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

Dear County Council Members,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morna McDermott McNulty

BCPS parent and Professor of Education, Towson University

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Student and Teacher Comments about STAT, Priorities, and the Culture at BCPS

STUDENT COMMENTS

From a BCPS student, Hannah Milan

Elementary school tech backsteps

Miniature zombies drool over screens, headphones blocking out everything but their virtual world. This isn’t some horror scene; it’s a first grade class at Carroll Manor Elementary, where I intern. Rather than the student-teacher contact experience I’d expected, I’ve learned to babysit technology-addicted beasts. Because of my involvement in the new tech-based classroom sweeping through the county, I’ve developed a loathing for the system.
I’d approximate that 60 percent of class time is spent on laptops installed at the start of the year. Most of this overwhelming proportion is devoted to Dreambox, a Common Core aligned mathematical adapting program which individualizes the learning experience and allows teachers to monitor their students’ progress. It resembles a game so students are “excited to learn,” but the data from my students shows they’re becoming more distracted and, as a result, taking longer to learn.
Not only does increased screen time cause an extreme lack of focus, it also inhibits social intelligence. A UCLA study found that fifth graders who went without screen time for one week were significantly better at reading human emotions than those who had regular access to screens. In elementary school, developing social learning skills is key to growing a successful student. When screen time increases, face-to-face time decreases.
On their website, BCPS argues that technology improves student growth and enhances the learning experience. I’d disagree with this nine times out of 10. Although these students are able to operate programs, they’re losing touch with their surrounding environment. This screen time seeps into their breaks as well. A quick game of “Simon Says” to regain focus turns into watching a funny video.
We’ve forfeited hard work for convenience. Instead of making progress, we’re going backwards. There’s a clear lack of focus more extreme than I’ve ever witnessed. Even writing their names on papers can take five minutes. Six-year-olds are going to have a hard time sitting still during class, but the inattention I’ve observed is alarming. In the future, these kids won’t get YouTube “brain breaks.”
They’ll have to sit in lectures quietly while professors instruct. Given the current state of education, these students won’t be able to satisfy this expectation.
If we’re to improve education, spending billions on laptops isn’t the way to do it. Money should go towards hiring teachers who can prepare and inspire students. Money should be spent on giving students hands-on, realistic experiences that prime them for the future.

And another student commentary with some comic relief:  Stephanie Rountree, Truths: A Modest Tech-posal

TEACHER COMMENTS

Here are concerns from BCPS teachers.  In bold are comments we heard more than once.

This is the most common concern among teachers: 

“It cannot get back to me, or I will get retaliation. That is the biggest issue teachers face when we speak out.  Teachers in BCPS are afraid to speak out.”

And here is an Op-Ed in the Baltimore Sun from a teacher who clearly fears retribution. The opening of the Op Ed: “I’m going to get fired. It’s not a matter of if, but when.” I used to say this to my students for laughs, but it’s not so funny anymore. Since August, three teachers at my school have been removed. While I trust my employer is legally prudent, tensions are high.”

With this in mind, there are some details changed below so nothing is identifiable.

Some facts about the perils and aftermath of going digital:

