections

This is a follow-up to the other JHU/Education Industry Association blog post from April 10.  The point of both posts?  JHU is being paid to evaluate the efficacy of STAT, but is representing ed-tech vendors vs. looking out for the interests of BCPS students. The evaluation is not rigorous or independent.

In fact, in reading Dr. Morrison’s full CV in the earlier post, one sees the connection to the DreamBox Learning program being used by BCPS to teach elementary school math:

Co-Principal Investigator (2015 – 2016). Efficacy Study of DreamBox Learning Math. DreamBox. Ross, S. M., Principal Investigator.

Morrison, J. R., Ross, S. M., Reilly, J. M., & Cheung, A. C. K. (2016). Retrospective Study of DreamBox Learning Math. Report to DreamBox.

National Blogger Peter Greene of Curmudgucation writes about EIA and JHU working together to better market ed-tech products:  Naked Education Profiteering

This JHU Press Release of March 2012 announces the JHU-EIA Partnership:

“The Johns Hopkins University School of Education and the Education Industry Association today announced a partnership building on their individual strengths in educational instruction and reform.”

“Together, the School of Education and EIA, a trade association representing private providers of education services, will create a center for education innovation and entrepreneurship; facilitate relationships between EIA member companies and the School of Education; integrate for-profit programs, products and concepts more deeply into the education sector; and create joint research and education programs.”

“We strongly believe that our school must develop new programs and partnerships with all components of the education sector in order to achieve our vision of realigning our profession and advancing education reform nationwide,” said David W. Andrews, dean of the School of Education. “Forming this strategic partnership with EIA will help the for-profit and not-for-profit education sectors learn from each other, and better enable us to work together for the betterment of all aspects of education.”

JHU School of Education, Center for Research and Reform in Education’s (CRRE) Dr. Steven Ross (the main STAT evaluator) wrote this article for EIA:  Demonstrating Product Effectiveness:  Is Rigorous Evidence Worth the Rigors?  Here are some highlights from Dr. Ross’ article:

“Because providers strongly believe in what they do, most feel confident that a rigorous evaluation study would present their products in a positive light. The challenge is how to commission and fund such studies. Is striving for the ostensible gold standard– a “randomized controlled trial” (RCT) with a large number of schools, student-level test scores, and all the other trimmings really needed? Such studies are usually quite expensive (think six figures!) to fund. Trying to obtain a federal grant (e.g., “Investing in Innovation” or “i3”) can involve extensive proposal preparations, with steep odds of being selected, and even for the lucky winners, a long wait until the results can be released.”

“My recommendation is to pursue such opportunities where the fit is good and the chances for competing solidly seem strong. But keep in mind that gold-standard studies may actually be “fool’s gold” for many providers. Unless a product is fully developed and delivered in high dosage to students (not as a learning supplement or a support for teachers), it’s quite difficult to show measureable student gains given all the noise (confounding) of so many other classroom, student, and teacher variables. And, as promised above, it seems instructive to take heed of what the district stakeholders said about rigorous evidence in interviews: They rarely read research journals or check out (or even know about) the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) for research reviews. However, they very much value that a credible third-party evaluator conducted a systematic study of the product being sold. They value evidence of student achievement gains, but with the caveat that the study conditions and the schools involved may be quite different from their own.”

“In our evaluation work with providers, we try to fit the study to the application goals and maturity of the particular product … All of these studies offer the providers potentially useful formative evaluation feedback for program improvement as well as findings from a reasonably rigorous independent study to support and differentiate their products.”

JHU CRRE’s Dr. Ross and Dr. Morrison presented the STAT year-end report at the 7/14/15 BOE meeting (minutes 2:06 to 2:38). Here are the report and evaluation from the BCPS website:

STAT Year-End Evaluation (2014-15)

STAT Year-End Report (2014-15)

Video Highlights from 7/14/15 meeting:

Dr. Ross: “Over time, year two, year three … if things work as they should, you’re gonna be seeing significant improvement in students’ mastery of P21 skills … years 3, years 4 there should be increases in MAP, increases in PARCC …”

BOE Commentary at meeting (paraphrased): the data presented by JHU was a “little lethargic” and, considering the investment in personnel, training, and curriculum based around the digital devices, the BOE expected “to see Dr. Morrison’s bar charts move in the right direction.”

