Schools Laptop Program Was Never Financially Feasible, reports indicate

  • finances, people, savings and bankruptcy concept - close up of male hand holding burning dollar cash money over black background

The Baltimore County Public Schools budget is facing a money crunch and growing controversy after the county executive warned of an $81 million shortfall in the county budget next year. Yet this crisis has been a long time coming for the 25th largest school district in the nation, which nonetheless has been requesting an 11.5 percent increase — or a whopping $91 million more — in taxpayer dollars.

County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., in an op-ed in the Baltimore Sun and in various statements, said he has a “responsibility to craft a balanced budget for the county,” noting that the schools’ proposed budget “is not fiscally sustainable.”

He’s right. Yet how did this all happen?

In large part, the culprit is wanton spending on the laptop-per-student program known as STAT, which a review of records indicates was never financially sustainable long-term. When the program was launched in 2014 by now-disgraced Superintendent Dallas Dance, promises of a “21st Century” transformation in learning were made here in Baltimore County and across the country. Five years and hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars later, the program has expanded despite poor student test results and other flagging outcomes. After much debate (see postscripts), the board recently approved a controversial revised proposed budget to send to the county that still includes massive funding for STAT. How exactly did we get here?

Various analyses since 2016 by the Baltimore County Office of the Auditor — as well as BCPS budgets, and other school system records — indicate that the early years of the STAT rollout were partly propped up because the budget was apparently padded with unused funds built up over a few years, since Dance first arrived in July 2012, though he said little to nothing about a digital conversion at that time.

That included insufficiently funding textbooks, transportation support, and special education departments for starters, records show. Such “under appropriation” was criticized by county auditors. One concern then: Why would BCPS keep coming back to the county to ask for tens of millions more than it was actually spending? Numerous BCPS redirects from “all areas of operation,” and tens of millions in emergency funds were also siphoned off as recently as last year to pay for the experimental, edtech industry-oriented initiative, records show. (In the 2018-19 budget, for example, BCPS relied on “the use of an unprecedented level” of the district’s emergency or “fund balance as a revenue source” for STAT and other costs. “Such a fund balance, by the school system’s own projections, will not be available at a similar magnitude in future years,” a May 2018 county auditors’ report noted.

Now, among other issues, the padding and raiding have apparently run their courses and a possible “fake feasibility” seems evident.  The school administration under Dance and Interim Superintendent Verletta White — also a digital education supporter affiliated with numerous outside ed-tech industry groups and consulting firms (see links below) — expected Baltimore County to greatly expand and commit its support of the laptop program right about now, according to STAT planning documents, administration statements, and the BCPS Digital Conversion/STAT budget. (See Towson Flyer op-ed on STAT costs, with link to the actual conversion budget within, details in postscript 1 below).

The bottom line seems to be: The BCPS administration has spent beyond its means, gambling that the county would pick up a higher tab for the digital initiative once the money started running out — and opportunity costs became clearly unsustainable for teachers, students, and a public school district with so many dire needs — sparking recent protests

Auditors’ Alerts

As far back as 2016 (summary and link to report here), county auditors noted that spending on STAT had risen, “while funding for instructional [salaries] has remained relatively flat, and funding for the Instructional Textbooks & Supplies program has declined.” Such materials and supplies have been “pinched,” the report noted.

The auditors’ analysis released in May 2016 questioned a budget gap averaging $20 million a year between what BCPS requested and what was spent. (That number is far more than annual trims to textbooks, which the district claimed the devices were supposed to replace). For several areas outlined in pages 7-12 of that analysis, the auditors noted: BCPS’s “budget document does not align to its actual spending patterns in recent years.” 

For example, a chart under Mid-Level Administration “professional services” revealed that an average $900,000 was requested by BCPS in fiscal years 2013, 2014 and 2015—yet no money was spent in that category. Similar amounts were nonetheless requested by district administrators year to year.

Meanwhile, annual requests for “operational supplies” related to textbooks topped $14 million annually in those years. Yet the actual amounts spent only averaged $700,000. In FY 2015, only 3.5 percent was spent in that category, with nearly $13 million left over, the auditors’ analysis revealed.