  • I used to work at a school that serviced, helped and guided disadvantaged kids, especially the ones in foster care…It was CLOSED by the superintendent in order to pay for devices. Kids whom we used to be a voice for are now voiceless and lost in the system.
  • I work at a very overcrowded Title I Elementary School in BCPS and the county “alleviates” overcrowding by installing trailers with NO bathrooms or running water. (We are up to 10 trailers). What is the allowed ratio for student to facilities? Maybe we can come up with one that is directly related to the smell oozing out of the existing bathrooms–constantly.
  • The county does NOTHING to alleviate and/or ADDRESS overcrowding issues and its effects at not only our school, but many others in disadvantaged communities, probably because parents don’t complain…They are mostly blue collar, busy, single parent, hardworking.
  • Class sizes are enormous. Teachers are overwhelmed and asked to do so much with such LITTLE time.
  • Students that have IEPs and/or need ESOL services are meeting with teachers in closets and bookrooms.
  • Our superintendent seems to spend most of his time at the “good” schools, and not enough time at the most disadvantaged ones–the ones that are overcrowded and more in need of teachers and classrooms; not devices. Some schools need a lot of help to prosper.I believe in a well-balanced approach to the integration of technology in our classrooms; as we know that technology skills are necessary and applicable. (I know, I am a technology teacher as well). Kids respond, and sometimes are definitely more engaged when they use technology. However, if the efforts of integrating technology becomes more of a priority than reducing class sizes and addressing the effects of an overcrowded school, well then, we have a BIG problem. The disconnect here is obvious, disturbing and undermines teachers’ efforts.
  • From a retired teacher: BCPS currently has a climate where “discourse” is not encouraged, unless you are a proponent of the digital transformation. No one is picking on Dr. Dance. And as one of our presidents famously once said, “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. ” Parents are just concerned about their lack of autonomy over screen time, the cost to the taxpayers, and the no-holds-barred race to implement something that no one can produce any hard data on to show its success. Many teachers support the parents but dare not say too much because criticism is not appreciated – to put it mildly. To further exacerbate the situation, BCPS has taken on a mantle of secrecy, stonewalling when stakeholders file Public Information Act requests, and declining to answer questions from its constituents. Even asking for data results from surveys taken by the students is met with a wall of silence. It is any wonder that the public is asking what the ______ is going on?”
  • “I feel bad for the teachers and for the kids who are losing instruction and valuable time for learning. Oh the money!! What a waste! I love technology but we can teach kids to share. They could have bought grade level devices and shared them. It is such a waste!!! And there’s no reason they can’t share them right now. Every kid already has their own login and their own drive to save their own work.”
  • My concern as a bcps employee and mother is the screen time, lack of communication skills outside of tech and the developmentally appropriateness of devices in elementary school aged children. I agree tech is exciting and engaging but I have a problem with it in the elementary setting. How will these devices impact not only communication skills but their brains as well??? Negative research has been released about that. Considering homeschooling myself.
  • About Dreambox: “The teachers have to keep a log on use of the program. The teachers have to question the kids when they’re not using it and document why and encourage them to get on it.”
  • “I watched the board meeting (1/12/16) … I was disappointed to hear so many BCPS employees speak so positively because it is not the perception in my school. Most of the teachers I work with are very frustrated.”
  • There are so many broken devices that students are going to have to “share” them during PARCC testing. Daily (the company contracted to fix the devices) originally promised a 48-hour repair turnaround along with a loaner. This is not happening.”
  • “In school today, a kid told us that his brother gave his password to his friend and the friend’s been playing his Dreambox. The kid whose dreambox was hacked is first grade, the kid playing it is 3rd.”
  • Grade 3: “Here’s what happened with the devices today. I taught a lesson in science and they used their paper and pencil booklets. First reading silently, then in groups and some discussion. I circulated among the groups. All went well. Next they were supposed to view a Bill Nye video on Safari Montage on their devices. It would not play for all of the students. I found an alternative on Discovery. Then I had 3 whose headphones did not work. I told them to turn off the sound and use the captions. Finally, one student shows me his device and says it will not hold a charge. I had him sit close to an outlet so he could plug the battery pack in. What was wrong with showing the video on the big screen and then using it in face-to-face instruction? (the copyright exemption) Then you could monitor who was getting it and who wasn’t…”
  • “The ALS program last year was eliminated. Most of these students were moved to the general classrooms without sufficient adult support. It has been horrendous. In general, there is not enough support in the classrooms.”
  • “The ‘devices’ that were provided to students in grades 1 through 3 did not include headsets, we were told that they couldn’t be purchased until the Board approved the Contract. This is a great disadvantage because students are distracted by nearby students as they listen to assigned text. MAP testing is occurring at this time and we just received 60 headsets – far short of the 244 we would need to provide one to each student in grades 1 – 3 who have devices. If that is not bad enough, when large numbers of students try to go online at the same time (as occurs during system wide testing that will occur in grades K – 8 this month) the server cannot handle the volume, nor does it appear that we have sufficient bandwidth. It should lso be noted that the technology configuration in schools is not adequate to provide timely access, and the boosters ro enhance access are insufficient to guarantee that one does not suddenly lose their Internet connection. We have also been told that our school server is insufficient to handle the volume of access. Teachers are upset because they had hoped to complete report cards during the snow closings. Imagine their frustration when they could not access STARS because the central server was down.”
  • “The devices have a volume control that is easy for the kids to adjust. There is no restriction as to the loudness but it is easily turned down. The headphones are whatever the kids bring in so they are all different.”
  •  “K-2 teachers were told to put students on their devices so that teachers could give DIBLES and Guided Reading Assessments to students one-on-one. These assessments take a very long time and need to be done 3 times a year so, that is a lot of screen time for these kids.”
  • “The lighthouse schools received new projectors at the beginning of the STAT initiative. They are going to be the first one replaced because they weren’t happy with how they held up. It’s such a waste of money to replace projectors that were just purchased. What they say is going to happen and what actually happens changes daily. Just like the headphones we were waiting for that we will not be getting now.”
  • It is becoming harder and harder to be a teacher. I love my job I love teaching but I no longer feel like I am doing what is best for my students.”
  • From WYPR January 13, 2015: About cost: Lisa Norrington, who has been teaching for 23 years at Patapsco High School and Center for the Arts, says the more than 50-year-old school, has no air conditioning and bathrooms that are disaster areas…She says a lot of the old schools can’t handle new technology. … “The school that I taught at, Prettyboy Elementary, is over 80 years old,” she said. “We have very few outlets, even in every classroom. That’s infrastructure. I can’t use a lot of computers and technology if I only have two outlets.”
  • About the print management: “Many schools did not get it because they found out it was not cost effective, so they stopped it. BUT… our budget was cut to help pay for it. We never got the printers.”
  • “In elementary, we have so many of the tablets dropped in school, I can’t imagine what they would be like going home.”
  • “In grades 1 and 2, they have said not more than an hour a day. There may be one teacher who has them on it more but that seems to be about the average.”
  • This photo speaks to the focus on technology, not  infrastructure12694847_10153538575479302_5293240559374303232_o