As reported by EdSurge on April 7, 2016, the assets of EIA are being taken over by the Education Technology Industry Network (ETIN), the education division of the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA).  The article talks of the above-noted JHU-EIA partnership created in 2012.

“Other assets that Billings’ team will inherit from EIA include a partnership with John Hopkins University to support a “joint center for education innovation and entrepreneurship.” EIA has also worked with Digital Promise to publish reports on barriers to technology procurement in K-12 districts.”

The above-mentioned EIA-Digital Promise partnership includes JHU, which wrote a study for them, Fostering Market Efficiency in K-12 Ed-tech Procurement. A key finding is that there “are no readily accessible sources of “rigorous” evidence on the effectiveness of the vast majority of ed-tech products. As a result, school districts largely depend on recommendations from peers and from their own teachers and principals who have familiarity with the products.”

The Overselling of Ed Tech by Alfie Kohn

Here in Baltimore County, the public school system has put a lot of money and resources into a 1:1 computer program known as STAT in 1st through 12th grades.  Please read the blog below written by Alfie Kohn about the national push for education technology which is expensive with little to no data supporting improved academic outcomes.  Why should BCPS be putting this much money into a computer initiative when there are so many needs going unaddressed in our county school system?

Please also read Undermined by Design about the design of STAT described in this paragraph. “Skinner, famous for his experiments in operant conditioning (the use of reinforcement to develop a desired behavior), first pushed the idea of programmed learning from machines in the 1950s. Not much has changed in the 21st century when it comes to “personalized learning”; instead of a Skinner Box, the BCPS curriculum is now making use of the DreamBox and Ascend Math mathematics programs, which are operant systems in flashier 1:1 device packages. A student completes a preprogrammed task (a math problem), earns a reward (a few minutes of a video game, virtual coins, or an accomplishment badge), and their data is logged as evidence of progress. The student then repeats the process towards “mastery.””

You can also read the original The Overselling of Ed Tech, By Alfie Kohn

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that the idea of using digital technology in the classroom tends to be either loved or hated. After all, anything that’s digital consists only of ones or zeroes. By contrast, my own position is somewhere in the middle, a location where I don’t often find myself, frankly. I’m not allied with the Waldorfians, who ban computers from elementary and middle schools, but neither do I have much in common with teachers whose excitement over the latest export from Silicon Valley often seems downright orgasmic.

Basically, my response to ed tech is “It depends.” And one key consideration on which it depends is the reason given for supporting it.

Some people seem to be drawn to technology for its own sake — because it’s cool. This strikes me as an unpersuasive reason to spend oodles of money, particularly since the excitement is generated and continually refreshed by companies that profit from it. Their ads in education periodicals, booths at conferences, and advocacy organizations are selling not only specific kinds of software but the whole idea that ed tech is de rigueur for any school that doesn’t want to risk being tagged as “twentieth century.”

Other people, particularly politicians, defend technology on the grounds that it will keep our students “competitive in the global economy.” This catch-all justification has been invoked to support other dubious policies, including highly prescriptive, one-size-fits-all national curriculum standards. It’s based on two premises: that decisions about children’s learning should be driven by economic considerations, and that people in other countries should be seen primarily as rivals to be defeated.

But the rationale that I find most disturbing — despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that it’s rarely made explicit — is the idea that technology will increase our efficiency . . . at teaching the same way that children have been taught for a very long time. Perhaps it hasn’t escaped your notice that ed tech is passionately embraced by very traditional schools: Their institutional pulse quickens over whatever is cutting-edge: instruction that’s blended, flipped, digitally personalized. This apparent paradox should give us pause. Despite corporate-style declarations about the benefits of “innovation” and “disruption,” new forms of technology in the classroom mesh quite comfortably with an old-school model that consists of pouring a bunch o’ facts into empty receptacles.