Money not spent meant services not rendered. A similar “under appropriation” showed up in Special Education programs, where BCPS requested a very specific $367,404 in FY 2015 for student transportation “professional services.” Yet only $15,000 was spent. That “consistent” pattern, as noted by auditors, applied to previous years as well.

Today, that money has apparently been long spent out, and there’s nowhere else to squeeze, especially as constituents ask for funding for many other needs, some previously slashed, including: counselors, per-pupil student workers, transportation funds, special education needs, breakfasts for needy students, school discretionary expenses, support for a growing population of English-as-a-second-language students, promised teacher raises, staffing levels, security personnel and measures, and on and on. These are true needs, with only so much money in the pot. Is that what the digital conversion playbook counted on to pressure expanded funding? The larger question: Should county taxes be increased to shore up the troubled and costly laptop and digital curricula program? If any tax rates are raised, that funding should go to building new schools to replace long-dilapidated Lansdowne, Towson, and Dulaney High Schools, among others. 

In his op-ed, County Executive Olszewski noted realities for trimming the schools’ budget: “There are such opportunities. One example: The proposed budget for BCPS administration is more than $56 million, reflecting a 53 percent increase from what we spent on administration just seven years ago. In just a few years, we’ve also spent nearly $300 million to provide devices to students in every school as part of the STAT initiative, including the accompanying infrastructure, software and support personnel costs. Considering our front-line needs, it’s time that we re-allocate some of these resources where they are needed most: the people delivering classroom instruction.”

The Eighth Conversion of STAT: The Budget

A recent article in the Baltimore Post pointed out records that showed the schools’ “budget was an integral part of the laptop initiative. In order for the transformation to be successful, Dance said eight internal school “conversions” would have to align to STAT’s goal. Those eight conversions: curriculum, instruction, assessment, professional development, infrastructure, policy, communications and budget.”

According to a transcript from an edtech conference panel — led by Dance, who was later convicted of perjury, and fellow administrator White, who was later cited for ethics violations related to outside consulting for the Education Research & Development Institute (ERDI) — “Dance said he slashed school system programs in order to free up system funds for the STAT program,” noted the Post. “That money, he said, came from cutting 300 of 500 programs from the school system.”

The 2016 panel recording reveals Dance discussing how to pressure elected officials for money. “At the end of the day, then we were able to go to our funding authorities and — my budget comes entirely from the state and from the county — and we were able to go to them and say: ‘this is what we want to do — but this is what we have done internally to redirect funds in order to pay for it (STAT)  — and this is ultimately what it will cost if you were to commit to doing this with us.

The STAT program has cost well over $300 million in the first several years — including laptops, wifi infrastructure, digital curricula, personnel costs, edtech conference travel, and various expenditures that could create a perpetual burden for the county. Records show such digital initiative costs are sometimes tucked, or hidden, into the annual school budgets as “resources,” “other resources,” “textbooks,” “supplies,” “services,” “contracted services,” or simply “Other.”

Over time, some members of the Board of Education past and present have questioned the spending on STAT and pressed for scaling back the rollout or otherwise pulling back the ratios of laptops per students in the elementary grades, among other revisions to address rising costs. (Laptops are now to be two-per-student in grades 1 and 2 starting next year, though White had also alarmingly pressed for more devices in kindergarten–at an apparent price tag of more than $4 million. See Postscript 2). Previous school board member Michael Collins made a prescient statement in a January 2016 board meeting: “I believe very strongly in technology in schools, but we don’t know how this is all working out. At all. And the info we are getting from the data so far is not good. We are just going awfully fast, and we are going to be spending a couple of billion dollars — that’s with a B — at least on this program.” See other details regarding costs here.

Transparency and fiscal responsibility is indeed needed.

This summary is merely a glimpse and the specifics might change. That’s why county auditor reports, past and current schools’ budgets, a pending outside audit, and other fiscal documents must be fully reviewed by the county and state (and outside media), since taxpayers would continually be on the line for such “forever costs.” The county auditors’ analyses of BCPS budgets, for example, revealed similar problems and concerns when released in May 2017 and in 2018, when questions regarding underfunded retiree health benefits and a pending fiscal crisis were first raised publicly. An Office of the Auditor analysis of the FY2020 schools’ budget is expected to be prepared for the county council and administration this upcoming May. Be on the lookout.