A letter about the top-down culture in BCPS and testing, specifically the SAT:

At the end of the 2015/15 academic year, several BCPS schools were told they could send representatives to a goal setting workshop. The intention of the day was for the representatives of the school to examine what was wanted and needed at the school, and create goals and plans to address the issues. Our school representatives were very excited as we have a lower income clientele with few students who go to four year colleges and universities. Our school does have many programs to teach students skills such as plumbing, electricity, car repair and even food prep and service, i.e. skills that are immediately marketable. Our principal was not there in the morning as we created possibilities for growth.

After the lunch break, the principal arrived and told us our goals and efforts had to be designed around the SAT. When we questioned the principal about this, we were told it came from the assistant superintendent, and likely, the superintendent. So all our efforts were dismissed. The “rationale” for this was that we needed to have data to prove we were making our goal.

So now our school goals had to be connected to a test used to enter a four year university which a small percentage of our students do. Additionally, more 1,000 schools (http://fairtest.org/university/optional) do not require students to submit SAT scores. As part of the teacher evaluation process, we are now required to create Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs) as a means of measuring student progress in our classes. We are told that the SLOs have to be linked to the school goals, which are related to success on the SAT. We are also required to fill out a Teacher Professional Development Plan (TPD) which states what area we will investigate and “develop.” We are now told that the TPDs are linked to the SLOs.

The reality then is that teachers are told to focus on the SAT, in setting school goals, class goals and even personal growth goals. The SAT preparation now is part of the morning announcements. English teachers are told to give practice SATs. Funds set aside for summer workshop goes to SAT preparation. BCPS now gives the test in school, free to the students with teachers administering them. Teachers who administer the test on Saturdays are paid for their time. Special Education students are “forced” to take the test. Modifications and accommodations on the child’s IEP are not honored by the College Board which is a private company. Parents and school personnel must fill out lengthy forms to request accommodations, which the College Board reviews and can reject. If a student is approved for extended time, he/she MUST use all the time meaning that the test takes more than a school day’s allocated time.

