‘Middlebury’ Spanish Language Program Using Children to Hone Flawed Ed-Tech Product? Updated.

A litany of questions regarding bid-out or cooperative million dollar contracts follows in the wake of scandals over Baltimore County Public School leaders’ consulting gigs with the Education Development & Research Institute (ERDI)–which represents for-profit edtech companies doing business with BCPS.

A primary conflicted contract is held by ERDI-listed client, Middlebury Interactive Languages (MIL)— now among other school vendors garnering more than $62 million in BCPS contracts. (Most of these digital curricula contracts are no-bid, but others also raise concerns, including Promethean’s 2015 piggy-back contract, at an added $2.75 million. Promethean has also been an active ERDI client.

Such high-priced digital curricula contracts are also linked to official BCPS STAT plans, which note numerous digital-related “conversions:” Curriculum. Instruction. Assessment. Organizational Development. Infrastructure. Policy. And Budget; expected to reach “systemic institutionalization by 2018.” “All students will be provided a digital learning device and personalized, blended, interactive curriculum,” the 2017 report notes.

Based in Middlebury, VT, the language company garnered a staggering $7.5 million contract for an in-development product, an online platform used mostly for teaching Spanish on computers in elementary schools. A closer look at the bidding and approval process is warranted. An initial $475,000 contract spending authority mushroomed to $7.5 million just a year later in 2016. Among other issues: language experts recommend lower cost, open source or similar offerings. Second language learning in elementary school is a laudable goal. Yet other schools have tapped popular online duoLingo, for example, via a free school-based version, which should still be vetted and supplemental to live Spanish-speaking instructors.

MIL, initially affiliated with Middlebury College was dropped by the college because of questions about quality and controversial profit-motives of partner company K12 Inc. (see info below). The prestigious institution now wants to remove the name “Middlebury” as well. In September, a final trademark separation was approved, under which “K12 will rename the company by the end of 2019.”

The trouble with MIL: Numerous flaws have been reported at BCPS regarding lesson questions being in high-school level Spanish (impossible for fourth graders to comprehend), an issue later altered based on “user feedback.” Overall, children often guess, not acquiring actual language skills. Teachers have no Spanish language training so cannot assist. Many classroom teachers have been bypassing time spent on MIL, because of problems and ongoing student frustration, sources said.

Meanwhile, outside “evaluations,” partly geared to product development, are costing taxpayers nearly $1 million more.  At least a few questions to students appear to be conducive to positive results, such as: ‘What do you like’ about MIL? A leading question to be sure.

Here, for further perusal: ‘MIL, the centerpiece of BCPS’ Passport Program, has been a primary element of the district’s Blueprint 2.0’s second-language acquisition goal. Earlier this year it expanded to 40 elementary schools, and there are plans to bring the computer-based language program to middle schools as well. MIL also exemplifies perpetual software license fees. “Once the program is fully expanded to all schools, the anticipated annual fee will be $550,000 each year. The site license cost will be $5,000 per school once 51 schools are attained,” board records show. Software license fees, as well as online or cloud subscriptions can increase digital costs to districts.

The company and its affiliates have stirred controversies. MIL has offered undergraduate and graduate language courses. Yet after a computer-based language program for public schools was developed in 2010, partly with Middlebury College, professors there staged a revolt and no-confidence vote in 2014. They cited mistakes in lessons and concerns about co-owner K12 Inc,. a troubled online education company. A year later, the Vermont college sold its 40 percent stake in MIL, which is now owned solely by for-profit K12 Inc.’

K12’s longtime failures, meanwhile, include high school course credits not being accepted at colleges and by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which ruled “that prospective students from 24 K12 Inc. high schools can no longer count credits toward athletic scholarships.”

As well as this profit motivation: “K12 Inc. also pays each member of its Board of Directors between $155,000 and $216,000 annually for a few hours of work each year—far more than local school board members make for much more time spent in general.” Making money on public school dollars? See K12 Inc. corporate records here.