Technology options are needed in schools, but not at the price of irresponsible misspending of public dollars and possible malfeasance.

Concerning Conflicts : Updated

One increasingly relevant concern: Interim Superintendent Verletta White, a highly experienced educator and leader, has nonetheless fostered ongoing affiliations with digital education industry groups, a “professional consultancy firm,” as well as  digital curricula and related efforts despite past controversies over outside consulting. Dance had a similar litany of controversial edtech ties. In the end, one needs to wonder whether such loyalties reside more with these edtech groups and ideals than they should. 

Where is objectivity on the costly STAT laptop-per-student and digital curricula program when, according to White’s CV (see link here), the bulk of the interim superintendent’s outside affiliations have been with such edtech proponents?

AFFILIATIONS: Center for Digital Education Advisory Committee; Digital Education Chief Academic Officer Advisory Council; Education Research and Development Advisory Council (ERDI?, which advises companies doing business with BCPS and was related to White’s ethics violations. The interim superintendent has also alarmingly failed to publicly disclose which companies she consulted with on ERDI panels and related.) There’s also her stated affiliation with the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE).

White has additionally served as an advocate for digital curricula and related as a member of the Association of School Curriculum & Development and Maryland Association of School Curriculum and Development. Even more concerning are her advisory roles, as cited in her CV, for outside tech-oriented groups or companies, including the RTM K-12 National Advisory Committee, part of “RTM Business Group, a professional consultancy firm.” 

After an ethics violation finding last year, White said she “made an honest mistake,” and that she was under the impression that she was “‘only to list companies [on disclosure forms] with whom the school system had a contract or a pending contract.’ She has amended her financial disclosure reports to the school system and says she will not accept outside work in the future,” according to a 2018 article in the Sun.

Are any of these outside “affiliations” paid roles? Does White receive any in-kind gifts, meals, items, or covered hotel or travel costs? Do these entities also represent or are sponsored by any BCPS vendors or others doing business with the Board of Education and/or BCPS? And, is White then using her “prestige of office” for private gain, which was cited in her previous ethics violation?

This all raises questions of possible conflicts of interest regarding the continuing high-dollar digital initiative at BCPS. Under good governing standards, the appearance of a conflict of interest should be avoided, see also the district’s Code of Ethics. If one wonders how that might play out, consider BCPS’ Passport/Spanish language program, which White recently defended against any budget cuts by the board, despite high costs (more than $7 million and counting) and troubled results and controversy. White touts an award from Fuel Education on her CV; Yet Fuel Education sells the digital platform, MIL, or Middlebury Interactive Languages. MIL/Middlebury has long been an ERDI client. The company has a $7.5 million contract spending authority with BCPS).

In the end, the previously unreported affiliations with RTM and other positions, and high-dollar contracts like MIL, at the least bear closer scrutiny. Consider RTM’s Blueprint, “the sole property of RTM Business Group, LLC and the authors of the RTM K12 Advisory Board.” Among the blueprint’s priorities: “The Marriage between Academics and Technology: A Blueprint for Creating Powerful Partnerships.”

An opinion column by Joanne C. Simpson, a BCPS stakeholder, former reporter for The Miami Herald, and freelance writer who has followed the costs of this program over the past three years. Her Twitter feed with updates on national news about kids, screens, and schools can be found at: J CavanaughSimpson@JoCavanaughSim1

Updated 2/26, with further updates to come.

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Postscripts: A few notes and resources