So what is behind this emphasis on the SAT? Is it to create the image of rigor? Is there some monetary reimbursement given to BCPS? There is a rumor that BCPS receives $20 for each student who takes an AP exam. Student debt has now surpassed credit card debt as the largest source of debt. Less than 50% of students who enter college complete it, many with thousands of dollars of debt and no degree. BCPS is complicit in creating this problem.

The appearance of a school or school system is now more important than authentically educating and preparing the students for career and college. Inside this paradigm, teachers now have more at stake around student test scores than the students. This has drastically and terribly changed the teacher/student relationship from mentor and coach to task master. This shift contributes to many of the ills and problems in schools including discipline and attendance.

There will be more letters…

STAT on Parade: The January 2016 “Community” Input Meeting

The BCPS Theory of Action:

“To equip every student with the critical 21st century skills needed to be globally competitive, BCPS must ensure that every school has an equitable, effective digital learning environment.  All students will have access to a digital learning device and personalized, blended, interactive curriculum.”

At the request of the PTA Council of Baltimore County, a Community Input Meeting was held on January 12, 2016 to provide the public an opportunity to testify on the FY17 Operating Budget, heat-closure policy, and renewal of the Superintendent’s contract.

What was supposed to be a forum to gather input ended up being a STAT showcase, featuring an endless (and we mean endless; the meeting took over 3 hours) parade of BCPS employees:

  • classroom teachers
  • STAT teachers (who are actually coaches offering professional development)
  • administrators

and students (the “cute factor”), at least one of whom pointed out he was selected by his principal to speak about STAT. One can assume students had some help preparing testimony.  What 3rd grader says, “I feel in charge of my own learning!”?  What child begs his parents to drive him to a Board of Education meeting to offer testimony?

The adults showered praise on Dr. Dance’s vision and offered glowing feedback on the wonder of STAT.  Some serious planning and recruiting must’ve taken place behind the scenes.

Here’s how the event played out:

It was a snowy night; people, willing to stand in line outside in the cold in order to register, poured into the Board of Education meeting room on the Greenwood Campus to participate.  Due to the number of attendees, many community members were relegated to overflow spaces to watch the proceedings on screens.  The vast majority of seat-holders in the main room were BCPS employees.  In fact, we wonder if community members departed, deterred by the cold, long line, and lack of space?  So much for a welcoming environment.

The meeting was never supposed to be a STAT Input Meeting. One could extrapolate and say STAT is a budget issue and a commentary on Dance’s judgement, vision, and performance (feedback leading to his contract renewal), but most of the testimonies were simply STAT progress reports.  BCPS clearly felt the need to defend its massive expenditure and heavily recruited positive, in fact, glowing, feedback on the program. Someone apparently feared that STAT was not going to be funded.

One STAT teacher, who characterized pre-STAT-era students as “passively compliant,” commented:

“This is the first time – the first time – we have ever put this much emphasis on student learning, on student understanding.”  Was the audience supposed to believe that this is the “first time” anyone’s cared about learning and student success in BCPS?

On the bright side, there were several community members, who offered a more honest picture of STAT: one parent spoke of STAT’s unintended consequences – growing class sizes, with groups of students left on their own without guidance, while teachers try to maintain order.  She complained that STAT has been “sold” to parents as collaborative, yet students are instructed to ask questions of peers first instead of teachers.  Advanced students are required to be more independent, and often cannot finish their work because they’re spending so much time helping others.  She pointed out that even advanced students can be twice-exceptional and require a teacher’s guidance.  A retired educator feared that STAT is a disservice to vulnerable children, who need more human interaction, not less.

Did everyone get to hear the input? Well, the Board of Education, Superintendent, and top “cabinet” members had to stick around, but due to the sheer length of the meeting, most audience members had escaped by the end.  Unfortunately, the politicians who spoke at the very beginning of the meeting were not around to hear one citizen’s commentary on the likelihood of needing to raise taxes to pay for the initiative …