As teachers in Detroit ask why their district spent 6 million dollars on a consulting contract when classrooms are overflowing and schools are in disrepair, citizens in Baltimore County are raising similar concerns over a 270 million technology initiative called Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow (STAT).
The program, which aims to bring 1:1 digital learning to all students in the district, was initiated under Superintendent S. Dallas Dance.
Dance, who was recruited to Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS) in 2012, has come under scrutiny before. Last spring, an administrative training company called SUPES Academy made headlines when it came to light that ex-Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett had awarded a 20 million dollar no-bid contract to the program where she once worked.
Dance, it turns out, did something similar. Just after awarding SUPES an 875 thousand dollar contract, he took a job with the company as a consultant. Byrd-Bennett – to whom Dance gave high praise in this article – has now stepped down from her role as CEO as SUPES and CPS undergo federal investigation. Dance has since given up the consulting job, and the BCPS contract with SUPES was left to expire.
Meanwhile, as the corporate-driven personalized, digital learning craze sweeps the country, Dance has jumped in headfirst and is bringing his district along with him.
As a keynote speaker at the 2015 International Association for K-12 Online Learning, Dance called himself a “pioneer.”
He also said that teachers were “talking too much,” and that students should be assessed at any time.
“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,” he said.
Dance’s STAT program has established 17 “lighthouse” schools that will “lead the way” for STAT. According to the district’s website, “The Lighthouse Schools will be the first in the system to receive individual digital learning devices for students; implement one-to-one personalized and blended learning; and create an innovative, comprehensive digital learning culture.”
But as Dance calls for all students to have “access to an effective digital learning environment,” teachers and parents in Baltimore are beginning to question the wisdom of this commitment.
“This is taking place in a school district that is in desperate need of improvements to infrastructure, transportation, class size reduction, and social programs, issues that have been financially pushed to the side in favor of STAT,” a teacher wrote.
“Personalized learning is being presented to constituents as the solution to close the equity gap in education,” said the Baltimore teacher, “[but] no input has been garnered from parents, and the expectation is that teachers will fully embrace the program without question.”
Others are asking why documents such as the Maryland Educational Technology Plan promote computer use at but fail to mention any health risks to students, particularly those related to vision.
“The way children use screens makes them particularly vulnerable to complication,” Cindy Eckard wrote in an editorial. “They stare at them for long periods without taking significant breaks; computer work stations often don’t fit them well; and they don’t complain about blurry vision because they don’t realize it’s a problem that will just get worse.”
This Thursday, members of Dance’s administration will represent BCPS at Pearson’s Online Learning Conference. It’s unlikely that they will address any of these concerns, but I’ll be there with a virtual ticket to find out.
In the meantime: Baltimore parents, if you haven’t been paying close attention to what is happening in your school district, now is the time to start.