  1. According to BCPS’ own Digital Conversion/STAT budget, more than $280 million in “Total Costs” was to be already spent by as early as 2018, and that excluded most of the multi-million dollar digital curricula contracts, as well as part of the second round of $140 million laptop contracts approved last year. See Towson Flyer op-ed with link to the BCPS Digital Conversion/STAT budget. Costs were pulled back temporarily in later STAT budgets when millions for interactive projectors were removed and the rollout of laptops to middle schools was slowed. Yet expenditures have since risen again overall. Laptops assigned per student went to all grades 1st-12th this past fall, with numerous problems cited, including: poor connectivity, inconsistency in software program usage, and hardware woes.)
    .
  2. Partly in response to this op-ed, Board of Education Vice Chair Julie C. Henn posted this note on her Facebook page: “My [recent] motion to reign in spending for 1:1 devices failed by one vote. The fight to do what’s right for our students and teachers, and to spend wisely, continues.
    .
    The original motion: “I move to amend the budget request to reflect an expedited transition of Grades K-8 to Chromebooks for the 2019-2020 academic year; to reflect a 5:1 student device ratio for Kindergarten, a 2:1 student to device ratio for grades 1-5, and to retain the current 1:1 student to device ratio for grades 6-8. I further move to end current K-8 device leases effective July 1, 2019.”
    .
    In Favor (board members): Causey, Henn, Kuehn, Mack, McMillion
    Opposed: Hayden, Jose, Offerman, Pasteur, Rowe, Scott
    .
    My amended motion to keep the Kindergarten device/student ratio at 5:1 passed unanimously.

  3. In response to Henn’s explanation, school board member Lily Rowe also on Facebook wrote that she supported more phased adjustments to the laptop and digital curricula though did not specify changes: “Moving to end K-8 device leases effective July 2019 would create chaos as we would have no way to implement the current curriculum for grades 3-8. I think we can all agree that if building a plane while flying it was a bad idea then dismantling it in the air is a worse one.” That’s a good point. But unfortunately, edtech proponents counted on such difficulties when they instituted what they called “second order” or irreversible change. See this explanation and linked story. As former superintendent Dance once claimed: “When you do a ‘second order change,’ we can’t go back to business as usual.” That, however, does not take into account humans’ adaptability in the face of crises, especially when children’s education, health, safety, and numerous varied needs are at stake.

“Not legal,” says state agency regarding Baltimore County schools’ mass record purge

More great work from local journalist Ann Costantino.

nearly 2,700 financial disclosure statements were destroyed over two separate days … The purge occurred one week after the system’s former superintendent, S. Dallas Dance, was sentenced to jail for perjury after providing misleading information on his disclosure forms about money he earned consulting for companies and other school districts.

The article offers this timeline:

In November, Maryland State Senator Jim Brochin urged the state school board to intervene and conduct an immediate audit of the system’s technology contracts. The New York Times published Brochin’s plea.

In December, four Baltimore County school board members requested a state board audit. Later that month, the board members called on legislators to conduct an emergency legislative audit.

In February, all seven Baltimore County Councilmembers requested a 2012-2017 state legislative audit of the district’s no-bid contracts with education technology firms, procurement process and ancillary costs associated with the contracts (e.g., travel, professional development, perks/promotions, and other financial transactions deemed appropriate).

In March, three Baltimore County Councilmembers urged Gov. Larry Hogan to initiate an independent audit of the school system when councilmembers realized an audit still had not been initiated.

On April 20: Former Superintendent Dallas Dance was sentenced to jail for perjury.

On April 27: Baltimore County schools’ law office would purge nearly 2,400 disclosure records that spanned 1997 up through 2014.

In May, the school system hired an audit firm to conduct its own audit. The scope would include years 2012-2017.

In August, 315 more pre-2014 disclosure records would be purged

Read more here.

BCPS Tech Contracts Audit Update

Baltimore Sun, December 16:  White expands the audit of school board contracts

Baltimore Post, December 15:  Legislative Audit Sought for Baltimore County Schools’ Contracts (the need for an audit was noted in May ~ Is BCPS in Need of a Financial Audit?)

Baltimore Sun, December 6:  Audit of tech contracts in Baltimore County schools is sought

Towson Flyer, December 5:  Board of Ed members ask for BCPS contract audit

Worries intensify about student laptops as Baltimore County prepares to expand use of devices

Baltimore Sun Letter to the Editor, December 5:

Baltimore County should be wary of education tech

Baltimore Sun and Towson Flyer, December 4:

Worries intensify about student laptops as Baltimore County prepares to expand use of devices

Concerns grow as BCPS prepares to expand use of tech devices in schools

The stream of reporting about our digital initiative was steady throughout November and December.  Much of it centered on the call for an audit based on conflicts of interest. One article focused on teachers being assaulted. Any connection between funding STAT and the lack of funding for support staff or creating smaller classes?