The Baltimore County Board of Education-approved expansion of the online platform--mushrooming from $475,000 to $7.5 million–occurred a few months after Middlebury College was set to divest, and K12 would be taking over.  (It also appears to be a modus operandi for BCPS to bring in edtech contracts at lower costs, in the hundreds of thousands and citing pricing as a positive, and then blowing them up into multi-million dollar contracts within several months to a year.)

Former BCPS superintendent Dallas Dance, meanwhile, has promoted MIL in company ads for Education Week, and MIL’s website, which features Dance and videos of BCPS students in several separate links for the for-profit companyHere, in related listings, and on MIL’s main page here (see the featured testimonial quote). This online platform’s $7.5 million contract spending authority approved by the board of ed goes out 13 years, to 2029. (A board-approved spending authority allows the administration to spend up to that much, even well before that time–which has happened with several other edtech clients, including Discovery Education, DreamBox Learning, and Curriculum Associates/iReady, modified for a total $10 million years before their contract end dates. (See contract links, and further info in this Towson Flyer op-ed on ERDI-listed clients doing business with BCPS.))

Dance has also widely promoted or consulted with those companies. As in such cases, images of Dance are used to tout MIL. And the resigned superintendent, reported to be under criminal investigation, is still listed on company advertising as ‘BCPS Superintendent:’ “The future looks bright when you think about, again, our students being able to become bilingual or trilingual by the time they graduate.” Dallas Dance, Ph.D. Superintendent Baltimore County Public Schools Baltimore, MD, US.”

Overall, it seems the district itself is being used as a product marketing tool. BCPS’ Passport program–one of many spin-offs of similar questionable digital ventures in Dance’s former public school district in Houston— also won a supposed industry ‘award’  by FuelEducation, which turns out to be a seller of MIL. That ‘Transformation Award’ was given in August—two months after Dance resigned, despite no proof of improved language learning outcomes, or any proficiency results at all.

Not one, but two, outside evaluations are being paid for by taxpayers as approved by the board of education. One cooperative no-bid contract for an evaluation is here, at a cost of $100,000. The majority of the board did not even wait for that evaluation, which was released four months later in September 2016–and criticized MIL’s implementation and cited usage problems–before voting to expand the spending authority to $7.5 million on May 24. The Atlanta-based linguistic researchers had asked for language proficiency data for BCPS students, yet received none. Here a PowerPoint of the evaluation and video of a September school board meeting, where, among other concerns, then-board member Michael Collins spoke at 1:30:45, noting that students are “not learning Spanish to any significant degree” and that “the program is not moving along well at all.”

A second $750,000 evaluation, also to be funded by taxpayers, is another cooperative, or piggy-back contract with a data-oriented group, for BCPS to “procure these services under the Chicago Board of Education contract 16-0127-PR2.” Chicago Public Schools was a cornerstone in the SUPES kickback scandal. (*See UPDATED POSTSCRIPT below).

All of these contracts, which could be ended at any time under BCPS contract policies, are still being pursued or expanded under Interim Superintendent Verletta White, who has publicly supported BCPS’ digital initiatives, and also consulted with ERDI. Currently, thousands of children spend hours in front of screens in headphones watching MIL videos.

The issue of using flawed, in-development edtech products with children was cited by the ACLU in a hauntingly similar scenario in Detroit, MI, whose administrators also used the phrase “building the plane as we fly it.” Look at how a school system’s questionable digital curricula “exploited Detroit’s most vulnerable children,” as revealed in this in-depth article. 

Software and related were being developed to “be used for virtual schools, blended instruction, distance learning, traditional instruction with differentiation, and online assessment.”

“But in reality, what internal EAA documents reveal is the extent to which teachers and students were, over the course of two school years, used as whetstones to hone a badly flawed product being pitched as cutting-edge technology.”

For related info on contracts and BCPS digital initiatives’ spending overall, from which some of this info is excerpted, see STAT and related costs.

A follow-up guest post by Joanne C. Simpson, a freelance journalist, college educator, BCPS stakeholder, and former reporter for The Miami Herald. 