We can’t answer the question “Is tech useful in schools?” until we’ve grappled with a deeper question: “What kinds of learning should be taking place in those schools?” If we favor an approach by which students actively construct meaning, an interactive process that involves a deep understanding of ideas and emerges from the interests and questions of the learners themselves, well, then we’d be open to the kinds of technology that truly support this kind of inquiry. Show me something that helps kids create, design, produce, construct — and I’m on board. Show me something that helps them make things collaboratively (rather than just on their own), and I’m even more interested — although it’s important to keep in mind that meaningful learning never requires technology, so even here we should object whenever we’re told that software (or a device with a screen) is essential.

Far more common, in any case, are examples of technology that take for granted, and ultimately help to perpetuate, traditional teacher-centered instruction that consists mostly of memorizing facts and practicing skills. Tarting up a lecture with a SmartBoard, loading a textbook on an iPad, looking up facts online, rehearsing skills with an “adaptive learning system,” writing answers to the teacher’s (or workbook’s) questions and uploading them to Google Docs — these are examples of how technology may make the process a bit more efficient or less dreary but does nothing to challenge the outdated pedagogy. To the contrary: These are shiny things that distract us from rethinking our approach to learning and reassure us that we’re already being innovative.

Still more worrisome are the variants of ed tech that deal with grades and tests, making them even more destructive than they already are: putting grades online (thereby increasing their salience and their damaging effects), using computers to administer tests and score essays, and setting up “embedded” assessment that’s marketed as “competency-based.” (If your instinct is to ask “What sort of competency? Isn’t that just warmed-over behaviorism?” you obviously haven’t drunk the Kool-Aid yet.) Those of us who once spoke out against annual standardized exams were soon distressed to find that students were being made to take them several times a year, including “benchmark” tests to prepare them for the other tests. But we couldn’t have dreamed that companies would try to sell us — or, tragically, that administrators and school boards would be willing to buydystopian devices that basically test kids (and collect and store data about them) continuously. Even the late Jerry Bracey never imagined things could get this bad when he referred to how we were developing the capability “to do in nanoseconds things that we shouldn’t be doing at all.”

If you haven’t given much thought to the kind of intellectual life we might want schools to foster, then it might sound exciting to “personalize” or “customize” learning. But as I argued not long ago, we shouldn’t confuse personalized learning with personal learning. The first involves adjusting the difficulty level of prefabricated skills-based exercises based on students’ test scores, and it requires the purchase of software. The second involves working with each student to create projects of intellectual discovery that reflect his or her unique needs and interests, and it requires the presence of a caring teacher who knows each child well.

Even if we were willing to use test scores as a measure of success — something I don’t generally recommend — a recent review found that studies of tech-based personalized instruction “show mixed results ranging from modest impacts to no impact” – despite the fact that it’s remarkably expensive. In fact, ed tech of various kinds has made headlines lately for reasons that can’t be welcome to its proponents. According to an article in Education Week, “a host of national and regional surveys suggest that teachers are far more likely to use tech to make their own jobs easier and to supplement traditional instructional strategies than to put students in control of their own learning.” Last fall, meanwhile, OECD reported negative outcomes when students spent a lot of time using computers, while Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) concluded that online charter schools were basically a disaster.

Lucid critiques of ed tech — and of technology more generally — have been offered by educators and other social scientists for some time now. See, for example, the work of Larry Cuban, Sherry Turkle, Gary Stager, and Will Richardson. (Really. See their work. It’s worth reading.) But their arguments, like the available data that fail to show much benefit, don’t seem to be slowing the feeding frenzy. Ed tech is increasingly making its way even into classrooms for young children. And the federal government is pushing this stuff unreservedly: Check out the U.S. Office of Education Technology’s 2016 plan recommending greater use of “embedded” assessment, which “includes ongoing gathering and sharing of data,” plus, in a development that seems inevitable in retrospect, a tech-based program to foster a “growth mindset” in children. There’s much more in that plan, too – virtually all of it, as blogger Emily Talmage points out, uncannily aligned with the wish list of the Digital Learning Council, a group consisting largely of conservative advocacy groups and foundations, and corporations with a financial interest in promoting ed tech.