Baltimore Sun, November 15:

Ethics complaint filed against Baltimore County school superintendent Verletta White

Baltimore Sun, November 21:

Baltimore County teachers protest discipline problems in schools

Baltimore Sun, November 24:

Baltimore County schools chief Verletta White agrees to new travel, work restrictions

Baltimore Sun, November 25:

When disclosing 2016 consulting work, Dallas Dance used company alias rather than firm’s name

Baltimore Post, November 25:

Vendor Website Records Suggest Possible “Pay for Play” in Baltimore County Schools

Baltimore Sun, Letter to the Editor, December 4:

Are Baltimore County Schools asleep at the wheel?

Baltimore Sun, December 5:

Baltimore County parents, school board members ask state for audit of tech contracts

WBAL TV, December 5:

State audit called for by some against Baltimore County school district

Towson Flyer, December 5:

Board of Ed members ask for BCPS contract audit

Baltimore Sun, Letter to the Editor, December 6:

Balto. County should be wary of education tech

Baltimore Post, December 6:

Baltimore County Schools on State Board’s “Radar”

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.

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.

Maryland State Prosecutor Investigates Former Superintendent Dance: A few more details . . . updated 10.26

State prosecutors are investigating former Baltimore County Public Schools Superintendent S. Dallas Dance, according to the Baltimore Sun and other news agencies. “The Maryland State Prosecutor’s Office launched a criminal investigation . . .  issuing a subpoena for school system records.”

Yet the former superintendent’s troubles go much farther. 

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

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

Other details: the former county schools’ chief has been embroiled in yet another contract controversy through his newly formed consulting company, The DDance Group (see below), which apparently contracted with Richmond Public Schools for advising services, including “leadership coaching,” without the knowledge of school board members there. See also a contract doc, RPS board member comments, and post by local news blog RVAdirt. Soon after leaving Baltimore County this summer, Dance was hired as an RPS consultant at $12,500 per month, and was cut checks for $25,000 before questions were raised about the propriety of the consulting contract, according to a Sept. 25 CBS6 news report.

There are some questions about the nature of Dance’s superintendent leadership time here, as his widespread travel took him across the country and elsewhere, likely more than 100 days on the job, records show. See this story previously reported on Dance’s travel and expenditures. And an ongoing edtech travel culture among BCPS administrators. (UPDATE: And a follow-up story on superintendent travel by the Sun, after requests from other news agencies.)

Four months after Dance’s departure, the Sun is also acknowledging the high costs of his signature initiative. As Dance traveled to edtech conferences “the county school system was spending hundreds of millions of dollars on technology — not just laptops, but printers, educational software and electronic identification cards for all students and staff.” To get a look at the high-dollar contracts approved here in Baltimore County–and $300 million-plus in costs related to Dance’s laptop-per-student “digital ecosystem”– see this previous post.  Most of the superintendent’s travel promoted this program; he met with BCPS vendors at various events. Related no-bid contracts, including $10 million for Discovery Education‘s products, are still in place.

When the controversy began . . . 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So What is Going On Now . . . 

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

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

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

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

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

Postscripts:

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

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

BCPS’ New Grading Policy: Part of the Big Personalized Learning Plan

Bottom Line Up Front (but read to the end for important background information):

Due to an outcry from students and parents (and we hope teachers and administrators behind the scenes), the recently revamped BCPS Grading and Reporting Procedures were amended as of 11/1/16.  Here are the changes and a related article: Towson Flyer: Baltimore County schools amending new grading policy

Grading Policy Amendment

Grading Policy Amendment

These amendments were published directly after the 10/31 forum on the new policy held by BCPS Community Superintendents.  Principals and certain parents were invited to attend and provide feedback.

The Rest of the Story

As noted in our one blog post for the month of June (it was the summer!), the BCPS grading policy underwent a major revision effective 7/1/16.