POSTSCRIPT:

Chicago Public Schools, at the center of the SUPES Academy kickback scandal, also brought in Middlebury Interactive Languages (MIL) a couple years back. Now, BCPS has taken on the exorbitant $750,000 piggy-back contract with CPS to evaluate the BCPS language program, which is centered on MIL. This merits a closer look all around.
FuelEducation, which now sells MIL, gave a similar “award” to CPS, for implementing MIL, an ERDI-client. 
Tangled indeed.
Related history on SUPES contract controversy at Chicago Public Schools http://www.chicagotribune.com/…/ct-gary-solomon-supes… ….
 
Again, BCPS documents on MIL:  https://www.boarddocs.com/…/052416%20MWE-813-14… … and the cooperative/piggy-back contract for a second $750,000 evaluation of the language program, shared with troubled Chicago Public Schools …. https://www.boarddocs.com/…/050917%20MWE-812-17… ….. 
 
Meanwhile… MIL seller, FuelEducation… http://resources.fueleducation.com/…/chicago-public… ….
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Digital Smoke: Did BCPS’ Call-for-Bids Unfairly Favor the HP EliteBook Revolve?

Where there’s smoke…

More than two years ago, concerns were raised about Baltimore County Public Schools’ laptop-per-student initiative known as STAT–and, soon after, ongoing cost issues and challenges, much of which came to pass: Students playing video games or scrolling social media on devices during classes, creating focus issues. Overloaded school WiFi networks crashing. Unwieldy maintenance of broken laptops plaguing the district, an entrenched issue that tanked 1:1 programs elsewhere. Questions have also arisen about district leaders’ possible conflicts of interest, questionable digital curricula contracts, and flagging student standardized test results.

And—with details so far undisclosed—a possibly predetermined bidding process for STAT’s primary component: the HP Revolve laptops.

As the school district now prepares a Request for Proposals (RFP) to provide future student devices, one thing in particular should be kept in mind: Last round, the bidding process might have been partly rigged for one particular device, targeted specifically to the HP EliteBook Revolve 810. Former superintendent Dallas Dance had a cozy relationship with Hewlett-Packard, “a partner” for his centerpiece digital initiative widely promoted by HP and Microsoft. Soon after it launched, STAT was used as “source material for Hewlett-Packard’s advice to the ministries of education in a number of foreign countries, and the World Economic Forum,” according to Districts of Distinction. And “The United Nations General Assembly was the backdrop for a keynote address by the BCPS superintendent to schools and global education, business, and technology leaders hosted by Hewlett-Packard,” according to BCPS records. Dance did a promotional video for the company. And more.

Hewlett-Packard also has a checkered history with government technology contracts. Hewlett-Packard “agreed to settle a Justice Department investigation into a kickback scheme related to government technology contracts,” The New York Times reported in 2010.

“In 2007, the Justice Department filed a complaint against H.P., Sun Microsystems and Accenture, in connection with millions of dollars in kickbacks and illegal rebates paid among technology partners working on government contracts dating to the 1990s. The complaint said H.P. breached its federal government contracts and submitted claims inflated by illicit fees and rebates.”

BCPS’ digital initiatives, including STAT and “Blueprint 2.0” have increasingly proven controversial. And the pricy-yet-glitchy HP laptop/tablet hybrids have been at the center of it all.

In 2014, the Baltimore County Board of Education approved a “$205 million contract with Montgomery County-based Daly Computers Inc. to supply laptops to 150,000 students and teachers. The contract also includes $3 million for a one-time purchase of devices,” the Sun then reported. There were four bidders, and Daly ranked third, according to documents obtained by the New York Times. Yet BCPS only entered into negotiations with Daly/HP.

Why did Daly Computers win the largest such contract in BCPS history, at $205 million?

Not because the company had experience: “While Daly has contracts to provide some computers and copiers to other school systems, it has never been involved in a digital conversion such as the one on which the county is about to embark, according to school spokesman Mychael Dickerson,” the Sun noted. The district’s population averages about 110,000 students.