There’s a jump-on-the-bandwagon feel to how districts are pouring money into computers and software programs – money that’s badly needed for, say, hiring teachers. But even if ed tech were adopted as thoughtfully as its proponents claim, we’re still left with deep reasons to be concerned about the outmoded model of teaching that it helps to preserve — or at least fails to help us move beyond. To be committed to meaningful learning requires us to view testimonials for technology with a terabyte’s worth of skepticism.

Experimentation

It is becoming ever clearer that personalized learning on 1:1 devices is an experiment. While some may not like the idea of children being part of experiments under any circumstances, when done well, it is a way to study what interventions work and which ones don’t. But, there are core principles and ethics that should underlie any such initiative.

Here’s what a 4th grade teacher in Maine had to say: “When researchers in university settings conduct studies involving “human subjects,” there are two categories of people that always get extra special protection: pregnant women and children. Even if the research involves minimal to no risk to the child (a survey, for example), an Institutional Review Board must certify that the investigators meet certain criteria, including obtaining permission from children’s parents or guardians.  Competency-based and personalized learning experiments, which typically rely heavily on digital and online learning, involve a number of potential risks – including those that are health-related (impact on vision, over-exposure to wifi radiation), academic, and social/emotional (what happens when students spend less time with teachers and more time with devices?).”

Read that 4th grade teacher, Emily Talmage’s most recent article,  Parents Beware.

Here in Baltimore, we need only look at the evaluation of the STAT experiment being conducted by JHU.  We must wonder why it is that it is not clearly labeled an experiment since we do not know what the academic outcomes will be.  The logic model is being used to evaluate the STAT experiment and it is only looking at qualitative data for the first two years.  The stated measurable outcomes are described in this way: “The study demonstrated evidence of professional development effects on measurable outcomes, including classroom environment, teacher practice, digital content, student engagement, and 21st century skills.”  Here is the link to the “measurable outcomes” as stated by BCPS.

It is not until the third year that the logic model looks at quantitative data – academic results.  And where are the safety concerns?  Where is the potential risk to children being studied?  That is not included.  Where is the logic, again?

We do not believe 21st century is an adjective and here is  Alfie Kohn’s take on the term “ 21st century learning“.

STAT Without Principle

“I think that there is nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay, to life itself, than this incessant business.”
–H. D. Thoreau, from “Life Without Principle”

Thoreau wrote this essay, originally entitled “What Shall it Profit?,” over 150 years ago, but his thoughts about the purposes of work versus the purposes of business still resonate today. One of his main points was how money and fame can distract the individual from the actual work at hand that needs to be done, and he warned against those leaders who might believe that “progress and civilization” depend upon the march of “our boasted commerce.”

For a modern analogue, consider the recent and rapid push by educational technology companies and Silicon Valley millionaires into public schools. According to Forbes Magazine, venture funding for educational technology firms surpassed 1.87 billion in 2014, and it is likely well over 2 billion dollars today. Venture capitalists such as Netflix-powered Reed Hastings and provocateur Tom Vander Ark of Learn Capital (and Getting Smart consulting) are in on the game, which to them promises a quick rush of cash that could be earned from an untapped market—public schools. The increase of business buzzwords, lobbying, bending of education policy, slick advertising, and snake-oil salesmanship of technology that has followed has completely eclipsed the original purpose of the enterprise—to meet the educational, physical, and emotional needs of children.

It may then not be surprising that Baltimore County Public Schools is in the midst of a $300 million plus technology-based initiative, Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow (STAT), with the laudable goal of creating more student-centered classrooms through a dubious focus on a 1:1 laptop program, spanning grades kindergarten to twelve. The academic rationale for the STAT program, presented before the Board of Education in November 2014, was prepared by Gus Schmedlen, who is not an educational expert but a salesman and Vice President for Hewlett-Packard, the manufacturer of the laptops contracted for STAT. While not a teacher, administrator, or curriculum expert, Schmedlen’s background does include the management of $8 billion of business for Lenovo, another technology company. Consideration of the longstanding educational theories of Maslow, Piaget, or even Gardner were absent from the academic rationale, as were any of the more modern concerns about child development and technology use.