In early August, schools reached out to parents to explain that in 2014 (when STAT was implemented), a grading and reporting committee made up of parents, teachers, and administrators:

” … reviewed grading and reporting practices from across the state and the nation. Based on the information gathered, the committee determined the policy needed to be rewritten to reflect more current research-based practices to better align your child’s grades with his/her achievement of grade-level standards. To that end, the new Board of Education Policy 5210 Grading and Reporting was approved in June of 2015 for full implementation beginning August, 2016.”

New Policy and Rule 5210

” … all student grades will align to identified course or grade-level standards and be based on a “body of evidence.” A body of evidence is simply the information a teacher collects to determine a student’s level of performance. In addition to making sure grades are based on evidence aligned to standards, (BCPS) wants to ensure that the purpose for assigning grades is clear and consistent across all schools. To do this, BCPS established that the primary purpose for determining marking period grades is to accurately communicate a student’s level of achievement in relation to the course expectations at a given point in time.”

(NOTE: This is key to Mastery-Based Education and computer-delivered curriculum)

“The school system commits to providing equitable, accurate, specific, and timely  information regarding student progress towards course expectations which includes feedback to you and your child in order to guide next steps and indicate areas growth areas. To promote alignment to research-based practices and stakeholder input, the committee oversaw the creation of a procedures manual, which is broken down into six guiding practices:

  1. Grading practices must be supportive of student learning.
  2. Marking-period grades will be based solely on achievement of course grade-level standards.
  3. Students will have multiple opportunities to demonstrate proficiency.
  4. Grades will be based on a body of evidence aligned to standards.
  5. A consistent grading scale will be used to score assignments and assessments.
  6. Accommodations and modifications will be provided for exceptional learners.”

This sounds somewhat reasonable and child-centered in theory, except for the fact that ASCD is all over this Research & Rationale, which makes them suspect:

https://www.bcps.org/academics/grading/researchRationale.html

The Sun wrote an article about it, as did the Towson FlyerDr. Dance felt obliged to write an op-ed in the Sun.  BCPS devoted a website page to it; highlights included a video and a MythBusters List.

The New BCPS Grading and Reporting Policy is Explained

As the school year rolled out, unprepared teachers, parents, and students began to realize what was going on and were not happy.  One parent started a petition to rescind the new grading procedures.  Another parent wrote a must-read op-ed about it: Towson Flyer: What’s Behind BCPS’ New Grading Policy?

National ed-blogger Emily Talmage has written about grading policies like BCPS’:  Is Your District Changing its Grading Policy? Here’s the Real Reason Why.

Take the time to read the Towson Flyer op-ed and Talmage’s piece; you’ll understand why the BCPS Grading and Reporting Policy had to change to enable “anytime, anywhere learning.”

Also read this from iNACOL, the International Association of K-12 Online and Blended Learning.  iNACOL has a baby named Competency Works, which offered a detailed report on grading changes needed for Competency-based Education (STAT).

Any school that has begun the journey toward competency education, breaking free of the limitations of the time-based system, will eventually come face-to-face with grading policies and practices. Along with the excitement of creating a new grading system that ignites a dynamic culture of learning will come opportunities to engage students, families and the community in creating a shared vision about the purpose of school. Challenging the traditional system of grading practices, rooted firmly in the American culture with its exhilarating A+ to the dreadful F, will prompt questions, fears, and misconceptions. There are likely to be lively community meetings and even a letter or two in the local newspaper. There will also be the mutual delight when a competency-based grading system is put into place that allows students and teachers to work together toward a shared vision of learning. Most importantly, there will be cause to celebrate as students make progress toward proficiency.”

Mutual delight?

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.”

New Video: One-Way Ticket on STAT; Part 1 of 4

Another great truth-telling video has come our way.  This follows the “Bullseye” video reposted a couple of weeks ago.  A separate page to curate the expanding STAT-us BCPS Video Collection may be in order …

One-Way Ticket on STAT: Part 1 of 4 of The Truth About STAT and Why Parents (and Politicians) Should Be Paying Attention

Previous videos:

Highlights of a High-Tech Takeover of a Public School System (in 5 steps, 7 mins. and 30 secs.)

Full-Length Version:  Anatomy of a High-Tech Takeover of a Public School System (in 5 simple steps and 25 minutes) 

In Search of the Competency-Based Ed Reform Wizard

STAT or CHAOS? : The global significance of the STAT experiment