There was similar fallout with an untried digital contractor in the troubled conversion in Fort Bend, according to a Texas Observer story that looked at digital programs across Texas.

Meanwhile, in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), an iPad 1:1 program was facing a major debacle, which would become known nationwide. See this article: What Went Wrong with LA Unified’s iPad Program.

Among the issues, LAUSD apparently sought out only a certain kind of device, a move that was investigated by the FBI, among others “the Department of Education’s review of the initiative found LAUSD was too heavily dependent on a single commercial product for providing digital learning resources.” While the district followed state guidelines for purchasing hardware that aligned with Common Core standards, a report released in August 2014 by the LAUSD board showed that the district had added detailed specifications regarding screen size and touchscreen functionality that heavily favored Apple and essentially excluded other technology options.”

“Media reports also detailed how bid requirements seemed to track with curriculum specifications suggested by Pearson in private email exchanges before the bidding process opened. The FBI has since launched an investigation into questions about whether Apple and Pearson enjoyed an advantage in the bidding process”.

“Beyond the issue of whether or not Apple and Pearson had an inside track in winning the bid, LAUSD has been faulted for choosing one rather expensive device when less expensive choices were available. Devices with keyboards might have been a better option, for instance, since older students could have used them to write papers. Google’s Chromebook, for example, is a laptop that can cost as little as $200, while LAUSD paid $768 apiece for its iPads, including the software, according to the Los Angeles Times.”

BCPS, meanwhile, chose a device that costs twice as much, more than $1,400, plus additional fees over the four-year leases that bring the price tag to $1,567 each.

Language from BCPS bidding documents seems similar to LAUSD’s scenario. The following are quotes from the BCPS Request for Proposals (RFP) addendum, which noted prospective vendors’ questions about the limited parameters of the RFP’s device requirements:

BIDDING VENDOR QUESTIONS: “5. Regarding Part III, Section 2.1, Item 1 (Student/Teacher Device – Hardware Minimum Requirements): Collectively, the requirements in this section appear to describe a “hybrid” laptop/tablet device, to the exclusion of conventional laptop and tablet form factors. For example, the Storage specification requires 256GB of storage, considerably more than a conventional tablet offers; the Display/Screen/Camera specifications require a capacitive touch screen . . . Is it BCPS’s intent to exclude standard tablet and laptop form factors from equal consideration?

RESPONSE: It is not the intent of BCPS to exclude standard tablet and laptop form factors from consideration. Bidders should provide the device(s) they believe most closely meets the criteria spelled out in the specifications. Bidders should identify where their device(s) do not meet or exceed the specifications. Bidders may propose more than one device per type. Bidder should limit their proposals to no more than three options per device type (i.e. tablet, laptop, desktop). Samples of each proposed device must be submitted following the submittal guidelines in the specification.”

(This response seems illogical: How can you have a chance of being awarded the bid if nearly all available laptops, tablets, or even hybrids do not meet very specific specs that seem to favor one device, including “256GB of storage, considerably more than a conventional tablet offers” and “Display/Screen/Camera specifications [that] require a capacitive touch screen?” BCPS digital director Ryan Imbriale and Dance later noted that “the camera” in particular was why BCPS “chose” the HP device. And here.)

Concerns have also recently come to light regarding more than $62 million in no-bid and piggy-back digital curricula contracts, related to a controversial consulting company, the Education Research & Development Institute. Some of these high-priced programs are provided by unproven start-ups. None are on a Maryland State Department of Education’s list of research-based programs.

In other issues, rising costs and hacking has been widespread at BCPS over the past few years. Again, this was immediately a huge scandal in LA and elsewhere. It’s not that learning isn’t being accomplished at BCPS to some extent via tech, but students—especially in 6th grade—have been regularly bypassing school security filters to play Minecraft and ESPN Arcade Games, surf inappropriate sites on the Internet, as well as download Instagram, Snapchat, and other distractive social media onto the HP devices at school or home—hiding the apps and games in folios, and using them in school instead of doing class work, according to numerous middle schoolers. Students pass around teachers’ or other universal log-ins and passwords. Sixth-grade Town Hall meetings were called last school year to warn students against the practices, offering an “amnesty” if they “confessed.” The hacking has continued.