Two of the key architects of the STAT initiative are BCPS system superintendent S. Dallas Dance and his Director of Innovative Learning, Ryan Imbriale. Since the inception of the STAT program in 2014, both have engaged in frequent and extensive travel, speaking, and interview schedules, often with organizations or technology companies that have either a direct or indirect financial interest in the hardware, software, or ideology employed for STAT.

Ryan Imbriale has presented in at least seven conferences, including for the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE, for which Imbriale was formerly a board member), the Future of Education Technology Conference (FETC, run by the for-profit LRP conglomerate out of West Palm Beach, FL), and Learning Forward, among several others. While these appear to be professional organizations on their surface, a careful review of their sponsors, boards of directors, and vendors reveal underlying connections to educational technology companies, including Microsoft, Intel, SmartBoard, Pearson, BrainPop, DreamBox, and dozens of others. Imbriale has also given at least five interviews with organizations such as Project Tomorrow, T.H.E. Journal (also run by LRP) and EdTech Magazine, which are all promotional platforms for edtech companies and not valid purveyors of unbiased journalism.

Across the same two years, Dallas Dance has had over a dozen speaking engagements and a dozen more interviews with many of the same organizations. He has given interviews to EdSurge (run directly by edtech venture capitalists), Discovery Education (a STAT corporate partner), ISTE (for which Dance is currently a board member), and numerous others. His speaking engagements have included the star-studded SXSWedu conference, the CUE Powerful Learning conference (which favors luxury locations in California and Florida), and even the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL), which is well known as a trade organization for numerous educational technology companies, including K12, Inc. (one of the worst of the bad actors in the for-profit educational technology marketplace). Most of Dance’s engagements are to promote or hype the success of STAT or the importance of technology in the classroom; it also appears to be a lucrative side business, considering Dance’s speaking fee is listed at $5000 (Dr. Dance reports that he did not make this Orate page). Dance even spoke in a promotional video for Advance Path, a BCPS vendor for credit recovery software, joining the previously mentioned Tom Vander Ark in praising the product’s effectiveness (for more on Vander Ark’s philosophy of education, see his contribution to the book The Profit Motive in Education: Continuing the Revolution, entitled “Private Capital, For-Profit Education, and Public Schools”).

A question that needs to be asked here: does this level of constant promotion help BCPS students, or even the BCPS system, or is it just helping raise the profile (and the future job prospects) of the administrators involved? Several of the county high schools that these leaders are responsible for are literally collapsing, no longer compliant with safety codes and hopelessly outdated for electrical, plumbing, structural, and Americans with Disability Act requirements, much less “21st century learning.” Furthermore, the positions of Executive Director of the Department of Special Education and the Executive Director of Student Support Services have been left vacant for the past year, and word-of-mouth around the schools is of understaffing, disarray and slipshod Least Restrictive Environment compliance for students with disabilities. Even the school feasibility studies completed for the renovations of Lansdowne and Dulaney High Schools were questionable, with pages of identical text (yet different formatting and pictures), suggesting a lack of thoroughness and an absence of oversight by administration (who, when alerted by a teacher, dismissed the copying as “errors”). It is time that taxpayers hold those same administrators accountable, as these errors directly affect the safety and well-being of thousands of children.

The actions of Dallas Dance, Ryan Imbriale, and other administrative leaders should send a clear message about the current priorities of the BCPS system. Leadership is desperately needed here at home in Maryland, not on the road in Florida, California, or Texas. Software companies and iNACOL conference attendees should not be visiting (and disrupting, in the real sense of the word) BCPS classrooms. To again borrow from Thoreau, in the BCPS STAT initiative, “shams and delusions are esteemed for soundest truths,” while reality is proclaimed patently false.