Again, this was a big story in Los Angeles. “The [LA]  iPad rollout quickly foundered, amid claims of inadequate training and security breaches by high school students who deleted security filters so they could freely browse the Internet. Critics also raised concerns about a close relationship that [superintendent] Deasy and a top assistant had with executives from Apple and Pearson,” the Los Angeles Times noted. 

A couple years later, in LAUSD, a variety of tablets and computers are currently available to students but the large district found the 1:1 iPads “unaffordable,” and the FBI wrapped up its probe. Recently, oddly enough, LAUSD administrators toured BCPS schools, along with the Inter-American Development Bank to get a look at BCPS’s 1:1 program. Test scores in LAUSD, an ethnically and racially diverse district had not improved, still scoring well below the state average. (LAUSD cancelled the iPad and Pearson contracts. BCPS has a clause in all contracts that the district can cancel or get out of them at any time, administrators have said). Meanwhile, PARCC scores for 2017 revealed that Baltimore County scored below the state average as well. 

Some students have been “engaged” as district leaders claim, yet at what exactly. As one student said: “You are learning how to look like you are working when you are not.”

A guest compilation by freelance journalist Joanne C. Simpson, a BCPS stakeholder who has been following this scenario for nearly two years–and who now hopes others will keep digging.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

New York Times Digs Deep on EdTech Ties and Conflicts at BCPS

Baltimore County Public Schools’ laptop tech provider “HP has promoted the district as a model to follow in places as diverse as New York City and Rwanda. Daly Computers, which supplied the HP laptops, donated $30,000 this year to the district’s education foundation. Baltimore County schools’ top officials have traveled widely to industry-funded education events, with travel sometimes paid for by industry-sponsored groups.

Silicon Valley is going all out to own America’s school computer-and-software market, projected to reach $21 billion in sales by 2020. An industry has grown up around courting public-school decision makers, and tech companies are using a sophisticated playbook to reach them, The New York Times has found in a review of thousands of pages of Baltimore County school documents and in interviews with dozens of school officials, researchers, teachers, tech executives and parents.”

!!

See the full story here:

For info on the kind of money being funneled to such corporations, see this guest op-ed on the growing costs of the digital initiative known as STAT.

Pressure on the Press?

The frequent flyer habits of former Baltimore County Public Schools Superintendent S. Dallas Dance has been reported in a follow-up story by the Baltimore Sun–nearly four months after he left the job.

There’s new info in there, including a $5,000 undisclosed speaker’s fee paid by another school district for a visit from Dance during his tenure here. Updated numbers also show the superintendent was out of town more than a third of the 2016 school year.

Does this article seem dozens of days late and tens of thousands of dollars short for the local paper-of-record? Dance is apparently under investigation, with the full range of inquiries unclear. The Sun claims the “public had no idea” of the extent of Dance’s travel. This, despite a previous investigative op-ed by freelance journalist Joanne C. Simpson on such travel and potential conflicts of interest, under an original Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) request. And earlier. And here by investigative reporter Ann Costantino, who spent days, weeks, and months scouring websites, videos, databases, and records to turn up such events. Meanwhile, school board member Ann Miller also made widely public inquiries.

Should Sun reporters have dug into such travel junkets, potential ethical conflicts, and the high costs of tech in cash-strapped public schools with pressing needs sooner? Yes. Should the newspaper itself devote more resources to covering Baltimore County Public Schools, where readers and potential readers reside in a county with a population of 830,000? Yes.

It’s not too late. The more coverage, the more the news source is a must-read. Questions about the STAT laptop-per-student program and possibly misspent taxpayer money remain. Dance has moved on, stirring more controversy. Meanwhile, a corporate-style culture of pricey travel and edtech product promotion, fueled by Dance himself, (also here, here, and more) has permeated this public school system.

See this recent op-ed revealing hundreds of thousands of dollars in 2017-18 confirmed budget monies for various BCPS administrators’ “travel, mileage, conferences, professional dues.” And the numbers could be much higher, based on the actual BCPS budget. Questions have been posed to the administration, with no response. This is taxpayer money. Yet our watchdog groups, agencies, elected officials, and members of the press need to do more.

Where are other regional news outlets, those who serve this community? What about objective and in-depth reporting on tech in schools by Baltimore-area TV reporters covering schools or investigative news? What about The Washington Post? And targeted publications like Baltimore’s Child?   For the most part, in these cases and others, the ‘Digital Schools’ story has been told in a marketing-style rah, rah fashion.

Where is the media’s healthy dose of skepticism, especially when an educational fad is extolled as “redefining learning,” with no objective evidence of efficacy, and backed by billions in venture capitalist dollars?

A Maryland state legislative audit of BCPS spending might be the only way to determine whether malfeasance has occurred here. Let’s call for one now. In the meantime, anyone can explore the issue of balance in classrooms where software-based teaching is tied to multi-million dollar contracts. New tech options–tablets, laptops, and WiFi—are utilized in schools across the country, both public and private. And expanded digital and online access makes sense.

Still, while parents and researchers nationwide start to document potential fallout from increased tech usage–as well as the poor performance of virtual or “blended learning”–few school systems have integrated a “digital ecosystem” like that found here in BCPS elementary schools: Students as young as six are assigned a laptop to carry class-to-class. On any given day, children can be seen: eyes locked on screens, headphones on, watching “teacher” avatars. Or using video-game based data-mining curricula like DreamBox Learning, a math software program that alone is costing the school system a staggering $3.2 million and growing.* (See below).

In some classrooms, computer-based learning is limited, offset by peer-to-peer and teacher-led activities. In others, screentime translates to multiple hours per child each school day. How, in the end, will this affect the role of teachers?

As one parent recently noted on social media: “My son attends a Lighthouse [pilot] school. I asked him what percentage of his instructional day is spent on his device. He said 75%. He is in 4th grade. People in Silicone Valley won’t buy their own kids an iPad.”

On BCPS’ current track, this county is also sprinting past $300 million-plus on an experimental program backed by no objective evidence. Again, this is taxpayers’ money. The Sun has been pressured to do more partly because others are requesting documents and taking the time to look at this: To press for MPIA records’ compliance, sending dozens of emails to BCPS’ law offices or the state’s ombudsperson. To scour those records. To ask tougher questions. To follow up claims. To fact check.

From any objective angle, there’s simply a more complex and frankly interesting story here. What are the actual results? Is video-game style learning, termed “gamification,” also impeding students’ patience and deeper focus? Since research shows gaming induces changes in the brain, what does this mean for developing minds? What are the costs, the pros, the cons from non-edtech industry sources/experts? And in the end, where is the Fourth Estate heading on these issues?

Our legacy media is being pulled this-way-and-that by a shallow Twitter-paced news cycle and, in a greater concerning trend, increasingly bought out by online and related tech interests, some of which are building an anticipated $20 billion-plus computer/software/AI market in the nation’s schools. (The Post by Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos, and the Sun‘s oddly named parent company, Tronc, whose chairman is technology entrepreneur Michael Ferro.) Even various education publications like Education Week (which consistently covers edtech, much of that positive) gets major funding from the Gates Foundation and related.

In the end, who is being served? These are children. The next generation. This merits a closer look by all. No matter what the challenges.

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*DreamBox Learning contract with BCPS, expanded by the Board of Education by nearly $2 million this summer, for just three more years:

Or, can paste url into the search:  http://www.boarddocs.com/mabe/bcps/Board.nsf/files/AMQQTE6AD435/$file/061317%20JNI-778-14%20Modification%20and%20Extension%20-%20Mathematics%20Supplemental%20Resources.pdf

For more info on contracts and costs, see this guest op-ed. And other recent superintendent issues.

 

 

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 in April 2016.

According to amended financial disclosure forms filed “under penalty of perjury” after the last ethics findings, Dance reported no personal income from his 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